Lincoln's Boys: John Nicolay, John Hay, and the War for Lincoln's Image
Viking, 2014 (2014)
Reviewed by Bob Walch
f you are interested in the life of Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Zeitz's new book,
Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image
should go down on your
erhaps no two men knew Lincoln better. Nicolay and Hay served as the president's personal secretaries. They were there for the entire journey from the time Lincoln was elected president to his untimely death. Besides acting as confidantes, these two men were also the president's de facto chiefs of staff, political directors and liaisons to the military during the Civil War.
fter Lincoln's assassination Hay and Nicolay collaborated on a ten volume history of their friend and employer's life.
hen combined together, the sections of Nicolay's and Hay's letters, diaries and memoirs that concern their relationship with and service to Lincoln cast an interesting light on the president and on their efforts to create an accurate account of Lincoln's life.
, as Lincoln called them, were determined to preserve and elevate Lincoln's place in the nation's collective historical memory after his death. Although he managed to connect and relate to the middle class, the soldiers who fought in the Union Army and the part of the electorate who sent him to Washington and then kept him there for a second term, the '
rail-splitter from Illinois
' didn't inspire the influential men who governed the land and ran its businesses.
o offset the mythology that intruded on the memory of Lincoln's life after the Good Friday assassination, Nicolay and Hay wanted to tell the story of the country's Civil War leader '
so the rest of the world would know the man as they did
'. As Zeitz explains, '
They sought to canonize their boss as a great leader among men, not a saint or a martyr ... Americans today understand Abraham Lincoln much as Nicolay and Hay hoped that they would. Theirs was a deliberate project of historical creation.
ater in their lives, when they were no longer in the shadow of Lincoln, these two individuals went on to have separate but brilliant careers. Hay, in particular, was noteworthy since he served as Secretary of State under both William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.
eitz also emphasizes that this book is not intended to be a comprehensive biography of any of these three men. Rather, it offers a glimpse into what transpired when these men worked together and then what happened after the president's death and how the memory of his time in office was preserved. Without a doubt this is a fascinating and entertaining story that any American history enthusiast will enjoy reading.
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