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Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image

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A timely and intimate look into Abraham Lincoln’s White House through the lives of his two closest aides and confidants Lincoln’s official secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay enjoyed more access, witnessed more history, and knew Lincoln better than anyone outside of the president’s immediate family. Hay and Nicolay were the gatekeepers of the Lincoln legacy. They read po A timely and intimate look into Abraham Lincoln’s White House through the lives of his two closest aides and confidants Lincoln’s official secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay enjoyed more access, witnessed more history, and knew Lincoln better than anyone outside of the president’s immediate family. Hay and Nicolay were the gatekeepers of the Lincoln legacy. They read poetry and attendeded the theater with the president, commiserated with him over Union army setbacks, and plotted electoral strategy. They were present at every seminal event, from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address—and they wrote about it after his death. In their biography of Lincoln, Hay and Nicolay fought to establish Lincoln’s heroic legacy and to preserve a narrative that saw slavery—not states’ rights—as the sole cause of the Civil War. As Joshua Zeitz shows, the image of a humble man with uncommon intellect who rose from obscurity to become a storied wartime leader and emancipator is very much their creation. Drawing on letters, diaries, and memoirs, Lincoln’s Boys is part political drama and part coming-of-age tale—a fascinating story of friendship, politics, war, and the contest over history and remembrance.


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A timely and intimate look into Abraham Lincoln’s White House through the lives of his two closest aides and confidants Lincoln’s official secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay enjoyed more access, witnessed more history, and knew Lincoln better than anyone outside of the president’s immediate family. Hay and Nicolay were the gatekeepers of the Lincoln legacy. They read po A timely and intimate look into Abraham Lincoln’s White House through the lives of his two closest aides and confidants Lincoln’s official secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay enjoyed more access, witnessed more history, and knew Lincoln better than anyone outside of the president’s immediate family. Hay and Nicolay were the gatekeepers of the Lincoln legacy. They read poetry and attendeded the theater with the president, commiserated with him over Union army setbacks, and plotted electoral strategy. They were present at every seminal event, from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address—and they wrote about it after his death. In their biography of Lincoln, Hay and Nicolay fought to establish Lincoln’s heroic legacy and to preserve a narrative that saw slavery—not states’ rights—as the sole cause of the Civil War. As Joshua Zeitz shows, the image of a humble man with uncommon intellect who rose from obscurity to become a storied wartime leader and emancipator is very much their creation. Drawing on letters, diaries, and memoirs, Lincoln’s Boys is part political drama and part coming-of-age tale—a fascinating story of friendship, politics, war, and the contest over history and remembrance.

30 review for Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter Beck

    “The Boys” called him “the Tycoon” and his wife Mary “the Hellcat” and “Her Satanic Majesty.” One or both were with Lincoln nearly every waking moment from the opening of his presidential campaign until the moment he passed away. Abe’s “secretaries” served as advisers, liaisons, gatekeepers, PR men, ghost letter writers (most famously to the mother who lost five sons in the Civil War), and emissaries when dispatched around the country. Most importantly, they would become the leading defenders of “The Boys” called him “the Tycoon” and his wife Mary “the Hellcat” and “Her Satanic Majesty.” One or both were with Lincoln nearly every waking moment from the opening of his presidential campaign until the moment he passed away. Abe’s “secretaries” served as advisers, liaisons, gatekeepers, PR men, ghost letter writers (most famously to the mother who lost five sons in the Civil War), and emissaries when dispatched around the country. Most importantly, they would become the leading defenders of Lincoln’s reputation for decades. The Lincoln Memorial might not even exist were it not for their advocacy. Historian Joshua Zeitz provides a fascinating but incomplete take on two most exceptional White House staffers. I turned to “Lincoln’s Boys” to kick off my second pass through America’s presidents because they struck me as two of the most compelling people to serve a president. John Nicolay was a German immigrant orphan who became an Illinois newspaper publisher by the age of 25. His younger friend John Hay was an aspiring poet who would reappear as secretary of state when I read Edmund Morris’s “Theodore Rex.” These twenty-somethings were too young to be considered part of Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” but ironically they would popularize the notion itself in their ten-volume, million-word “Abraham Lincoln: A History” (1890). Nicolay and Hay were not only with Lincoln at key moments like the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, they also shared a room just down the hall from the Lincolns in the White House, so when Abe couldn’t sleep (which was often), he would seek out his secretaries. Nicolay was an autodidact, politicized and “Teutonic,” while Hay was an Ivy Leaguer, apolitical and gregarious. Yet they would remain close friends for life, spending four exhausting years in the White House (Lincoln never took a vacation or a day off), a year in Paris as diplomats, and 15 years (!) working on their magnum opus. Like Lincoln, Nicolay and Hay were centrists on the issue of slavery. They were opposed to it, but favored the status quo rather than abolition if that would keep the country from pulling apart. Southern belligerence and the war itself caused their views to evolve. Lincoln dispatched Hay to the South to view the first black Union soldiers and schools for former slaves. Hay was impressed by African-American soldiers and urged Lincoln to create more units. Hay managed to strike a balance between objectivity and reverence when it came to Lincoln, telling a friend, “We shall never agree on some points” (p. 124), but later writes Nicolay, “There is no man in the country, so wise so gentle and so firm. I believe God placed him here” (p. 138). Nicolay helped Lincoln transcribe the final draft of his Gettysburg speech, but neither he nor Hay appreciated how impactful the speech would prove to be (perhaps in part from being hung over after entertaining influential reporters the night before). 25 years later their biography would help it become known as the “Gettysburg Address.” The second half of “Lincoln’s Boys” focuses on their lives after Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln had already decided to reward them with postings to Europe. When they returned five years later, Nicolay became the marshal for the Supreme Court and Hay a writer for Horace Greely’s “New York Tribune.” Hay also began publishing his poetry and befriended Mark Twain and Bret Harte. All three led the movement to publish in the vernacular. Zeitz provides more than enough examples to satisfy my curiosity about his work. Hay’s close relationship with Abe’s son Robert would prove pivotal for the Lincoln biography. Robert gave Nicolay and Hay exclusive access to Lincoln’s 18,000 personal documents (they would not be available to the public until 1947). In return, Robert could make editorial changes. The biggest obstacles these veteran reporters faced were separating tall tales and “the Frontier” from the actual person, bogus biographies (Lincoln’s former law partner Herndon’s was the worst), self aggrandizing rivals (like George McClellan and Salmon Chase) and Southern revisionism (the war was not about slavery!). Even their Northern editors thought the manuscript was too biased towards the North, but that was because they published a magazine promoting reconciliation and a romanticized view of the South. Ultimately, their editors would ask for more changes than Robert Lincoln. For example, they had to tone down their views that Robert E. Lee was a liar and Stonewall Jackson was a “howling crank” (p.274). So why do I consider “Lincoln’s Boys” incomplete? Ironically, Zeitz commits the same mistake that he ascribes as the biggest weakness of the Nicolay-Hay bio-opus: Digressions. Nicolay and Hay wrote an entire volume that makes little mention of Lincoln. Zeitz has a chapter and sections of other chapters that have little to do with Lincoln and nothing to do with Nicolay or Hay. Writing a satisfying dual biography with only 337 pages of text requires concision. Extraneous material comes at the price of gaps and pacing problems. For example, we learn almost nothing about Nicolay’s immigration to the United States, his parents or his three siblings. Zeitz doesn’t even tell us what year Nicolay was born. Hay marries into a wealthy family, but we never get a description of his wife or children. Zeitz’s narration is like riding with a driver who cannot maintain one speed on the freeway. We get a nice glimpse of Nicolay’s daughter Helen when she is a baby and a young adult, but nothing else, other than that she wrote the only major biography of her father (until last year, but I’m not ready to hand over $55). “Lincoln’s Boys” contains brilliant passages, so I will close with one: “The Lincoln Memorial Lincoln whose creation owed so much to Nicolay and Hay would seem a plainly intuitive rendering to later generations. But at the time of his first introduction, he was an altogether new and novel invention. In his own time, Lincoln had been a tremendously popular, though also controversial, figure, loved by a comfortable majority of the electorate, scorned by a solid minority and consistently undersetimated by the political chattering class up to the day of his murder. After his death, friend and foe alike tried to humanize the man, in ways that often vulgarized his legacy. Others (...), continued to see his political ascent as a mistake of fortune and his success as president the result of good counsel from a strong cabinet. Nicolay and Hay blasted the foundations of this narrative and in its place created a lasting image. The man on the $5 bill later became the abridgment of ten volumes and fifteen years of labor” (p. 300). 15 more Lincoln books on my shelves to go! What is your favorite?

