Abe Lincoln: The American Idol

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

By Joshua Zeitz

Living as we do in a multimedia age and tending to be understandably myopic on the sensory assault, we can be forgiven, to an extent, for believing political spin is a creation of the 20th century, refined to a fever pitch in the 21st. Of course, as we’ve pointed out in earlier article, this is far from the truth. The political spin has always been a part of American life.

Joshua Zeitz in his book Lincoln’s Boys explains how those closest to Lincoln gave us the image we now hold as sacrosanct truth. Nothing Zeitz reveals diminishes Lincoln as among our greatest leaders. Rather, he illustrates how Lincoln the man transformed into Lincoln The American Idol. He does this by showing how history gets shaped.

Zeitz’s 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. w/c

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