A conversation with Joshua Zeitz

author of




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This Q&A was conducted by Zeitz’s publisher, Viking.

What role did John Hay and John Nicolay play in Abraham Lincoln’s life?

Every president has his guy. FDR had Harry Hopkins; JFK had RFK; Bush II had Karl Rove; and Barack Obama has Plouffe and Axelrod. During Lincoln’s tenure in the White House, Nicolay and Hay were the President’s closest personal and professional associates. They lived with the First Family in the executive mansion; they acted as the president’s official gatekeepers and political fixers; they were his constant companions by day and night; and together, they fulfilled all of the functions of the modern-day chief-of-staff, press secretary, body man and political director. In the modern age, presidents turn to their confidantes to forge their post-presidential legacies. Lincoln enjoyed no such good fortune, as his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. But there was never any question who would carry on the torch. Working in close collaboration with Lincoln’s family, for over a quarter-century “the boys” salvaged the President’s troubled historical reputation and forged what we now recognize as a powerful and lasting image of greatness.

In the aftermath of his death, Lincoln underwent a sudden apotheosis of sorts (it didn’t hurt that he was shot on Good Friday, and as the long and bloody Civil War was in its last days). But over the next two decades, America’s political and literary elites cooled on the sixteenth president, remembering him in books and magazines as a good and decent man who was ill-suited for his office; only by grace of a strong cabinet, they argued, was he able to govern in times of war. Hay and Nicolay worked closely with Robert Todd Lincoln to forge a lasting version of Lincoln’s legacy. Together, they enjoyed exclusive access to Lincoln’s presidential papers, which would not be made available to other scholars or researchers until 1947. With this monopoly on source material and information, they were able to produce and disseminate an enormous “life and times” account that broke new ground and re-introduced Lincoln to the American reading public as a powerful wartime leader and a master politician and strategist. With backing from the nation’s largest wide-circulation magazine, which serialized their work over almost five years, they created a lasting image that, even today, remains the standard against which everyone else writes.


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How has Lincoln’s image evolved throughout history? How does the historical image of Lincoln differ from that of Hay and Nicolay? Is there a war over his image?

Historical memory moves in cycles. In the early days after his death, Lincoln underwent near-deification. He was a national martyr who seemed to have died for the sins of slavery and disunion. With time, his friends and foes reappraised him as a weak leader who was ill-suited to the challenges of the presidency. That’s where Nicolay and Hay stepped in, to change the narrative. But Lincoln’s image has also been very much part of larger ideological and political shifts. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even as many African Americans continued to assert a rightful claim to Lincoln’s legacy as an emancipator and advocate of civil rights, many Southerners and Confederate apologists claimed him as one of their own, positioning him as a racial conservative who would have acceded to the emerging Jim Crow system. With the dawn of the modern civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, Americans once again rediscovered Lincoln’s emancipation legacy, though with time, many came to appreciate the limits of his liberalism. Today, we continue to project our own concerns onto Lincoln’s legacy. Living in a time of intense partisan rancor and gridlock, it was heartening to watch Steven Spielberg’s re-imagination of Lincoln as a figure who “united” even the bitterest of enemies (though in many ways, the film offered a ringing endorsement of strong, decisive and even partisan executive action). Over fifty years ago, the great Lincoln scholar, David Donald, observed that Americans have been “getting right with Lincoln”—posing the question, “what would Lincoln do?”—since just minutes after the President’s death. We can expect them to continue doing so for a long time to come.

Could you provide some insight into what it was like to work in Lincoln’s White House? What was it like for Hay and Nicolay to experience the civil war era alongside Lincoln? 

Writing to his fiancée, John Nicolay marveled that he was living in “stirring times,” though “I hardly realize that they are so, even as I write them.” Remember that these were two very young men, still in their twenties. Nicolay had been born into a poor immigrant family. Orphaned at an early age, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps, living as a teenager in a drafty attic above a county newspaper, where he apprenticed as a “printer’s devil” before becoming a young journalist and political operative. Before the Civil War, Hay had never seen a city larger than St. Louis and worried that he might be consigned to an ordinary and unremarkable life in small-town Illinois. For both men, the Lincoln years were a heady time. They lived on the second floor of the White House, down the hall from the First Family. Their offices adjoined the President’s. They were present for nearly every major cabinet meeting and political confab and enjoyed exclusive access to the President in the late evening hours when all of official Washington wondered what deliberations were occurring behind the closed doors of the executive mansion. Nicolay and Hay suddenly came to know—and be known by—four-star generals, senators and congressmen, governors, and powerful editors.