  2. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    A book analyzing Lincoln's profile is long overdue. I've long wondered how Lincoln has escaped criticism (in future generations) for a catastrophic four year war and how he became the great emancipator. The Union with its large population and wealth should have had an easy victory and Lincoln's stated war goals did not include freeing slaves. There is very little on how the image we have today does not include these elements. For those unacquainted with John Hay and John George Nicolay, the first A book analyzing Lincoln's profile is long overdue. I've long wondered how Lincoln has escaped criticism (in future generations) for a catastrophic four year war and how he became the great emancipator. The Union with its large population and wealth should have had an easy victory and Lincoln's stated war goals did not include freeing slaves. There is very little on how the image we have today does not include these elements. For those unacquainted with John Hay and John George Nicolay, the first 2/3 of the book is a good overview. Earlier this year I read All the Great Prizes : The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, a very detailed bio on Hay. Author Joshua Zeitz presented some new perspectives, such as the concept of the "Lincoln generation" and how Hay's anonymously written "Breadwinners" defined this generation's outlook. Not knowing much about John George Nicolay the parts on him were welcome, but Hay is the star of this show. In the brief sections dedicated to it, I learned that Lincoln's image was highly political for its time. Lincoln never had the support of the political class and the author gives examples of early attempts to tarnish him. As reconstruction proceeded the legacy of Lincoln was not recognized. Southern troops were framed as patriots, not traitors and many accepted that they were not fighting for slavery, they were fighting for their homeland. Statues were erected for Robert E. Lee whom Nicolay thought should be hung for treason. Lincoln's former law partner tried to profit from his gossipy recollections of Lincoln and his family. Both Hay and Nicolay who served as Lincoln's secretaries were writers: Hay a poet and Nicolay a journalist. After the Lincoln administration they remained friends. Both cherished Lincoln's memory worked together to set the record straight. The result is a well documented 10 volume history and testament to their mentor. Through their friendship with Robert Todd Lincoln, the only family survivor, they were granted access to his papers. From the papers, their notes and memories and interviews with colleagues they produced the foundational source for almost all subsequent Lincoln scholarship. The writing and editing, what to leave in, what to take out, is described. How should Mary Todd Lincoln be portrayed (her son had a heavy hand in this)? The men revised their view of the Gettysburg Address. Should the text be serialized? There was pressure to soften the character of those who pushed for laws and policies to enable slavery and its extension and then pushed for the rebellion. This set of volumes, for its breadth, scope and authenticity became the primary document for the study of Lincoln. With the emphasis on Hay and Nicolay and how they produced their opus, there was very little on the "image war" promised in the title. How did Lincoln go from what seems to be a post war mourning to irrelevancy to today's reverence? For this lack of (promised) analysi I'm giving this book 4 and not 5 stars.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    John Nicolay and John Hay lived in the White House with President Abraham Lincoln from the beginning to his assassination. This is a story of their lives and, more centrally, of their effort to present an image of Lincoln that, in their view, would do him justice. The work begins with the earlier years in the lives of both "boys" (as Lincoln referred to them). Hay, a wannabe poet, at Brown University in Providence, after having been born in Salem, Indiana. And Nicolay, born in Germany and later s John Nicolay and John Hay lived in the White House with President Abraham Lincoln from the beginning to his assassination. This is a story of their lives and, more centrally, of their effort to present an image of Lincoln that, in their view, would do him justice. The work begins with the earlier years in the lives of both "boys" (as Lincoln referred to them). Hay, a wannabe poet, at Brown University in Providence, after having been born in Salem, Indiana. And Nicolay, born in Germany and later settling in Cincinnati and later in Illinois, becoming editor of a small newspaper. The early chapters also speak of the political context within which the two Johns experienced as they grew up, including the evolution of a new party--The Republican Party. There is quite a bit of space devoted to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with Nicolay's observations a part of the story. With time, Nicolay became a Republican operative and he and Hay reconnected (they had been friends earlier). The book then describes the Republican Convention of 1860 and the improbably victory by Lincoln. Ultimately Lincoln asked Nicolay to become his secretary and Nicolay assisted Hay in becoming his assistant. The chapters of their White House years provide insights into Lincoln's presidency and depict them "grown up." After Lincoln's death, they resumed their own careers, including diplomacy. The two remained in contact. At some point, they were designated to write a biography of Lincoln--with the concurrence of Lincoln's son, Robert. At some point, the two of them decided that the time had comes for a biography of Lincoln, designed to counter some other biographies of the time. The amount of material available to them was daunting, but they ultimately created a ten volume biography that helped shape the image of Lincoln. This is a well crafted book, focused on an intriguing subject--defining Lincoln's image. There are many stories of intrigue regarding the Lincoln story. A satisfying work. . . .

