Lincoln’s spin doctors: ‘Boys’ molded slain president’s legacy


In 1863, Lincoln’s private secretaries had their picture taken with “the Prest.” John Nicolay (left) and John Hay “helped invent the Lincoln we know today,” writes historian Joshua Zeitz. | Library of Congress photo

The elites didn’t get him.

Sen. James Grimes of Iowa, a fellow Republican, tut-tutted that the Lincoln administration was “a disgrace from the very beginning to every one who had any thing to do with bringing it into power.”

Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist, grumbled that the nation needed “a president with brains — one who can make a plan and carry it out.”

American royalty Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of President John Adams and son of John Quincy who served as ambassador to Britain, whinged seven years after the president’s assassination that  “in the history of our government … no experiment so rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the head of affairs a man with so little previous preparation for his task as Mr. Lincoln.”

In a look back at the Civil War, the popular newspaper editor Horace “Go West, young man” Greeley made big bucks off a book that portrayed Lincoln as a bungling commander-in-chief.

Lincoln’s widow and eldest son became enraged by the gossip and innuendo in memoirs and lectures: Ann Rutledge was his true love; Abe’s marriage to Mary Todd was shaky; he was an evangelical; he was an atheist; “he lacked that lofty scorn of fraud and knavery which is inseparable from true greatness.”

It fell to two young men from Illinois, who became Abe Lincoln’s actual and ideological gatekeepers, to rehabilitate the slain president’s image, historian Joshua Zeitz writes in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine.

John Hay and John Nicolay started answering correspondence and the like for Lincoln during the 1860 campaign. The 20-something friends would continue in the post of private secretary in the White House. But their duties went beyond letter writing to include what today would come under the sphere of a chief of staff and press secretary.

In those days, patronage seekers filled the White House hallways by 10 a.m. If someone wanted to see Lincoln, they had to go through Hay or Nicolay. Some in Washington called them a little too big for their britches. “A fault for which it seems to me either Nature or our tailors are to blame,” Hay joked.

Lincoln, who worked 14 hour days, grew to know them as well as — and love them like — his sons. He called them “the boys.”

It took his boys 15 years and 10 volumes to elevate Lincoln’s place in history.  It was they who “helped invent the Lincoln we know today — the sage father figure; the military genius; the greatest American orator; the brilliant political tactician; the master of a fractious Cabinet who forged a ‘team of rivals,’ ” says Zeitz, author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image.

Read Zeitz‘s article in Smithsonian Magazine.