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Writing Abraham Lincoln: A History


Writing the book   [ top ]

By 1874, Hay and Nicolay had both returned to the United States from diplomatic posts abroad and were now settled in their post-White House careers — Nicolay as Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court and Hay as a journalist at the New York Tribune. The time had come, they agreed, to set about their Lincoln biographical project. The scope of this effort, which involved perusal not only of Lincoln’s papers but also those of members of his cabinet, along with conducting their own interviews and reading the existing corpus of published Lincoln material, was enormous. As Nicolay wrote to Isaac Newton Arnold that summer, “We have not yet progressed sufficiently to judge when we may be able to publish. If we wait for the completion of the whole work, several years must necessarily elapse. . . . The subject is of such interest and the material so abundant that the great question is, what to leave out.”

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John Hay in 1874 (photographer unknown). Taken at the time of his marriage to Clara Stone.

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Front (left): “Are you looking for a publisher? Or they for you?”

Hay’s note to Nicolay on the back (right): “We are getting magnificent advertising all over the country. I answered this note saying we were in no hurry to make arrangements. Bob promised to give us the papers as soon as we are ready to begin working on them.”
Richard Watson Gilder to John Hay, April 25, 1874. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“. . . I am getting together quite a little lot of books. I think I have the foundation for a Rebellion Library, which (if we follow it up) will be a pleasure to us to possess — of course we will never get our money out of it again. . . . ”
John Nicolay to John Hay, November 11, 1876. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“. . . I send you today by express a first installment of material – a lot of manuscript notes of my Springfield interviews and a small lot of books, Lamon’s, Holland’s, Arnolds & Brocketts Life of Lincoln, work of positive value with a lot of smaller trash good for little except by comparison of bulk to illustrate the hugeness of the topic. . . . ”
John Nicolay to John Hay, November 16, 1875. Gift of the Hay Family.

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Nicolay’s copy of The Army of the Potomac by Prince de Joinville (New York: Anson D. Randolph, 1862).
Gift of Clara Stone Hay.

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Nicolay’s copy of Operations of the Army Under Buell by James B. Fry (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1884).
Gift of W. Easton Louttit, Jr., Class of 1925.

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John G. Nicolay, The Outbreak of the Rebellion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881).
Gift of W. Easton Louttit, Jr., Class of 1925.

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John Hay’s copy of Life of Abraham Lincoln by Joseph H. Barrett (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865). Gift of Clara Stone Hay.

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Nicolay’s copy of Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers, 1864). Gift of Clara Stone Hay.

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John Hay’s copy of Abraham Lincoln: His Life, Public Services, Death, and Great Funeral Cortege by John Carroll Power (Springfield, Ill.: Edwin A. Wilson & Co., 1875). Gift of Clara Stone Hay.

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“. . . I have hardly dared to write you for some little time, for fear of making illusionary promises — but I think I can say now that I am started and can keep at work. If nothing happens adversely, we can have Lincoln inaugurated by the 4th of March 1878. . . .”
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“. . . I do not anticipate any bad delays, unless my health should give away again. My old foe, the headache, is lying in wait for me, but I hope to get free. I write with great labor and difficulty — my imagination is all gone, a good riddance. I think my judgment is improved. I shall never write easily and fluently again. . . .”
John Hay to John Nicolay, August 9, 1877. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“We learn that you are hard at work on the Life of Lincoln. Can you not let us have something out of it for our Midsummer Holiday number?
"That there is a profound interest in everything concerning Lincoln is shown by the number of inquiries yet made in regard to a new edition of Dr. Holland’s ‘Life’ — which as you know he has abandoned. . . . ”
Richard Watson Gilder to John Hay, April 8, 1879. Gift of the Hay Family.

William Stoddard   [ top ]

William Stoddard, who worked in the White House from 1861 to 1864, was hired as a third secretary to Lincoln in order to assist in handling the overflow of correspondence and office-seekers who arrived daily to importune the President. He managed to get along well with Mrs. Lincoln, whose correspondence devolved to him by default. Though considered “asinine” and “worthless” by Hay in the course of his duties to the President, Stoddard nevertheless maintained an air of self-importance over his role in the Lincoln White House. Friction between Stoddard and Hay erupted anew when Stoddard published his own White House memoir in 1884, just as Hay and Nicolay were in the throes of writing Abraham Lincoln: A History.