  4. 5 out of 5

    Dick

    This is an excellent book for those who are interested in Lincoln or wonder how it is that Lincoln has become almost a deity in American history. The last time I checked there were some 12,000 books written on Lincoln. After Lincoln's death there were many who wrote about him and their relationship with him - often times clearly indicating that they were much closer to Lincoln than they were. Many - perhaps the vast majority - wrote those books and other publications to cash in on Lincoln and hi This is an excellent book for those who are interested in Lincoln or wonder how it is that Lincoln has become almost a deity in American history. The last time I checked there were some 12,000 books written on Lincoln. After Lincoln's death there were many who wrote about him and their relationship with him - often times clearly indicating that they were much closer to Lincoln than they were. Many - perhaps the vast majority - wrote those books and other publications to cash in on Lincoln and his larger than life image that evolved following his murder on April 14, 1865. The book is about John Hay and John Nicolay. Well, sort of. It does cover their origins, rise in their careers and post war experiences. In the final analysis it is about Abraham Lincoln and their hard work to present their view of Lincoln and his greatness. A number of historians who wrote of Lincoln after his death and the end of the war, tried to diminish him and his accomplishments. Most gave the credit to his cabinet members all of whom were more educated than Lincoln and most of whom thought THEY should have been President, rather than Lincoln. The very fact that Lincoln brought those strong opinionated people into the cabinets speaks volumes of his mental acuity and strength of personality. He was well aware of his short comings and as a result surrounded himself with those that helped shore up those shortcomings. The "smart intellectuals" of the time had a very difficult time accepting Lincoln due to his limited formal education and being from the west. When one views Lincoln with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that he was superior to most of those so-called intellectuals when it came to leadership (see From "Good to Great" by Jim Collins). Herndon - one of Lincoln's early law partners wrote one of the first books on Lincoln following the war. He used a lot of other people's work and interviews to write his book. Herndon was especially harsh with Mrs. Lincoln. Herndon also took issue with Lincoln's greatness in many respects by "sharing" information and incidents that made Lincoln mortal and very human. What his motives were in that regard remains a mystery to me. George Bancroft was another that did a great disservice to Lincoln in his writings, but one only has to remember that he was a Democrat. That alone clearly shows what his agenda was. George Bancroft is another story for another day. I think it was the Bancroft's book that drove Hay and Nicolay to make sure that Lincoln was correctly established for the giant he was - in their minds. Hay and Nicolay were uniquely qualified to write about Lincoln as they literally spent most of 24 hours a day in his presence. They knew him intimately - both the good and the bad. John Hay was especially close to Lincoln and was in essence another son to Lincoln. Lincoln's positive firm position in the mind of most Americans is directly attributable to those two former secretaries - and the ten volume history of their years in the executive mansion and what they saw and recorded in their diaries. And in the final analysis, they were surely uniquely positioned to write about the 16th President.

