Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image (Viking, 2014) by Joshua Zeitz is an intimate look into Abraham Lincoln’s White House through the lives of two men. But more than that, it tells the story of the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and how we have to come receive the idea of who Lincoln was that we have today.
Zeitz argues that 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, in short, they were Lincoln’s closest confidantes. They read poetry and attended the theater with the President, commiserated with him over Union army setbacks, and plotted electoral strategy in the darkest and loneliest days of the war. They were present at every seminal event, from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. After his death, they took control of his papers, his biography, and his image. Hay and Nicolay were the gatekeepers of the Lincoln’s legacy.
In their biography of Lincoln, Hay and Nicolay fought to establish Lincoln’s heroic legacy and to preserve the idea that slavery — not states’ rights — was the 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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