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“I was at my publisher’s yesterday, making some corrections in my ‘Life of Lincoln,’ for the second edition, and discovered that no copy have been sent to you. Had one sent at once, for it should have been done long ago. . . .”

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“. . . I tried in my preface to deal justly with your work and have left it as is in the edition now printing. If you desire any change or omission, for any reason, let me know. Nicolay has not left me at liberty to write to him or to send him a copy.”
William O. Stoddard to John Hay, February 12, 1885. Gift of the Hay Family

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“When your note of acknowledgement came it did not seem to me to call for a reply, but now returning to it I want to say a word or so. I did not suppose I was copying you track or ‘taking away your market’ and so said in my preface. I have left that in unchanged in the edition now going out. Long ago I wrote you and Nicolay that I had a book in my mind and it was my idea, year after year, that yours would come out first. Is it too much to say that that idea died of old age?”
William O. Stoddard to John Hay, March 25, 1885. Gift of the Hay Family.

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From William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1884). Gift of W. Easton Louttit, Jr., Class of 1925.

Serialization of Abraham Lincoln: A History   [ top ]

Nearly as soon as Hay and Nicolay began work on their Lincoln project, they were besieged by demands from publishers. As displayed in the preceding section, Richard Watson Gilder at Scribner’s wrote to Hay a number of times, begging them to send him some installments to publish in his magazine. In the end, Hay and Nicolay agreed to serialize their work, and it was published by installment in The Century Magazine between 1886 and 1890. One benefit of serialization was that it allowed the authors to collect additional information from other participants in the events that they described, as knowledgeable readers would write in to make additions and corrections to their work. Shown here are the first and final installments as published in The Century, with the latter including letters from a variety of readers.


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From serialized version in The Century. John Nicolay and John Hay, “Abraham Lincoln: A History,”
as serialized in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volumes 33-40, 1886-1890.

Completion and Reflecting Back: 1885-1887   [ top ]

In 1885, the writing of the work was finally advanced enough to begin showing it around, Hay shared part of his draft with Robert Todd Lincoln, who approved of the effort. As serialization of the work progressed, Hay grew nostalgic over his time in the White House. In the winter of 1887, he determined to write to several poets whose work he admired for the purpose of requesting that they write out, in their own hand, poetic works that he had long admired as particularly evocative of Lincoln. There is no record of whether, or how, Julia Ward Howe answered Hay’s letter. However, Walt Whitman responded promptly and enthusiastically.


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Robert Todd Lincoln, circa 1880 (undated cabinet card from a photograph by Mathew Brady).

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“I read [the book] carefully and was delighted with the way you had done your work.”
Robert Todd Lincoln to John Hay, April 17, 1885. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“I think you are giving yourself needless worry about our chapters not being read. I have not the remotest idea that any living man woman or child will sit down and read them all seriatim. They will be read if at all, either individually as chapters or by short periods and campaigns; and to secure that, I think the rather careful working out of details, giving them separate dramatic unity is desirable. . . . ”
John Nicolay to John Hay, April 26, 1885. Gift of the Hay Family.

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“. . . You are a great warrior, having taken Yorktown as promptly as McClellan did. We shall have our great advantage over all his quill drivers. Their narratives being purely military, and printed in purely military books, will gradually be shelved everywhere outside of West Point. Ours on the contrary will educate the politicians of the future. . . . ”
John Nicolay to John Hay, June 10, 1885. Gift of the Hay Family.

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John Hay Mss. of Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1889. Gift of Helen Hay Whitney.

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“I am very anxious to possess a copy, in your own hand-writing, of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. If you ever, in your busy life, have leisure enough to do me this great favor, I shall be very grateful."

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". . . I only want two or three things which the war produced and as I want them more than I hate to beg, I have thought it possible that I want them more than you hate to write.”
John Hay to Julia Ward Howe, January 11, 1887. Gift of the Hay Family

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Manuscript copy of “O Captain, My Captain!” in the hand of Walt Whitman,
and cover letter from Whitman to John Hay, March 9-10, 1887. Gift of Joan Whitney Payson.

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“I have received your books and Ms. and send, with my hearty thanks, a New York check for $30. It is a little more than your modest charge. You will pardon the liberty; I am not giving you anything like what the writing is worth to me, but trying to give a just compensation for the trouble of copying . . . ”
John Hay to Walt Whitman, March 12, 1887. Gift of the Hay Family.

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