  5. 5 out of 5

    David Kent

    Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln, in part because of the diligent work done by his two secretaries – John G. Nicolay and John Hay. But little has been done to illuminate the two men themselves. Zeitz has done us all a favor by accomplishing just that. Subtitled “John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image,” Lincoln’s Boys is a history of Lincoln, a history of the times, and a history of Lincoln’s two private secretaries. One quickly comes to realize that “secretary” is a misnomer, as Ni Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln, in part because of the diligent work done by his two secretaries – John G. Nicolay and John Hay. But little has been done to illuminate the two men themselves. Zeitz has done us all a favor by accomplishing just that. Subtitled “John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image,” Lincoln’s Boys is a history of Lincoln, a history of the times, and a history of Lincoln’s two private secretaries. One quickly comes to realize that “secretary” is a misnomer, as Nicolay and Hay’s responsibilities not only included managing and responding to correspondence, but also trusted diplomats who went on sensitive missions to confer with key generals and politicians across the country. They also controlled access to the President, such as a chief of staff would do today. The first of five sections looks at Nicolay and Hay’s separate upbringings and how they came to become part of Lincoln’s inner circle after his election in 1860. We get a sense of their differing demeanors as well as Lincoln’s own attitudes toward life and the major issues of the day – slavery and the secession of southern states. Part II largely takes place during the White House years. In Part III we follow the two young men following Lincoln’s assassination as they embark on diplomatic lives in Europe and back home, start families, and come into their own. In Part IV, Zeitz brings us into the long process of writing the 10-volume history of Lincoln that largely defines these two men. It also defines Lincoln. This is perhaps the most critical part of the book as the author explains how the early biographies of the stricken President either were self-aggrandizing fanciful reinterpretations by those seeking to enhance their own place in history, or were creative reinvention by the South to makes slavery disappear as the cause of war. The long gap between the end of Lincoln’s life and when Nicolay and Hay (and also Herndon) finally produced their biographies left a vacuum that was filled with erroneous “history.” The two secretaries, with Robert Lincoln supporting them, sought to write the definitive history that corrects the record and firmly established the idea of “Our Ideal Hero.” They were uniquely positioned to do that. While Nicolay largely devoted his later life to Lincoln’s memory, Hay went on to an active political career capped by over seven years as Secretary of State to two presidents (one of whom, William McKinley, was also struck down by an assassin’s bullet). In a superbly written and easily readable book, Zeitz has brought these two under-appreciated men into view and shined the light on them. Lincoln would be happy for them. I highly recommend this book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    El

    This review is of a book won from Goodreads First Reads Giveaway program. I have not read a specific biography about Abraham Lincoln, but like most Americans, feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the topic based on what we learned in school. He's been portrayed in literature and movies, always as this soft-spoken, gentle giant sort of person, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps as a young person in Springfield, Illinois, who taught himself everything he learned. Something I have never real This review is of a book won from Goodreads First Reads Giveaway program. I have not read a specific biography about Abraham Lincoln, but like most Americans, feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the topic based on what we learned in school. He's been portrayed in literature and movies, always as this soft-spoken, gentle giant sort of person, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps as a young person in Springfield, Illinois, who taught himself everything he learned. Something I have never really given much thought to was where did this image come from? Is it historically accurate? This book answers some of those questions, but a quick head's up - the real meat of the story (as in Lincoln's image and the work his secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay did to preserve the image the public came to know) doesn't really take place until Part IV, or roughly over halfway through the book. This isn't to say that the other information isn't interesting, because that's far from the case. I enjoyed the whole read as a bit of a biography of both Johns (the Two Johns, as I have come to call them; much like the Two Coreys that we know from the 90s. Except, well, not...), from their beginnings to their experiences working with Lincoln during his presidency, to what they did after his assassination, to (finally) the significant amount of time, work, and research that went into writing their collaborative 10-volume biography. There's a lot of information here, and it's evident that Zeitz really took his time studying what's out there. I did not realize at first that this is the same guy who wrote Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern that I read almost a year ago. The few complaints I had with that book are not complaints I have with this one - I didn't walk away wishing I knew about something that wasn't included. If anything, one could complain there's not as much about the war for Lincoln's image as the subtitle seems to promise, but anyone interested in American History will find the whole book an interesting read for how much ground it covers.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    With as strong credentials as Joshua Zeitz has, I expected more from this biography. The premise sounded intriguing, I'm fascinated by politics, and love reading biographies. I fit an intended reading audience pretty well. However, I am also rather well acquainted with Lincoln. I have spent countless hours debating his presidency, motivation, and assassination with other students. I have read numerous biographies. That said, I have never read anything about John Hay or John Nicolay, and assumed t With as strong credentials as Joshua Zeitz has, I expected more from this biography. The premise sounded intriguing, I'm fascinated by politics, and love reading biographies. I fit an intended reading audience pretty well. However, I am also rather well acquainted with Lincoln. I have spent countless hours debating his presidency, motivation, and assassination with other students. I have read numerous biographies. That said, I have never read anything about John Hay or John Nicolay, and assumed this would augment my knowledge. I loved the idea of "the war for Lincoln's image" and wanted a broader understanding of what happened after his assassination. Instead I got a headache. The first few chapters presented two men, the one dark and caustic, the other fair and loved. A simple description that is never expounded upon. Sure, the biography provides details of these mens' lives, quotes them and their peers, surmises briefly at their motivation. I didn't know them, though. A good biography provides a glimpse into their outlook on life, their hopes and dreams and personalities, but I did not feel I understood them at all. But, then, it isn't precisely a biography about John Hay or John Nicolay. It is supposed to offer a glimpse into their world, Lincoln, life during that time. It doesn't do that, though. It isn't properly developed. I read about two men....one dark and caustic, the other fair and loved. That is it. My previous experience with Lincoln also fed my irritation with this work. Complicated themes and values during the time, like slavery and equal rights, are covered in a tone that struck me as condescending. It reads as if Zeitz means to present their complications, but instead elects a modern moralistic approach bemoaning the true cluelessness of these men who could not appreciate slave's humanity. Granted it is not an easy topic and today we are horrified by the treatment of slaves during that time, but it comes across simplified. Those are my complaints. Honestly, it wasn't a bad biography but I struggled to finish it, developed a headache, and don't feel in the slightest bit inclined to pursue any more info on these guys.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cindy Matthews

