Synopses & Reviews
John C. Nicolay, who had known Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, served as chief White House secretary from 1861 to 1865. Trained as a journalist, Nicolay had hoped to write a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860, a desire that was thwarted when an obscure young writer named William Dean Howells got the job. Years later, however, Nicolay fulfilled his ambition; with John Hay, he spent the years from 1872 to 1890 writing a monumental ten-volume biography of Lincoln.
In preparation for this task, Nicolay interviewed men who had known Lincoln both during his years in Springfield and later when he became the president of the United States. "When it came time to write their massive biography, however," Burlingame notes, "he and Hay made sparing use of the interviews" because they had become "skeptical about human memory." Nicolay and Hay also feared that Robert Todd Lincoln might censor material that reflected "poorly on Lincoln or his wife."
Nicolay had interviewed such Springfield friends as Lincolns first two law partners, John Todd Stuart and Stephen T. Logan. At the Illinois capital in June and July 1875, he talked to a number of others including Orville H. Browning, U.S. senator and Lincolns close friend and adviser for over thirty-five years, and Ozias M. Hatch, Lincolns political ally and Springfield neighbor. Four years later he returned briefly and spoke with John W. Bunn, a young political "insider" from Springfield at the time Lincoln was elected president, and once again with Hatch.
Browning shed new light on Lincolns courtship and marriage, telling Nicolay that Lincoln often told him "that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace" while in the White House. During their research, Nicolay and Hay also learned of Lincolns despondency and erratic behavior following his rejection by Matilda Edwards, and they were subsequently criticized by friends for suppressing the information. Burlingame argues that this open discussion of Lincolns depression of January 1841 is "perhaps the most startling new information in the Springfield interviews."
Briefer and more narrowly focused than the Springfield interviews, the Washington interviews deal with the formation of Lincolns cabinet, his relations with Congress, his behavior during the war, his humor, and his grief. In a reminiscence by Robert Todd Lincoln, for example, we learn of Lincolns despair at General Lee's escape after the Battle of Gettysburg: "I went into my fathers office ... and found him in [much] distress, his head leaning upon the desk in front of him, and when he raised his head there were evidences of tears upon his face. Upon my asking the cause of his distress he told me that he had just received the information that Gen. Lee had succeeded in escaping across the Potomac river. . ."
To supplement these interviews, Burlingame has included Nicolays unpublished essays on Lincoln during the 1860 campaign and on Lincolns journey from Springfield to Washington in 1861, essays based on firsthand testimony.
Who Lincoln was and who people remember him to be are often diametrically opposed. It is books like this . . . that are must-reads for everyone interested in Lincoln. . . . [A]n excellent contribution.”Illinois Historical Journal
Burlingame has done a masterful job in selecting and editing these hidden treasures of first-person narratives on the life and person of Abraham Lincoln. The insights revealed . . . are invaluable.”Midwest Book Review
Burlingames editorial work is solid. . . . Lincoln scholars should find this volume useful because of the information it brings together in one place and stimulating because of the larger questions it raises concerning the use of historical evidence.” Civil War History
[T]his collection is important and contains as much new information on Lincoln as anyone is apt to find at this late date. I commend [Burlingame] for bringing these interviews to light.”The Journal of Southern History
Nicolays Informants John G. Nicolay, who served as Lincolns personal secretary during the Civil War, has always been overshadowed by the brilliant, handsome, and accomplished John Hay. During the Gilded Age, while Hay blossomed into a respected writer and political figure (husband to a railroad magnates daughter, friend to Henry Adams and other luminaries, Secretary of State overseeing a budding empire), Nicolay faded into oblivion, known only, if at all, as the foremost keeper of the sacred flame of Lincolns memory.
This was an odd trajectory for Nicolay, a man who, after all, co- wrote a monumental biography of Lincoln and did most of the arduous work involved in publishing the first large collection of Lincolns writings. One would think that such services would have earned him a lasting place in the hall of Lincolnia. When first published, Nicolays Abraham Lincoln: A History (1886), written with Hay, was well received; but many since have found it to be partisan and pedestrian. As Michael Burlingame notes in the introduction to this volume, Nicolay and Hay distrusted recollections (even their own) and so relied almost wholly on documents and other sources now widely available. Their edition of Lincolns Complete Works, published in twelve volumes during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, turned out to be far from complete, and has long since been superceded by Roy Prentice Baslers Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953) (itself soon to be displaced by a massive new edition of Lincolns papers). And so Nicolay, despite his presence at the center of events during Americas most tragic and glorious years, receded in importance for those seeking to understand Lincoln and the Civil War.