All of this would have been a transformative experience in any day and age, and indeed, any young person who has ever worked on the Hill, in a State House, or on a presidential campaign surely will recognize certain features of their tenure. But set against the backdrop of the Civil War, it offered Nicolay and Hay unparalleled exposure to the world. For the rest of their lives, people held Nicolay and Hay in near-awe; everyone else could only imagine what they had seen and heard, and what it had been like to live and work alongside Lincoln.

What kind of research did you do prior to writing Lincoln’s Boys?

The bulk of the research relies on Nicolay’s and Hay’s extensive manuscript collections, comprised of many thousands of letters, diary entries, articles, and chapter drafts. I was fortunate enough to be able to digitalize most of their papers and load them onto an iPad—much different from my graduate student days, when my apartment overflowed with box upon box of dusty photocopies. Though the book owes much to the work of other scholars who have constructed important frameworks for thinking about the Civil War era and its popular memory, I tried as much as possible to let Nicolay and Hay tell their story in their own words.

Can you share an experience or moment from Hay and Nicolay’s journals that exemplifies Lincoln’s persona?

An episode comes to mind that juxtaposes Lincoln’s kind spirit with the grim burdens he faced as a wartime president. One Sunday, in the darkest days of the war, Hay and another colleague were working in the President’s office. Lincoln was down the hall in the family quarters. Hay began to tell a joke but broke into laughter midway through. Hearing the commotion from his adjoining study, Nicolay stepped in and asked to hear the joke from the start. Hay “began at the beginning,” remembered one of their White House colleagues, “and went on very well until the first good point was reached,” but all three men again “exploded as one” before reaching the punch line. None of the staff members noticed Lincoln slip through the office door. “Down he sank into Andrew Jackson’s chair, facing the table, with Nicolay seated by him, and Hay still standing by the mantel. Grinning, the President said, “Now, John, just tell that thing again.” As Hay reached the end of the joke, “down came the President’s foot from across his knee, with a heavy stamp on the floor, and out through the hall went an uproarious peal of fun.” Moments later, the Secretary of War appeared in the doorway bearing bad news, and “the shadow came back to Lincoln’s face, and he arose, slowly, painfully, like a man lifting some enormous burden.”

You mention that in their biography of Lincoln, Hay and Nicolay fought to preserve a narrative that saw slavery—not just states’ rights—as the sole cause of the Civil War. Could you elaborate?

In the decades following the Civil War, as white America’s racial sensibilities hardened—these were the early years of Jim Crow—it became fashionable to think of the Civil War as having been about anything but slavery: states’ rights, economic competition between North and South, irresponsible politicians whipping up a needless and avoidable controversy. As many Confederate and Union veterans grew old, they, too, preferred to bury the ideological hatchet and focus on what they shared in common (namely, battlefield glory) rather than what once tore them apart (slavery). Nicolay and Hay sharply resisted this revisionist tendency. They were accused of “aggressive Northernism,” a charge to which they readily admitted. This part of their interpretation would ebb and flow with time. Today, most historians would regard them as more right than wrong in their thinking about Civil War causality.

How did your perception of Lincoln change as you were writing Lincoln’s Boys?

Nicolay and Hay made Lincoln more human for me. Though they insisted on his greatness and rendered him an almost distant, giant figure in their historical writing, their contemporary letters and diaries reveal an immensely likeable if complicated character who could be at once cold and aloof, kind and engaging. I also came to better appreciate Lincoln’s political character. He was a political animal and made no bones about it. “Politics is a thing à laisser ou à prendre,” Nicolay later observed, “but by no means to be despised, either in nobler or baser relations to the times we live in. Nobody had a clearer perception [on] that point than [Lincoln].”

How has Abraham Lincoln’s legacy influenced politics today? 

We look for ways to align our own thinking with his. As a starting point, that’s not a bad way to frame contemporary questions over the meaning of big concepts like “freedom” and “nation.” But it’s not especially helpful to project onto Lincoln questions that he could never have anticipated. Debates over the welfare state, the Affordable Care Act, reproductive rights or marriage equality simply don’t make a great deal of sense in the context of antebellum era political culture. But that doesn’t stop Left and Right, alike, from trying to “get right with Lincoln.”


Joshua_Zeitz150Josh 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 joshzeitz.co