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“Lincoln’s Boys” Is A Fine History, Plus a Good Biography of Lincoln’s Young Secretaries

Joshua Zeitz’ LINCOLN’S BOYS: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image is about Abraham Lincoln’s two young Presidential aides, John Hay, and John George Nicolay (called George by most who knew him). Technically, they were secretaries, though they wielded far more power than that lowly title would seem to grant, almost acting more like joint chiefs-of-staff. And as such, both Hay and Nicolay had a unique perspective when it came to Lincoln, one that has been given short shrift by many other historians.

lincoln's boys coverSimply put, Hay and Nicolay weren’t just Lincoln’s secretaries. They were also his main biographers, collaborating on the massive ten-volume LINCOLN: A HISTORY. (Today, we’d call this an authorized biography, as it was the first biography of Lincoln written with the full approval of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and the first that had access to all of Lincoln’s Presidential Papers.)

But when both men met Abraham Lincoln, they had no idea what their lives would be like. In the late 1850s, they saw Lincoln as an able politician, someone who had charisma and smarts. Both Hay and Nicolay worked on behalf of Lincoln even before they were picked to become his secretaries . . . and it was because of Hay’s previous friendship with Nicolay (as Nicolay was slightly older and a bit farther along in his career) that Hay was picked at all.

So there was a lot of serendipity at work here. Lincoln didn’t seem to have done in-depth background checks on Nicolay and Hay, as any serious Presidential candidate would do today; instead, he liked Nicolay, so when Nicolay hinted delicately that it sounded like there might be more than enough work for two men, Lincoln figured it made sense to hire two personal secretaries rather than one.

That put these two young men squarely at the center of the biggest events of the day, including the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and of course, the saddest event of them all — Lincoln’s assassination.

Both men were bright, able, good writers, and were intensely loyal. They enjoyed being around Lincoln, which was just as well as both tended to put in 80-hour weeks in support of their President. (Presidential staffs were not only smaller back then, but also far more hands-on, too.) And this was a big help later on, when Robert Todd Lincoln — Abraham’s sole surviving son — tapped them to write his father’s biography, because Robert Lincoln knew Hay and Nicolay would not distort what his father had done as so many others were already trying to do.

You see, Lincoln was always a towering figure — from the time he took office until his untimely assassination, Lincoln strode like a Colossus. Yet he was a mortal man, with the failings of any mortal, and he also was a consummate politician — something many people of Lincoln’s day and afterward didn’t want to admit.

While Hay and Nicolay were loyal and believed in Lincoln, his politics, his morality, and his ethics with all their hearts, they also knew he was not a demi-god, nor a deity figure. So writing LINCOLN: A HISTORY was to them not just a labor of love — it was a labor of necessity.

Zeitz does an excellent job putting all of this in context. The politics of the day, the problems of Reconstruction after the Civil War ended, and also the difficulties these two young men had as they matured, married, and went on with their lives and careers were described in a way to make all of these matters personal.

Which is what history truly is, if you think about it long enough. It’s the story of what powerful people do during a crisis — and while history is always shaped by the victors, it sometimes can be badly distorted.

Because Nicolay and Hay were honest men, they did their best to show Lincoln as a man. Full of talent, yes, and possibly the best President we’ve ever had . . . but still a man.

And because Zeitz is an honest biographer as well as an honest historian, he was able to show Lincoln in a brand-new light by showing Lincoln through the eyes of Nicolay and Hay.

Mind you, the story of these men in and of themselves was more than worth the price of admission. Both were extremely interesting to get to know — Hay had the wider fame in his time, going on to become Secretary of State and a big name in Republican Politics, but Nicolay possibly had the happier life, as he and his wife Therena were truly devoted to one another. Best of all, both men did as their gifts allowed: they wrote, they edited, and they became their best selves, all while retaining a truly remarkable friendship based on their service to the greatest American of their time, Abraham Lincoln.

Bottom line? LINCOLN’S BOYS succeeds at being both an interesting biography of these two ambitious, driven men (Hay and Nicolay) and as an excellent overview of the political history of Lincoln’s time. And as such, it sheds much new light into Lincoln, his personality, and his politics, from a completely unexpected angle.

In other words, if you enjoy history, politics, Abraham Lincoln or any combination thereof, you will enjoy LINCOLN’S BOYS.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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