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

4.5 out of 5 stars 122 customer reviews

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1St Edition edition (February 4, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025664
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #211,919 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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.
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