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John Hay and John Nicolay in the White House

As Assistant Private Secretary, Hay helped Nicolay in managing the large volume of correspondence, dealing with the visitors to the White House and coordinating Lincoln's schedule. More importantly, Hay's role encompassed shaping Lincoln's public image by working with members of the press, a task at which he plainly excelled.

During their time in the White House, the two young secretaries formed a close relationship with the President. He called them “the boys” and they called him “the Tycoon.” As their admiration of Lincoln and his leadership grew, they hatched a joint plan to write a biography of their mentor. To build the resources for their future book, Hay kept a diary and Nicolay saved papers and took notes on important conversations, including figures such as the German-born American jurist and political scientist Francis Lieber, a Unionist who headed the Loyal Publication Society of New York.

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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.

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John Hay, taken in the Summer of 1862 by Walker at the Treasury Deparment.

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"Grand Reception at the White House, January 1862," Harper’s Weekly, Volume VI, January 25, 1862.
(Hay and Nicolay are at the far left of the scene, behind Lincoln.)

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John Nicolay’s business card as Private Secretary, along with envelope.

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John Nicolay to Francis Lieber, September 29, 1864, thought to be in Hay’s hand. Gift of the Hay Family.

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Francis Lieber, A Song on Our Country and Her Flag
(New York: Printed privately by students of Columbia University, 1861).

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“November 11, 1864. . . . At the meeting of the Cabinet today, the President took out a paper from his desk and said, ‘Gentlemen do you remember last summer I asked you all to sign your names to the back of a paper of which I did not show you the inside? This is it. Now, Mr. Hay, see if you can get this open without tearing it !’ . . . He then read as follows:
Executive Mansion, Washington Aug. 23, 1864
This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards. A. Lincoln
’”
John Hay’s White House Diaries, 1861-1865. Gift of Clara Stone Hay.

Republican Campaign Pin (with ferrotype images inset) from the 1864 Presidential campaign.

“An Unfortunate Bee-ing,” from Thomas Hood's Whimsicalities
(New York: Kiggins and Kellogg, Publishers, 1856), p. 163.

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“. . . A little after midnight as I was writing . . . , the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s works in his hand to show Nico[lay] & me the little Caricature ‘An unfortunate Bee-ing,’ seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is. Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame & future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhomie & good fellow ship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun. . . . ”
Hay diary entry for April 30, 1864.

Nicolay, Lincoln and Hay, photographed by Alexander Gardner November 1863, and later painted over in watercolor
Nicolay, Lincoln and Hay, photographed by Alexander Gardner November 1863, and later painted over in watercolor at Nicolay’s request so that the portrait is set in the White House work room.

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