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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
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. Lincoln had told the two that the Civil War proved that “popular government is not an absurdity,” an overarching principle that Hay and Nicolay had often contemplated while traveling in Europe after the war. To fashion the Lincoln story, the two Johns shared composition tasks but gave final right of approval to Robert Lincoln, here revealed as more three-dimensional than usually depicted. The reader is invited to imagine how arduously the three-way work proceeded in an age of pens, inkstands, and messages delivered by hand. It took nearly 20 years. The two authors refused to smooth over the rift of the war; the conflict had been caused, they asserted, by “an uprising of the national conscience against a secular wrong.” They wanted Lincoln to be remembered as a leader who grappled with the tormenting issue of slavery and its damage to democracy, ensuring that the right side won.

In these times, when we pick apart our heroes by examining everything from their kitchen sinks to their genetic code, Lincoln stands as tall as ever, and we still seek to idealize him. If his image is largely untarnished, it is in part because of the efforts of Nicolay and Hay. As Zeitz says, “They were ‘Lincoln men’…and they meant to tell their story so that the rest of the world would know the man as they did.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Extraordinarily phenomenal! John Hay & John Nicolay's detailed account of their humble start in life and expressive steps to Washington with President Lincoln. If you need to get to the President you would have to past through Nicolay and Hay's, "the Gate Keepers to the President." Nicolay reputation in Washington, "the bull dog in the anteroom, a grim Cerebus of Teutonic descent, while Hay is chivalrous, brilliant, with the gift of gab that infect his listeners. Hay's enjoyed the stares, "I am keeper of the President Conscience." Nicolay at his own expense of being the odd man out never once quiver when his loyalty to President Lincoln was questioned. They took their jobs in Washington with the utmost seriousness and devotion. There was a statement Nicolay said, "I can assure you that the President's task here is no child's play."

My husband said to me that I should open my mind to other books (meaning genre) and since I won this as part of Goodreads, First Read Giveaway I make it my mission to read every book I win and give my honest review that's the least I could do for receiving their hard work which they put pen to paper. So my opinion this book is historically factual moved me. I missed something in my history class when I was in school because what I had just read I never knew. I learned so much just reading this book. I am so ever grateful people like Hay and Nicolay made it their mission to document their personal experiences with President Lincoln, not only with the President but how they documented historical events, Emancipation Proclamation, Slavery, the Civil War, Gettysburg Address, voting, elections, of course the democrats and republican parties, legislative agendas and the way the White House functioned during that time. But what made it so touching their travels through time of memories collected and recorded by both men. Past and present lives, either happy or sad, joyous or disappointments. Their love for mankind and the inevitable attraction to our functioning government but still maintaining their dignity in it. Their contribution was there in history and a story of the past was left with us to explore and open our eyes to what they had seen. The little things made an impact in our history whether we know it or not. To much of our past history that created this great nation is being forgotten in schools, that is too sad:) Excellent read!!! Thank you:) Darlene Cruz
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Take your time, this book is written in a detailed, scholastic manner. Lots of facts and insight into what the United States was like in the 1850"s and after the assasination of Lincoln. A must read if you want to understand the 3rd quarter of the 19th century in America.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Synopsis: Secretaries Hay and Nicolay were with Lincoln from his entrance to the White House to his assassination. It was their mission to present a picture of a man who rose from humble beginnings to one of our greatest leaders.

My rating: 4 Stars

My opinion: Generally, this was an inviting read that kept me engaged. I could see how some could state that it was dry, but, I was given another POV/perspectives to incidents I have studied. To boot, the author clearly researched this book so it was loaded down with critical information to the study of Abraham Lincoln.

A chief complaint that I have to this book is that I that I thought the book would be more in a "letter" format. I would have loved to have seen letters that Nicolay and Hay sent rather than them being referred to by the author. I must admit that I did feel that there were moments of the writing that kind of dragged on, but this is common in every historical book I have read (and some fiction, as well).

As someone who has read over 200 books on Lincoln and the Civil War, this was one of my favorites.

Source: Review for Penguin Group

Would I recommend? : Yes, to Lincoln enthusiasts, such as myself. I couldn't put it down.

Stand Alone or Part of a Series: Stand Alone
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I've read hundreds of books about Lincoln and the times he lived in and this forms a major addition to any collection. Far surpassing any previous biographies of Nicolay and Hay, the author provides us with a deep look at the link between the president's values and beliefs and those of this secretaries as they matured. The author also provides a good look at the production scale of their 10 volume biography as well as a later look at the evolving perceptions of historians as times changed. A must read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Heaven knows, it's nearly impossible to find a new slant on Abraham Lincoln. Joshua Zeitz approaches him through the eyes of the two twenty-something men who were his secretaries throughout his presidency, and who probably spent more time with Lincoln during those years than anyone else except his wife.

John Nicolay was a small town newspaper editor and Republican Party activist, who happened to be in the right place at the right time when Lincoln needed a secretary. Hay was a recent Brown University graduate at loose ends, who had known Nicolay for a number of years and was hired as his assistant. Just that easily, the two men became the gatekeepers to Lincoln's presence, spokesmen for his opinions, sounding boards for his musings, and eyewitnesses to history. Nicolay was present during the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Lincoln's nomination for the Presidency. Both were there for the inaugurations, the Cabinet meetings among the "Team of Rivals," the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, and the day to day workings of the Lincoln administration. Hay was present at Lincoln's deathbed. The two of them wrote much of Lincoln's correspondence. They were in an excellent position to describe Lincoln, the man, and the President, and they did so, in a ten-volume biography written between 1875 and 1890.

After setting the stage with the background of the two secretaries, and the disputes over slavery and popular sovereignty in the 1850's, the book uses Hay's and Nicolay's writings as the focus for the portrait of Lincoln's personality and presidency. Their views changed over time, as did Lincoln's. They both unwaveringly saw slavery as the cause of the Civil War and the South as being in the wrong. Their attitudes toward black people became less stereotyped and more nuanced, especially for Hay. Their biography took pains to counteract the late 19th century opinion that Lincoln was out of his depth and ineffective as President, that he lacked stature, political skills, and intellect.

The varieties of Lincoln's "image" covers less than a quarter of the book, but it is the part I found most interesting, and would have liked more information about. It was surprising to find out how poor Lincoln's political reputation was in the decades after his death. Hay and Nicolay were to a great degree responsible for what Zeitz refers to as the "Lincoln Memorial Lincoln," the melancholy, eloquent, astute, and ultimately successful Great Emancipator and Preserver of the Union. The reinvention of Lincoln continues even now; there are those who see Lincoln as riding roughshod over state prerogatives, as a warmonger and would-be despot, while others believe that Reconstruction would have worked had he lived to implement it.

Hay and Nicolay make knowledgeable although heavily biased witnesses to the "real" Lincoln, and this book is well worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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.
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