    Fantastic book for Civil War buffs and armchair historians. We owe a lot to John Hay and John Nicolay for recording the history they witnessed and sharing their insights of the man who made it all happen. A book that should be read by all who would pervert civil liberties and deny rights to those different from themselves whom they don't particularly like... Amazing how things don't change even after 150 years! Lincoln's image as the Great Emancipator may have been a product of Hay and Nicolay's Fantastic book for Civil War buffs and armchair historians. We owe a lot to John Hay and John Nicolay for recording the history they witnessed and sharing their insights of the man who made it all happen. A book that should be read by all who would pervert civil liberties and deny rights to those different from themselves whom they don't particularly like... Amazing how things don't change even after 150 years! Lincoln's image as the Great Emancipator may have been a product of Hay and Nicolay's ten volume biography, but America is in need of Lincoln's leadership on moral issues now more than ever.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    I didn't know too much about Lincoln's secretaries John Hay & John Nicolay so that part of the book was very interesting. I was disappointed though as I thought more of the book would be devoted to Lincoln's presidential years. The last part of this book dealt with Hays & Nicolay's writing of Lincoln's biography and preserving an accurate account of Lincoln's historical importance. I gave it 3 stars because the book left me unsatisfied and with thoughts there should have been more written to fin I didn't know too much about Lincoln's secretaries John Hay & John Nicolay so that part of the book was very interesting. I was disappointed though as I thought more of the book would be devoted to Lincoln's presidential years. The last part of this book dealt with Hays & Nicolay's writing of Lincoln's biography and preserving an accurate account of Lincoln's historical importance. I gave it 3 stars because the book left me unsatisfied and with thoughts there should have been more written to finish this book adequately.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Fredrick Danysh

    The author explores the lives of Abraham Lincoln's two private secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. He examines their post-Lincoln lives as well as their relationships with and impact on the president. This is a good historical read. The author explores the lives of Abraham Lincoln's two private secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. He examines their post-Lincoln lives as well as their relationships with and impact on the president. This is a good historical read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jim Gallen

    “Lincoln’s Boys” is really a triple biography. The two primary figures are John Hay and John Nicolay, the two young men who traveled from Illinois to serve as Lincoln’s secretaries and devoted much of their remaining lives to the promotion of his image. The third character is Lincoln himself: Lincoln they man with whom they lived and worked and the Lincoln of legend. John Nicolay was a young Bavarian immigrant was a lively dancer and talented musician who served as de-facto executive director of “Lincoln’s Boys” is really a triple biography. The two primary figures are John Hay and John Nicolay, the two young men who traveled from Illinois to serve as Lincoln’s secretaries and devoted much of their remaining lives to the promotion of his image. The third character is Lincoln himself: Lincoln they man with whom they lived and worked and the Lincoln of legend. John Nicolay was a young Bavarian immigrant was a lively dancer and talented musician who served as de-facto executive director of the nascent Republican Party in Illinois while abhorring the mobs that he would encounter on the trip to Washington and daily in the White House. After leaving the White House he would serve as a diplomat in Paris and as Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. John Hay was a more outgoing “people” person with the talents of an author and a poet who served in diplomatic posts in Paris, Vienna, Madrid and as Ambassador to Great Britain before concluding his public service as Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Their life stories are interesting but what makes them worthy of a book is their association with Abraham Lincoln. It was they who accompanied him to the telegraph office, were at his side as he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, mingled with the press and politicians during the trip to Gettysburg and acted as his intermediator and buffer when dealing with members of Congress. As Lincoln’s intimates, Nicolay and Hay were entrusted with the creation of Lincoln’s historic image. Having access to the Lincoln papers through their friend, Robert Lincoln, they wrote a ten volume official biography. From it would come many of the legends of Lincoln Lore such as the incident in which Gen. McClellan returned home and went to bed while Lincoln waited to see him and the “blind memo” in which he got each cabinet member to agree to prosecute the war after the election and so that it would be won before the inauguration. I found insights in this book that I do not remember reading before, such as the idea that the visit to Gettysburg served political purposes and that Hay might have written the Letter to Mrs. Bixby, a Southern sympathizer who promptly threw it out. It mentions that “four score and seven years ago” pointedly refers to the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution that protected slavery as well as the virulent opposition to Lincoln during his lifetime. Much of this work is devoted to a study of the multi-faceted struggle for Lincoln’s image in which Nicolay and Hay were the scribes for the Lincoln family. Lincoln’s former partner, William Herndon, strove to tear Lincoln down as merely an ordinary westerner while his longstanding vendetta with Mary Lincoln was the source of the legend that she made Lincoln’s domestic life a misery. Southern writers advanced the case that states’ rights and diverging economic systems and not slavery brought on the Civil War. Lincoln’s Boys, with their aggressive Northernism, softened the role of Mary, kept the slavery issue front and center and portrayed Lincoln as a man whose humble background made his greatness even more impressive that it would have seemed in others. As I was reading I was reminded of what I have been taught about the Gospels, that each evangelist chose the stories to include and to tell them in a way that would get across the message that he desired. Lincoln seems to have been treated similarly. Each biographer emphasizes and interprets facts so as to create his own Lincoln. Author Joshua Zeitz has made a valuable contribution to the Lincoln literature. His readers will better understand the evolving role of Lincoln in our history. He has crafted an easy, but not a light read, a fairly quick, but satisfying one. “Lincoln’s Boys” is the perfect book to read as we close the Sesquicentennial of the Lincoln Presidency.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Joseph J.

