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Back in Illinois: John Hay in Springfield

After completing his studies at Brown in the summer of 1858, Hay headed back home to Warsaw, Illinois. With ardent literary yearnings but no practical calling, Hay floundered out on the frontier. As his family investigated his career options, he recalled the pleasant pastimes of Providence and sank into the pit of despair. Hay showed no aptitude for following in his father’s footsteps as a doctor; his mother and brother Augustus were dead set against his becoming a school teacher, and Hay himself disparaged the suggestion of acquaintances that he enter the ministry. At length, his father decided the best course would be for Hay to read for the law, and he arranged for young John to work as a law clerk for his uncle, Milton Hay, in Springfield, commencing in March of 1859.

By this time, Hay’s old school chum John Nicolay had also moved to Springfield, where he was working as law clerk in the office of Illinois Secretary of State O.M. Hatch and had become an avid Lincoln supporter. As luck would have it, Milton Hay was himself a friend and former law clerk of Lincoln’s, and the two offices were next door to each other. Hay’s existing friendship with Nicolay soon led to Hay’s involvement in Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency, as well as new-formed friendships with other young Lincoln stalwarts such as Elmer Ellsworth. After the election resulted in Lincoln's success in November 1860, Lincoln asked Nicolay to serve in the White House as his private secretary. Nicolay, believing the job would be too large to do by himself, convinced Lincoln to let Hay come along to Washington as his assistant.

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"I very much fear that if I remain in the West I will entirely lose all the aspirations I formerly cherished & see them fading, with effortless apathy. Under the influence of the Boetian atmosphere around me, my spirit will be ‘subdued to what it works in & my residence in the East will remain in Memory, an oasis in the desolate stretch of a material life. So before the evil days come on I cling more & more eagerly to the ties which connect me with Providence & civilization."
John Hay to Sarah Helen Whitman, August 30, 1858. Gift of the Hay Family.

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"I shall never cease to congratulate myself upon the acquaintances I formed during the last few months of my stay in Providence. I found among them the objects for which my mind had always longed, true appreciation & sympathy. . . "

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". . . But now when I am removed to a colder mental atmosphere, & the hopes & aspirations that gilded the gliding hours of my last year at college, are fading away, . . . I must respectfully assert that I find only a dreary waste of heartless materialism, when great & heroic qualities may indeed bully their way up into the glare, but the flowers of existence inevitably droop & wither. . . . I shall turn from ‘the rose o’ the rainbow’ to corner-lots & tax-titles, & a few years will find my eye . . . steadily fixed on the pole-star of humanity, $ !"
John Hay to Nora Perry, October 12, 1858. Gift of the Hay Family.

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"I have wandered this winter in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. All the Universe, God, Earth, & heaven have been to me but vague & gloomy phantasms. I have conversed with wild Imaginings in the gloom of the forests. . . . I have felt, coming over my soul, colder than a northern wind, a conviction of the hideous unreality of all that moved & swayed & throbbed before me. . . "

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". . . I am now at work. In work I always find rest. A strange paradox – but true. If my health returns, I do not question but that I shall work out of these shadows. If not, there is a cool rest under the violets & Eternity is long enough to make right the errors & deficiencies of time."
John Hay to Nora Perry, May 15, 1859. Gift of the Hay Family.

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"It is cowardly in me to cling so consistently to a life which is past. It is my duty, and in truth it is my ultimate intention to qualify myself for a Western Lawyer, et praeterea nihil, 'Only that and Nothing more.'. . . "

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". . . Yet though I know all this, though I feel that Illinois and Rhode Island are Entirely antipathetic – though I am aware that thy people are not my people nor thy God my God, I cannot shut my friends out of memory or annihilate the pleasant past."
John Hay to Nora Perry, March 4, 1860. Gift of the Hay Family.

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"I am not making the most rapid progress in the law. I have, as you advised, read all of Hume consecutively, & to speak with moderation, remember some of it. . . . I have been repeatedly told by lawyers here that I will never make my living by pettifogging. This, of course, is very encouraging but I think, if my manifest destiny is to starve, I prefer to do it in a position where I will have only myself to blame for it."
John Hay to Milton Hay, January 28, 1859. Gift of the Hay Family.

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Photo of John G. Nicolay, date and photographer unknown.
Reproduced from the Frederick Hill Meserve Collection of Historical Portraits and Lincolniana.

William Henry Herndon (1818-1891), partner in Lincoln & Herndon, 1841-1860.

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Kate M. Hall, “Lincoln and Herndon Law Office,” New York, 1924
(after an illustration appearing in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine, December 22, 1860).

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Lincoln and Hamlin Campaign Flag (1860). Bequest of Maury A. Bromsen.

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Republican Campaign Badge and Ballot from the 1860 Presidential campaign.

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J.A. O’Neill, “E. E. Ellsworth, Col. Fire Zouaves N.Y.V.” (steel engraving, circa 1861).

→ Next: Mr. Hay Goes to Washington