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Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image Hardcover – February 4, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025664
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Many of Abraham Lincoln’s friends and associates claimed to have known and understood him well. Some, most notably William Herndon, his former law partner, wrote extensively about him. But Lincoln was deeply reticent about revealing details about his background, his personal feelings, and even some of his political motivations. Still, Hay and Nicolay, his young personal secretaries during his presidency, could certainly lay claim to a close and constant political relationship with him. Zeitz, who has taught American history at both Cambridge and Princeton, places the early life of Hay and Nicolay within the context of the intensifying dispute over slavery. The core of his account, however, is their service to Lincoln as president, followed by their effort to define Lincoln’s legacy by jointly writing a massive biography. That biography, done with input (or approval) of Lincoln’s son Robert, continues to influence current views of Lincoln, General McClellan, and various cabinet officers. This will be an excellent addition to Civil War collections. --Jay Freeman


"What a wonderful, welcome book.  Zeitz has pulled off a difficult task -- revealing how the myth of Lincoln came to be without distorting the true greatness of our extraordinary 16th President." 
-- Ken Burns (filmmaker)

"Joshua Zeitz's delightful study of John Hay and John Nicolay interweaves intimate biography, political drama, and the shaping of historical memory to produce an arresting and original narrative. Above all, it reminds us that, thanks to Lincoln's secretaries, the moral dimensions of the emancipationist Civil War could not be bleached from the historical record by an increasingly fashionable understanding of the struggle as a romantic 'brothers' conflict'."
--Richard Carwardine, author of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power

“Abraham Lincoln was blessed with truly first-rate biographers in John Nicolay and John Hay, so it is ‘altogether fitting and proper’ that Nicolay and Hay have now attracted a terrific chronicler of their own life and times in Joshua Zeitz.  This fine book traces the extraordinary evolution of Lincoln’s two private secretaries from clerks into tireless historians and rabid keepers of the flame. Historians have long remembered their roles as canny observers of the White House during the Civil War, but this study adds much fascinating new material about their peerless role in crafting and preserving the Lincoln image.”
—Harold Holzer, author of  The Civil War in 50 Objects

More About the Author

Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University, Harvard University, and Princeton University. He is the author of several books on American political and social history and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Dissent, and American Heritage. A former congressional campaign aide and gubernatorial policy advisor and speechwriter, Zeitz lives with his wife and two daughters in Hoboken, NJ. Follow him on twitter @joshuamzeitz and his personal webpage

Customer Reviews

I enjoyed Zeitz's fresh new look at the Lincoln legend.
David Herrick
If you are a Lincoln history buff you will want to read this book.
I thought that the book was very well researched and written.
Robert Betts

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Paul Carrier on February 12, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the Civil War will recognize the names of John Hay and John Nicolay. Dubbed "my boys" by their boss, Hay and Nicolay were President Lincoln's private secretaries. As historian Joshua Zeitz explains in this multifaceted book, that seemingly innocuous job title was misleading because Hay and Nicolay lived in an era when presidential staffs were smaller, and individual responsibilities greater, than they are now.

Zeitz sets out several tasks for himself in "Lincoln's Boys." In part a dual biography of Hay and Nicolay, the book explores the inner workings of Lincoln's White House from the perspective of the two men who were closer to Lincoln during his presidency than everyone but his wife, Mary Todd. But the book's subtitle makes it clear that there is more going on here than opening a new window on Lincoln's years in office. Hay and Nicolay, who later published a 10-volume biography of Lincoln, effectively shaped our understanding of the 16th president by creating what some would call the myth of Lincoln. It is that process that occupies much of Zietz's attention.

Their monumental biography "constituted one of the most successful exercises in historical revisionism in American history," Zeitz notes. Writing against "the rising currents of Southern apologia and a popular vogue for reunion and reconciliation," Hay and Nicolay pioneered what Zeitz calls the Northern interpretation of the Civil War.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on February 24, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Without “Lincoln’s boys,” there might be no “Lincoln” --- no legend, no taller-than-life image, no great emancipator leading us through our most troubled hours. Without Lincoln’s boys, Lincoln might have shrunk to ordinary size, remembered but not a universally admired, even exalted, father figure. Without Lincoln’s boys, the Republican Party would not have its most cherished icon. John Hay and John Nicolay are the “boys,” the subjects of this remarkable account by political historian Joshua Zeitz.

Hay and Nicolay were Lincoln’s closest, most trusted advisors and friends. They were a two-man “White House Press Corps” at a time when that concept did not yet exist. The two Midwesterners met in school and fell in with Lincoln before he became president. Nicolay, a Bavarian-born editor and political activist, was Lincoln’s first appointee, his private secretary; Hay, of Scots descent and a lifelong government worker, who was younger than Nicolay and destined to be linked to him for life, became his assistant. Deputized by the President to be his eyes and ears, and destined to experience history in the making, Nicolay parlayed with skirmishing Indians in Minnesota, and Hay visited the eerily abandoned plantation houses of the Union-occupied South.

After Lincoln’s assassination, the two became partners in an enormous and significant undertaking, composing from Lincoln’s many papers a 10-volume biography (nearly 5,000 pages, serialized in Century Magazine) that would influence historical thinking and create a legend.

The legendary status was well-deserved; it had only to be aired.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By David Herrick on February 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed Zeitz's fresh new look at the Lincoln legend. His account of the transformation of the Lincoln image, and the loyal aides who were instrumental in crafting it, does not at all diminish the Lincoln legacy. Rather, Zeitz shows how the Lincoln we know today is both the product of the man himself, and the dedication of those who knew him best.

If you think Presidential image building began with Kennedy or Reagan, then read this book!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence Meyer on February 25, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a first rate treatment of a subject often overlooked in today’s fascination with Lincoln and the Civil War; and that is how two young eye witnesses to his presidency stepped forward in their more mature years to permanently fix the historical image of the man and his accomplishments.

Unlike other eyewitnesses to the events of a presidency, John Nicolay and John Hay were almost accidentally, and possibly casually, selected for the positions in which they served Lincoln. They were both young, smart, and literate, but when picked by Lincoln to come to Washington, neither Nicolay nor John Hay had known Lincoln long or well. In other words, Lincoln didn’t pick them for patronage or political reasons. They happened to be handy fellows at the right place at the right time.

Thus they experienced the Lincoln presidency from a unique and fresh point-of-view. Both Nicolay and Hay had no personal political ambitions, nor many axes to grind.

Decades after Lincoln’s assassination, when both were mature men, they were given and accepted the task of writing what would today be called an “authorized” biography. Both their eyewitness experience and the access they were given to Lincoln’s papers were their sources. I can’t think of any other case where a history was thus fashioned.

That they were young when they experienced the events, but mature when they wrote of them, is likely essential to the kind of history they wrote. There was no call to rush to judgment, or rush to publish. Facts and emotions had had time to settle down. Neither needed to publish to earn a living or a favor. But that both had lived with Lincoln in his crisis imparts an implied authenticity to all their judgments. One assumes that they wrote history as if they felt Lincoln, and his kind of wisdom and humor and candor, was looking over their shoulders.
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