    Lincoln is the subject that never wears out, or lets the reader down. This is a unique look at Lincoln and his legacy through the story of his secretaries John Hay and John George Nicolay. Part biography and part historiography, this books tells at once the close interaction of these two young men from candidate to President Lincoln-they lived in the White House. In the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, they became keepers of the flame, as it were, as biographers of Lincoln and shapers of hi Lincoln is the subject that never wears out, or lets the reader down. This is a unique look at Lincoln and his legacy through the story of his secretaries John Hay and John George Nicolay. Part biography and part historiography, this books tells at once the close interaction of these two young men from candidate to President Lincoln-they lived in the White House. In the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, they became keepers of the flame, as it were, as biographers of Lincoln and shapers of his image. Think Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson in their post assassination works on JFK. Both men went on to distinguished careers in diplomacy; Hay as Secretary of State to McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. But Lincoln is the core of their story; Hay's eulogy on the death of Tad Lincoln is a beautiful thing to read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I won this book as part of the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for my honest review. This isn't so much a biography of Abraham Lincoln and his two secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, as much as it is a look at the relationship between the three men and how Hay and Nicolay were able to control Lincoln's image after his death. There are two main parts to the book, the first is a standard biography of the three men with most of the emphasis on Lincoln's presidency, when all three worke I won this book as part of the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for my honest review. This isn't so much a biography of Abraham Lincoln and his two secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, as much as it is a look at the relationship between the three men and how Hay and Nicolay were able to control Lincoln's image after his death. There are two main parts to the book, the first is a standard biography of the three men with most of the emphasis on Lincoln's presidency, when all three worked together. The second half of the book is how Lincoln was portrayed after his death. First by men who seemed to rather want to push their own agenda onto Lincoln, and then by Hay and Nicolay, who wanted to put forth a more accurate image of Lincoln. It was a good read, nothing really ground breaking or in depth, but still an interesting look at one of the more notable presidential relationships. I gave this book 3 1/2 stars; it's a solid, if not innovative look at the evolution of a great president's image through the work of his trusted secretaries.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    If you've read any biography about Abraham Lincoln, you will know who John Hay and John George Nicolay are -- Lincoln's young personal secretaries just prior to and during his presidency. Much has been written about John Hay, including a book published in 2013 by John Taliaferro, entitled "All the great prizes : the life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt". Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Nicolay, and while this is not really a biography about either man, much can be learned about N If you've read any biography about Abraham Lincoln, you will know who John Hay and John George Nicolay are -- Lincoln's young personal secretaries just prior to and during his presidency. Much has been written about John Hay, including a book published in 2013 by John Taliaferro, entitled "All the great prizes : the life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt". Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Nicolay, and while this is not really a biography about either man, much can be learned about Nicolay's life in this book. Author, Zeitz does an excellent job in presenting a political (and personal) history of each man in laying the groundwork for their development of "Abraham Lincoln: A History", a 10-volume seminal work, that in its time was considered "the authorized biography of a slain leader and the unofficial Northern Republican Party interpretation of the Civil War."

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    After finishing a very comprehensive book about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, I was motivated to read up on two of the most mainly featured players of the Lincoln presidency. I was pleased with this book as it afforded me a more in depth analysis of Nicolay and Hay. I have a few critiques, however. At times the author has a lovely writing style which flows and is very readable. At other times the writer gets bogged down by repeating the same facts, just in a different way, making the book a bit After finishing a very comprehensive book about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, I was motivated to read up on two of the most mainly featured players of the Lincoln presidency. I was pleased with this book as it afforded me a more in depth analysis of Nicolay and Hay. I have a few critiques, however. At times the author has a lovely writing style which flows and is very readable. At other times the writer gets bogged down by repeating the same facts, just in a different way, making the book a bit clunky. Add to that, it is not written linearly, but jumps around from here to there which grew quite confusing. I will also say that there were a few historical inaccuracies, (courtesy of my husband who is a Lincoln scholar and a civil war historian.) Overall, this book was interesting, if not, perhaps, the definitive word on the subject.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    I loved the first half of this book, detailing how the lives of John Nikolay and John Hayes came to intersect with Lincoln's life and death. But the book seemed drier and less interesting as it went on. Still, the story of how Lincoln's secretaries shaped his legacy is worth reading. BTW, I posted this review earlier with a link to a children's book by mistake. I loved the first half of this book, detailing how the lives of John Nikolay and John Hayes came to intersect with Lincoln's life and death. But the book seemed drier and less interesting as it went on. Still, the story of how Lincoln's secretaries shaped his legacy is worth reading. BTW, I posted this review earlier with a link to a children's book by mistake.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carol Wise

    Forced myself through 275 pages for no apparent reason.

  18. 5 out of 5

    CaroKilia

    3,75/5 The first half was not as informative as I expected it to be... But the second half sure was. A very pleasant read that makes you think about how History is made and written.

