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Tragedy Strikes: The Assassination

In the course of his duties in the White House, Hay also developed a close relationship with Robert Todd Lincoln, just a few years his junior. The two were at the White House together on the evening when Lincoln was shot, and rushed to Lincoln’s side at the Peterson house, where they spent the night awaiting Lincoln’s death.

In the wake of the assassination, public hunger arose for biographies of the now-martyred President. Nicolay and Hay, still grieving themselves, avowed they were not yet ready to begin their own work, but nevertheless established themselves as stout defenders of Lincoln and his legacy. In this, they were supported by Robert Todd Lincoln, who supplied them with access to the bulk of his father’s papers as a contribution toward their own project.

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Anonymous, “The Martyr of Liberty” (circa 1865). Bequest of Maury A. Bromsen.

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“The Assassination of President Lincoln, at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., April 15, 1865”
(photograph of an original print, reduced in size and date unknown).

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Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House (Washington, D.C.: Neale Publishing Company, 1902).
Pendel was White House Doorkeeper at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. Here, he recounts conveying the news of the events at Ford’s Theatre to Robert Todd Lincoln and John Hay, who remained at the White House that evening, including details of their reactions to the tragic news.

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Alexander H. Ritchie, The Death of Abraham Lincoln (steel engraving after his painting, 1868).
The standing figure at the head of the deathbed is Robert Todd Lincoln; Hay, who remained with Lincoln during his final hours, is the younger of the two seated figures at his left.

Abraham Lincoln mourning badges.

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White, G. “Funeral Obsequies of Prest Lincoln at the Presidential Mansion,” drawing engraved by O. Pelton (publisher unknown, circa 1865).

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Currier & Ives, Lincoln’s Funeral (New York, April 1865)

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“My plans in reference to writing a history of the late President are not yet sufficiently matured to be able me to consider any proposition about publishing it. I will however keep your letter among others I have received on the subject.”
John Nicolay to Andrew Boyd, May 29, 1865. Gift of the Hay Family.

Early in 1866, historian George N. Bancroft (a Democrat) was asked by Congress to deliver a special eulogy on Lincoln. Hay objected vociferously to Bancroft’s characterization of Lincoln, as indicated in a letter to William Henry Herndon, shown below.

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George Bancroft, engraved by H. B. Hall, Jr.

Ticket to George Bancroft's Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln
Ticket to hear Bancroft’s Eulogy of Lincoln in the House Chamber

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George Bancroft’s Eulogy of Abraham Lincoln, February 1866

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John Hay photo, taken by Mathew Brady, 1865.

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“Bancroft’s address was a disgraceful exhibition of ignorance and prejudice. His effeminate nature shrinks instinctively from the contact of a great reality like Lincoln’s character.
“I consider Lincoln Republicanism incarnate – with all its faults and all its virtues. As in spite of some Evidences, Republicanism is the sole hope of a sick world, so Lincoln with all his foibles, is the greatest Character since Christ.”
John Hay to William Herndon, September 5, 1866 (printed facsimile, circa 1939).

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