- A Fresh Look at The Diary of a Public Man
In 1879 the North American Review published The Diary of a Public Man in four separate monthly installments. The diary's entries were dated eighteen years earlier, between December 28, 1860, and March 15, 1861, the desperate weeks just before the start of the Civil War. Although the NAR editor concealed the diarist's identity and deleted the names of some persons the diarist mentioned, the diary appeared to offer verbatim accounts of behind-the-scenes discussions at the very highest levels during the greatest crisis the country had yet faced. Its pithy quotations attributed to key principals—Stephen A. Douglas, William H. Seward, and especially Abraham Lincoln—have become part of the folklore of American historical writing.1
This essay will untangle the heretofore hidden history of the diary.2 To anticipate, the document was a memoir rather than a genuine diary. And the diarist was a fictional construct—no such person ever existed. The diary nonetheless was rooted in reality; plenty of its inside information meets the historical test. The person who created it—and who thereby posed what [End Page 442] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff called the "most gigantic" problem of uncertain authorship in American historical writing—proves to have been a New York newspaperman, William Henry Hurlbert.3 His name will not be familiar—hardly anyone today ever has heard of this eccentric nineteenth-century genius. Sic transit gloria mundi. Acclaimed at his height as "the most brilliant talent of the New York press" and "the only artist among American journalists," Hurlbert once commanded attention.4
Hurlbert's memoir-cum-diary cannot be dismissed as an antiquarian curiosity, and a faked one at that. It illuminates a uniquely perplexing interval of political breakdown, when the participants themselves hardly understood what was happening. And it offers several memorable glimpses of the central player in the drama. Strictly speaking, the three alleged meetings between Lincoln and the diarist never happened—keep in mind that there was no diarist. But the diarist didn't simply imagine what he recounted. Rather, he must have had ways to find out about confidential conversations involving the incoming president and other luminaries.
Most of the episodes mentioned in the diary took place immediately before and after Inauguration Day—March 4, 1861. In late February and March, peace hung by a thread. Seven states in the Deep South claimed to have become an independent nation, the Confederate States of America, and had begun to form a separate government. Of course, Lincoln could not accept secession. He specified in his inaugural address that the Union remained both "perpetual" and "unbroken."5 Yet he hesitated to challenge the Confederacy with armed force. Anyone who attempts to understand what was going through Lincoln's mind as he took office is bound to be attracted to The Diary of a Public Man. Lincoln expressed himself in a "quaint and rather forcible way," often using a homely analogue or telling a little story to make a point. The diarist judged him "crafty and sensible" and suspected that he was "more troubled by the outlook than he thought it discreet to show." At the inaugural ceremonies, Lincoln appeared "pale and very nervous." Three days later the diarist was "struck and pained by the haggard, worn look of his face." The new president's responsibilities plainly weighed on him.6 [End Page 443]
The Diary of a Public Man cuts against the grain of modern preconceptions. Abraham Lincoln has assumed such mythic proportions that his history often is transformed into hagiography. Even though Lincoln once insisted that he had not controlled events but rather that "events have controlled me," his more zealous celebrants rarely accept this striking instance of presidential modesty.7 They not only acclaim Lincoln's uniquely strong capabilities and his gift for responding effectively to challenges—and who would disagree?—but they also celebrate his almost superhuman prescience. Their Lincoln knew in advance that he was destined to redefine the Union and abolish slavery. He had his eyes fixed on distant goals.8
The diary returns us to the troubled winter and...