  19. 5 out of 5

    David Valentino

    How History Gets Shaped Events happen, such as Lincoln's election as president, the prewar battles, and the Civil War. However, as Zeitz demonstrates, history itself gets shaped. His book is worthwhile as a history of the period, much of it concise and trenchant. His biographies of John Hay and John Nicolay are focused and comprehensive. But it's the characterization of Lincoln, the Lincoln we know, or, as Zeitz puts it, the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln and the revisionist histories of the Civil War How History Gets Shaped Events happen, such as Lincoln's election as president, the prewar battles, and the Civil War. However, as Zeitz demonstrates, history itself gets shaped. His book is worthwhile as a history of the period, much of it concise and trenchant. His biographies of John Hay and John Nicolay are focused and comprehensive. But it's the characterization of Lincoln, the Lincoln we know, or, as Zeitz puts it, the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln and the revisionist histories of the Civil War most readers will find enlightening. In the first part of the book, Zeitz covers the early lives of Hay and Nicolay, the foundation of their individual character. Also here, he succinctly and clearly takes readers through the issues leading up to the election of 1860, in particular the various compromises that kept the lid on a boiling cauldron, as well as the machinations of the election process. The rabid partisanship before and after the war will disabuse readers of the notion there is anything singular about current American politics. Along the way, Zeitz offers a few keen observations that still ring true, among them this on postwar prosperity: "Rarely did it occur to business and political elites that they had not prospered strictly by the rules of the free labor economy. Railroad companies profited heavily from government land grants and financial subsidies. The Timber Culture Act (1873) and the Desert Land Act (1877) gave away millions of acres of public land to those with the means to plant trees and irrigate arid allotments in the Southwest....At every turn, an activist state born of necessity to prosecute the Civil War found new and increasingly inventive ways to subsidize business concerns that had grown out of the same armed struggle. Many of the primary recipients of this public largesse remained oblivious to the role that the government played in making them wealthy." In the last third, Zeitz shows how Hay and Nicolay, with the support of Robert Lincoln, shaped the President Lincoln we know today, primarily in their serialized and widely read 10-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History, and Nicolay's condensed one-volume version, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln: Condensed From Nicolay & Hay's Abraham Lincoln: A History. Without them, we might have inherited a different Lincoln, one more shaped by William Herndon, Lincoln's old Springfield law partner, and others, without the pair's first-hand knowledge of Lincoln's true character and witness-to-history status. While successful in giving us the Lincoln we know today, Hay and Nicolay were less fruitful in preserving the historical perspective that the South rebelled, that a Civil War was fought, and that the central issue leading to conflict was slavery. Revisionism took over for a reason Zeitz explores, leaving us with concepts like The War Between the States, competing economic systems, states rights, brother against brother, and the like. Finally, Zeitz does an excellent job of illustrating how Hay and Nicolay's attitude on race evolved from when they were young men in pre-Civil War America to when they were older and wiser men. Anti-slavery didn't mean racial equality to them, or Lincoln, or most any anti-slavery advocate. But over time, attitudes changed. All in all, you'll find it a superb and enlightening excursion into the most crucial period in the Republic's history. Includes footnotes, bibliography, index, and a small collection of photos.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    I have always been fascinated by the spartan way in which Abraham Lincoln's White House operated. For example, imagine a White House staff that essentially comprises two personal secretaries, who handle all correspondence and all day-to-day interactions with the Congress, the press, and the public. Period. And so, I was happy to find a history that focused its efforts on those two secretaries, John George Nicolay and John Hay. These two extraordinary men lived in the White House and worked along I have always been fascinated by the spartan way in which Abraham Lincoln's White House operated. For example, imagine a White House staff that essentially comprises two personal secretaries, who handle all correspondence and all day-to-day interactions with the Congress, the press, and the public. Period. And so, I was happy to find a history that focused its efforts on those two secretaries, John George Nicolay and John Hay. These two extraordinary men lived in the White House and worked alongside President Lincoln through days that sometimes lasted twenty hours without rest. Lincoln's Boys is, at best, a superficial biography of both Nicolay and Hay (with Hay getting more ink, probably because of his greater fame), but I'm not sure that Mr. Zeitz intended anything more. Rather, Mr Zeitz's principal aim is to demonstrate how the secretaries' constant exposure to Lincoln — and the fact that they handled (and sometimes even wrote) most of the mountains of paper produced in the White House during the Civil War — perfectly positioned them to write a thorough history of Lincoln's life and the times leading up to and during that war. That ten-volume history, Abraham Lincoln: A History, is still considered the definitive biography of the 16th president. I was also impressed by the fact Mr. Zeitz spent time discussing other biographies that were written thorough the latter part of the 19th Century and the 20th Century, with a special emphasis on the trove of revisionist histories, most of which were tainted by the state of race relations in the United States at the time. In the end, this was very good book. I would have liked to have had a deeper knowledge and understanding of the two main characters, but my sense is that doing so would have scattered the focus of the book to too large a degree. I will say this: Mr. Zeitz has now re-kindled my interest in reading all ten volumes of Nicolay's and Hay's work. And that is certainly a worthwhile contribution to my on-going search for understanding.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I came to this book from an article that Zeitz wrote for Politico, which is phenomenal and eye-opening to the history-making process and how we understand Lincoln today. Both the article and book are well written and researched, but I felt like the book was like a lot of history texts: built on a narrow topic, but filled with A LOT of non-related matter. It takes Zeitz half of the text to merely reach the beginnings of Hay/Nicolay’s efforts to re-shape the Billy Herndon Lincoln narrative. Sure, I came to this book from an article that Zeitz wrote for Politico, which is phenomenal and eye-opening to the history-making process and how we understand Lincoln today. Both the article and book are well written and researched, but I felt like the book was like a lot of history texts: built on a narrow topic, but filled with A LOT of non-related matter. It takes Zeitz half of the text to merely reach the beginnings of Hay/Nicolay’s efforts to re-shape the Billy Herndon Lincoln narrative. Sure, yes, context is important in understanding and accurately portraying history, but...it felt too much like an editor said, “Ya know what? This thing is only 100 pages long. How can you add to it?” I was also slightly disappointed Zeitz didn’t really cover what he pointed out in Politico. While he told the story of Nicolay and Hay writing the biography, he didn’t really address any of “Robert Lincoln called on them to correct the allegations put forth by Billy Herndon” narrative he outlined in the article. I kept waiting for him to dig deeper into that, but nothing. Overall, fascinating insights into Reconstructionist and Post-Reconstructionist America. Particularly about the collapse both in the North and South of racial equality efforts in the late 1890s. You hear a lot about Lost Cause rhetoric, but it’s largely told in a “It’s the South’s fault,” narrative. But the North, like with antebellum slavery, was equally complicit in the falsehoods spread in the name of white reconciliation.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    An enjoyable, and often insightful, account of the Lincoln White House and the post-Civil War years as seen through the eyes of the President's devoted personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. These men lived with Lincoln in the White House on a daily basis, as he fought the Civil War, the Democrats, the Radical Republicans, his incompetent Generals, and members of his own Cabinet. As Hay described it, both he and Nicolay were "Lincoln men all through" and their undying admiration for Li An enjoyable, and often insightful, account of the Lincoln White House and the post-Civil War years as seen through the eyes of the President's devoted personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. These men lived with Lincoln in the White House on a daily basis, as he fought the Civil War, the Democrats, the Radical Republicans, his incompetent Generals, and members of his own Cabinet. As Hay described it, both he and Nicolay were "Lincoln men all through" and their undying admiration for Lincoln culminated in their fifteen-year labor of love: "Abraham Lincoln: A History" Their ten-volume work, published in book form in 1890, remains to this day an indispensable source of Lincoln's life and times (by Robert Todd Lincoln's direction, only Hay and Nicolay had access to Lincoln's state papers until their release by the Library of Congress in 1947) . There is much more to say about Hay and Nicolay and their many contributions to public service since Lincoln's death (for example, Hay was Ambassador to the U.K., McKinley's and TR's Secretary of State as well as an accomplished author and poet and an Editor of the New York Tribune while Nicolay was U.S. Consul to Paris, Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court, a widely read author and a founding member of the Literary Society of Washington). Suffice to say, both men were great patriots since the baleful days of 1861 whom history has not celebrated as they deserve.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jacob

