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  • Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image by Joshua Zeitz
  • Robert McColley (bio)
Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. By Joshua Zeitz. (New York: Viking, 2014. Pp. 400. Cloth, $29.95; paper, $17.00.)

The author of this engaging book is quite interesting himself. Joshua Zeitz was born and currently lives in New Jersey. He earned a B.A. from Swarthmore and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Brown University and held teaching appointments at Harvard, Princeton, and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He then had a career in politics, running unsuccessfully for one of New Jersey's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives while serving on the staff of Governor Jon Corzine. Next, he entered public relations with one of the state's most successful firms, the MWW Group. He frequently contributes to various magazines and journals and is active on the internet. This is his third book; each covers a distinctly different historical topic, requiring different research. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (2006) is, as the title suggests, about the Roaring Twenties. Then came White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics (2007). Next came Lincoln's Boys. In it Zeitz offers us a thoroughly researched account of the lives of John George Nicolay (1832–1901) and John Milton [End Page 732] Hay (1838–1905), private secretaries for Abraham Lincoln from his first presidential campaign until his death and, many years later, authors of the nearly definitive ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890).

John Taliaferro's similar but longer book, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (2013), contains more information about the literary achievements, upper-class friendships, and family affairs of Hay than Zeitz's book, while Zeitz offers more about the private life of Nicolay and, most important, the making of the Lincoln biography. The brilliant and genial Hay loved parties, from his youth in Pike County to his time spent as ambassador in the court of Queen Victoria in England, with significant years in between at Brown University; in New York City, where he wrote for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune; in Paris as a diplomat; and in the more mature Washington, D.C., of the Gilded Age, where his closest friend for several years, Henry Adams, was then also writing history. Hay's last years were spent back in Washington as secretary of state for Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—an important final act of his professional career studied by Taliaferro but barely mentioned by Zeitz.

Nicolay's idea of fun was roughing it in the Rocky Mountains. Though lacking university degrees, Nicolay was the more scholarly of the two friends, and he continued writing and publishing until his death. Hay married Clara Stone, the daughter of a Cleveland multimillionaire, and had four children; Nicolay, after a long engagement, married a blacksmith's daughter from Pittsfield named Therena Bates. Their daughter, Helen—a second child died in infancy—remained close to her parents as long as they lived, while pursuing a literary career of her own. Zeitz briefly mentions the accidental death of John Hay's son Adelbert at the age of twenty-four but does not mention that he had significantly served as consul in Pretoria, South Africa, during the Boer War.

Zeitz and Taliaferro both offer interesting details about Lincoln's presidential campaign of 1860 as it developed in and was managed from Springfield, Illinois. During the Civil War, Hay or Nicolay might be away from Washington on special missions, but apart from reading about those missions the reader is not likely to learn anything more about Lincoln's management of the war from these books than one would from—to name a popular and readable example—Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005). The most original parts of Zeitz's book are his account of the two men's division of labor in researching and writing Lincoln's biography, the complicated negotiations for...


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