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In 1974 Lincoln scholar Roy P. Basler described himself “As, I suspect, one of the few people yet alive who once read Nicolay and Hay complete…” That is a claim that not very many could make today as well. The ten volume Abraham Lincoln: A History is over 4,700 pages long. It was written with reverence towards the Great Emancipator by his two principal secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Unfortunately, by modern standards the work fails as a biography. It is an odd combination of the history of the times and biography. Abraham Lincoln disappears for long stretches of the text. His early life is given only cursory treatment in the first volume. This section was also subject to censorship from Robert Todd Lincoln who controlled access to Lincoln’s papers. He let the secretaries use them, but struck out sections of text that he felt were undignified. The opening of the Lincoln Papers in 1947 and the publication of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln served to make Hay’s and Nicolay’s work less important as a historical work.
But perhaps not totally unimportant. Lincoln historian Michael Burlingame has sifted through the work to pull out a sample of the most revealing parts of the biography and made them accessible in his Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Burlingame’s Nicolay and Hay credentials are impeccable. This is the sixth volume he has produced on the duo. He has edited editions of their diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and interviews. This book is a fitting capstone to his efforts. Like his previous volumes Burlingame provides excellent notes and annotations. He also provides very well done introductions to the material he chooses providing context to the selections.
John Hay’s diary for the first half of Lincoln’s Presidency was rather thin. Since those who are familiar with Hay’s diary have probably read the observations of Hay for the second half of the Presidency, Burlingame wisely focuses on the years of 1861-1862 in this book.
Nicolay and Hay focused on what Mark Neely has called the “high road” of politics and administration rather than giving the reader details on life in the White House. This is especially frustrating because they were there as witnesses. However, as Burlingame shows they did provide some snapshots of Lincoln on a personal level. For example, when Washington was besieged and cut off for a short time after the attack on Fort Sumter, Nicolay and Hay report that Lincoln was frustrated at the slow speed of reinforcements to the city. They recount that he greeted the few soldiers that came cordially, but as they further report, “…he finally fell into a tone of irony to which only intense feeling ever drove him. ‘I begin to believe,’ said he, ‘that there is no North. The Seventh regiment is a myth. Rhode Island is another. You are the only real thing.’” They also capture what must have been the agony of dealing with all the office seekers that crowded the White House. They write, “At that day the arrangements of the rooms compelled the President to pass through the corridor and the midst of this throng when he went to his meals at the other end of the Executive Mansion; and thus, once or twice a day, the waiting expectants would be rewarded by the chance of speaking a word, or handing a paper direct to the President himself, a chance which the more bold and persistent were not slow to improve.”
Burlingame shows that Nicolay and Hay had a particular disdain for McClellan. As staunch Republicans they viewed McClellan as politically untouchable and thought him an utter failure as a military leader. As Nicolay and Hay write of the Antietam campaign, “McClellan, whose conduct from beginning to end can only be condemned, received the command of a great army, reorganized and reinforced, and with it a chance for magnificent achievement, if he had been able to improve it, which no officer before or since ever enjoyed on this continent.” When dealing with McClellan, Nicolay and Hay showed their unshakable loyalty to their former chief.
To those who view every primary source on Lincoln as something precious, Burlingame has once again provided a valuable service. No longer will readers have to slog through the ten volumes of Nicolay and Hay to get to those golden nuggets of reminiscences of Lincoln by those close to him. In Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay it has already been done for them.