    An excellent book chronicling the lives of perhaps the two best positioned men to truly understand the thinking behind America’s iconic Sixteenth President. John Hay and John George Nicolay were first hand witnesses to some of the greatest moments in the 19th Century. Their closeness to Abraham Lincoln enabled them first row access to the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Zeitz’s prose makes this book easily readable and extremely enjoyable. What I really apprecia An excellent book chronicling the lives of perhaps the two best positioned men to truly understand the thinking behind America’s iconic Sixteenth President. John Hay and John George Nicolay were first hand witnesses to some of the greatest moments in the 19th Century. Their closeness to Abraham Lincoln enabled them first row access to the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Zeitz’s prose makes this book easily readable and extremely enjoyable. What I really appreciated about the work was it wasn’t a straight up biography of Hay and Nicolay but instead used them and their unique perspective as a lens through which one can analyze the time period and gain an deeper understanding of Lincoln. I particularly enjoyed Zeitz’s discussion of the natural progression of the Republican Party from abolition towards pro-big business and corporations and how they framed Lincoln’s imaged into what we think of today, when we hear the name of Honest Abe. I truly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of not only the events of the later half of the 19th Century but it’s zeitgeist, and how we ended up where we are at today. With the authors links to the rise of Jim Crow to Civil Rights movement, this work is prescient and a must read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Finch

    This book has two fundamental problems. The first problem is that it can't decide if it's more interested in being a joint biography of Hay or Nicolay, or an account of how they shaped the historiography surrounding Abraham Lincoln. The second problem is that Hay and Nicolay, on their own, are not nearly compelling enough figures to sustain the sections of the book where Lincoln is absent. At one point we're told that Queen Victoria "privately called Hay 'the most interesting of all the Ambassad This book has two fundamental problems. The first problem is that it can't decide if it's more interested in being a joint biography of Hay or Nicolay, or an account of how they shaped the historiography surrounding Abraham Lincoln. The second problem is that Hay and Nicolay, on their own, are not nearly compelling enough figures to sustain the sections of the book where Lincoln is absent. At one point we're told that Queen Victoria "privately called Hay 'the most interesting of all the Ambassadors I have known'" during his later career as Secretary of State to McKinley, however I cannot fathom why based on Zeitz's inability to mine his subjects for any truly scintillating characteristics. The book also falters in failing to detail the theories of historiography of the time and demonstrating what Hay and Nicolay were up against in constructing their version of Lincoln for public consumption. Too much attention is paid to the biographical accounts of William Herndon, for instance, when the focus on a broader interpretation of Lincoln in the shadow of postwar historical revisionism by both the hagiographers and the slavery apologists would have given more valuable context.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Somewhat of a book within a book, this was a look at the legacy of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his personal secretaries, John Hay and John “George” Nicolay, who were in the room from the beginning of his presidential aspirations to his final breath. Their evolved views on politics and humanity over decades mirrored the journey of the country, and their later efforts to define the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, as those who knew both well, was meant for posterity. Others were seeking to m Somewhat of a book within a book, this was a look at the legacy of Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his personal secretaries, John Hay and John “George” Nicolay, who were in the room from the beginning of his presidential aspirations to his final breath. Their evolved views on politics and humanity over decades mirrored the journey of the country, and their later efforts to define the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, as those who knew both well, was meant for posterity. Others were seeking to memorialize Lincoln as either an evangelical-powered perfectionist or a damaged man unequipped for the times, and the perspective of “the Lincoln Boys” sought to not only correct the perception of the man, but to disrupt the retconning of the Civil War into a pesky disagreement where everyone was wrong, so no one was guilty. There was a significant amount of gray in this book, as there should have been.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sebastian Jaymes

    As I write this I realize that it is another book about presidents chiefs of staff, though they were not called so at the time. I'm all about the American civil war history which is what draws me to Lincoln. Fascinating to me after reading many memoirs of civil war generals and their staffs to see how Lincoln was supported by these two talented men. As I write this I realize that it is another book about presidents chiefs of staff, though they were not called so at the time. I'm all about the American civil war history which is what draws me to Lincoln. Fascinating to me after reading many memoirs of civil war generals and their staffs to see how Lincoln was supported by these two talented men.

  27. 4 out of 5

    John Ritchie

    Like Hay and Nicolay’s biography of Lincoln, this biography sometimes loses sight of its main subject through the big picture of history. Zeitz could like likewise be accused of being “an aggressive Northener” like his subjects—he has a clear (albeit justified) bias. Regardless, it’s a delightful read that shines a light on history that continues to ripple into today’s events.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Anr706

    This book has merit, but there’s a good bit of padding when it devolves into he general social history. It should have stayed closer to the primary subjects which warrant more investigation and study.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Craig

    Nice book. Gave good background on each of three main players and presented them, warts and all.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth Walsh

    Wonderful insights of Lincoln's actual day-to-day living through the eyes of his two live-in secretaries. Wonderful insights of Lincoln's actual day-to-day living through the eyes of his two live-in secretaries.

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