But Nicolays story has a happy ending, thanks in part to this important and expertly presented collection of Nicolays unpublished research and notes. Michael Burlingame, Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus at Connecticut College and author of the highly regarded The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994), has revealed a Nicolay who can now take his rightful role among the precious few important and recognized sources for the life of Lincoln. Nicolay, it turns out, collected a large mass of material about Lincoln from those who knew him best, gathered through interviews and letters across several decades. A great deal of this material, much of it written in Nicolays idiosyncratic shorthand, never made it into print, and so has lain dormant among his papers, a trove of Lincolnia that Burlingame has rescued from oblivion, at the same time rescuing, in a certain way, Nicolay as well.
This volume, reprinted now ten years after its initial publication, is part of a larger project of publications, in which Burlingame has almost single-handedly given us some of the most important additions to our store of primary sources and documents about Lincoln, since Lincolns own papers first became publicly available in 1948. At present, Burlingame, working often with the Abraham Lincoln Association and Southern Illinois University Press, has published almost a dozen volumes of expertly edited diaries, letters, unpublished interviews, and newspaper articles from Nicolay, Hay, and others close to Lincoln. As the first of these endeavors, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln (1996) was a very strong beginning, though it does not, perhaps, quite reach the standard set by Burlingames edition of John Hays diary (co-edited with John R. Turner Ettlinger), which presents end-notes of such comprehensiveness that they constitute, in themselves, almost an entire history of life in Washington during the Civil War. Since the publication of the Collected Works, only Herndons Informants (1997)(edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis with the assistance of Terry Wilson) can rival Burlingames books as contributions to Lincolnia.
Burlingames brief introduction in the present volume begins with a rapid overview of Nicolays life and his relationship to Lincoln. As a journalist and assistant to the Illinois Secretary of State in the late 1850s, Nicolay had many opportunities to talk politics and play chess with the rising star of Illinois politics. After his election as president, Lincoln hired Nicolay to help with his correspondence and found him so useful that Nicolay was one of the few people from Springfield that Lincoln brought with him to Washington. (Hay was another.) To the outside world, Nicolays primary role in the White House was "the bull-dog of the ante-room," in the words of one contemporary source, protecting the president from intrusive well-wishers and demanding office-seekers (p. xiii). According to contemporaries, in these duties Nicolay was either ill-humored and disagreeable or reticent and civil, but Burlingame does not seek to resolve these contradictory descriptions or delve into Nicolays important role in Lincolns White House. Burlingame does not mention, for example, that Lincoln gave Nicolay several sensitive assignments, including keeping an eye on the potentially explosive Baltimore convention of 1864 that re-nominated Lincoln for President. Burlingames introduction then moves on to describe the provenance of Nicolays interviews, notes, and research presented in the volume. From the first, Nicolay and Hay were planning a history of the administration, but most of the material presented here was collected during interviews Nicolay conducted in 1870s and 1880s. A more complete description of the papers overall might be wished for, but Burlingame does list for every document the repository where it was consulted, for the most part either the Library of Congress or the John Hay Library at Brown University. Each entry also benefits from Burlingames indefatigable research, with notes detailing the background of the person interviewed, the important controversies raised, and the context of the time when the interview took place. The material is arranged in two sections, the first presenting interviews that Nicolay conducted in Springfield, the second giving the interviews that took place in Washington, D. C. For the most part, this division corresponds to the main topic of the interview in question, either Lincolns life before the presidency, or his time in office, so this organization makes a good deal of sense. A fine index allows one to follow the thread of topics that, understandably in oral interviews, disappear and reappear in the course of these conversations across the years. Nicolays interviews and the other materials here fully live up to Burlingames description as "high-grade ore for the historians smelter" (p. xvii), revealing Lincoln as Nicolays informants saw him, but also restoring Nicolay as a central figure for our understanding of the sixteenth president.
Martin P. Johnson
In An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, Michael Burlingame has uncovered buried Lincoln treasure from the papers of one of Lincolns private secretaries, John G. Nicolay. Between 1872 and 1890, Nicolay and John Hay worked on a monumental ten-volume biography of Lincoln for which they conducted thirty-nine interviews in Springfield and Washington. However, some of Nicolays notes were written in shorthand, making them inaccessible to researchers. Nicolay and Hay had made little use of the interviews in the published biography, partly because they considered the information too personal or embarrassing for the Lincoln family, especially to Robert Todd Lincoln, and partly because they wanted to rely on contemporary documents rather than reminiscences. Through the interviews Nicolay learned that Lincoln broke off his initial engagement to Mary Todd in 1841, that he suffered from frequent despondency, and that he was constantly anxious that his wife would embarrass him. In this first paperback edition of An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, Burlingame unearths these documents, skillfully transcribes Nicolays interviews, and presents them here with context and annotation, offering new insight into previously unknown aspects of Lincolns life.
About the Author
Michael Burlingame, Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus at Connecticut College, is the author of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln and the editor of ten volumes of primary sources about Lincoln, including With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 18601865. He won the prestigious Lincoln Prize, honorable mention, for his five edited collections of letters, memoranda, editorial essays, lectures, and interviews by Lincolns White House private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay, all published by Southern Illinois University Press.