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Reception and Legacy

Although praised by critics, Hay and Nicolay’s biographical effort was not a commercial success: only 7,000 copies were sold. Its size and cost were probably the determining factors that kept the ten-volume epic from becoming a best seller. In 1902, Nicolay wrote an abridged one-volume version which sold extremely well, indicating that popular interest was not lacking. Still, the original ten-volume set became an instant classic, hailed by many at the time as one of the best books of the 19th century, and subsequently reprinted in several new editions. It remains today the seminal Lincoln biography, required reading for both scholars and enthusiasts alike.

One example of the significance of Hay and Nicolay’s effort is that a review of their work, penned by former Missouri Senator Carl Schurz, was in itself sufficiently acclaimed to be reissued independently as a freestanding volume. Employing the simple title Abraham Lincoln, Schurz’ eloquent evocation of Lincoln was reprinted in at least ten different editions between 1890 and 1920.

Another example of the profound influence of Hay and Nicolay’s Abraham Lincoln: A History is the case of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a long-time admirer of Lincoln, and as a child had watched Lincoln’s funeral procession pass by his house in New York. Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln was only reinforced when he later came to know John Hay. The two met and talked about Lincoln often, and Hay gave Roosevelt a ring containing a lock of Lincoln’s hair, knowing that Roosevelt would treasure it as he did. Roosevelt saw himself as following in Lincoln’s footsteps and, as President, frequently invoked Lincoln to explain and defend his progressive program. In Abraham Lincoln: A History, Roosevelt found the ammunition to promote his policy objectives.

Later biographers of Lincoln — including even Ida Tarbell, well known for her assiduous research as a muck-raking journalist — have struggled to find gaps left by Hay and Nicolay that are large enough to allow for a meaningful contribution to Lincoln's biography. The collaborative homage to the late President by his two secretaries, truly a labor of intense love and deep respect, remains to this day the singlemost definitive work on Lincoln's life and legacy.

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John Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century Co., 1890).
Extra-illustrated edition with tipped in Lincoln manuscript. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“I cannot help writing you a line just to say what must have been said to you so many times already — what a really wonderful book you and Nicolay are bringing out. It is not only history; it is literature, quite as much so as any of our other American masterpieces. I do not like to talk in a way that may seem exaggerated; but I honestly think the book quite sui generis; it will certainly stand by itself among the books left by this century — for importance of subject, fullness of information and skill in the handling.”
Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, May 8, 1887. Gift of the Hay Family.

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Boardman Robinson. Cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt wearing the guise of Lincoln,
as published in the New York Tribune, February 22, 1912.

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"Preparing the Gettysburg Speech." Cartoon from The Evening Sun, May 30, 1912.

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Schurz, Carl. “Abraham Lincoln” (Review of Abraham Lincoln: A History),
The Atlantic Monthly (Boston), Volume 67, Issue 404 (June 1891).

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Stanton, Theodore. “Abraham Lincoln. A review of Abraham Lincoln, a history by Nicolay-Hay,”
Westminster Review (London), Vol. 135, No. 6 (September 1891).

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John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, Condensed from Nicolay and Hay's
Abraham Lincoln: A History
(New York: Century Co., 1902).

Ida Tarbell to F.M. Steele, October 6, 1914.