Title Reviewed:
Abraham Lincoln: A History

Author Reviewed:
John G. Nicolay; John Hay; Paul M. Angle

Andrew Rolle


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp 164-165

Article Type:
Book Review

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Abraham Lincoln: A History. By John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Abridged and edited by Paul M. Angle. [Classic American Histom'ans. Edited by Paul M. Angle.] (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966. Pp. xix, 394. Notes, illustrations, bibliographical note, index. Paperbound, $3.45; clothbound, $8.50.)

Shortly after Lincoln's tragic assassination a torrent of biographical writing began that has not yet run its course. As of 1939 Jay Monaghan's standard Lincoln Bibliography listed some four thousand separate titles concerning Lincoln, not including articles. By now five thousand or more such works exist. Although the earliest of the Lincoln biographers were generally the weakest, in 1890 his two former secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, published their notable tenvolume Abraham Lincoln, A History. It was the result of more than twenty years of personal knowledge and careful note-taking by alert and intimate observers of Lincoln's role as president. Furthermore, Lincoln had cooperated with his secretaries in gathering relevant manuscript materials. Although Nicolay and Hay had every possible opportunity to present a biography of the "inner Lincoln," particularly in times of great national stress, they fashioned instead a conventional history of the United States from Lincoln's birth until the end of the Civil War, serialized first for Century Magazine. In its pages he emerged as the central figure of a "life-and-times" approach. The original volumes encompassed the major facets of Lincoln's career but did so in a conventional way, reprinting documents and letters to which Nicolay and Hay alone had access--until these manuscripts were much later made available to scholars.

Immersed as the authors were in the political atmosphere of post- Civil War Republicanism, a conservative and highly proper Lincoln, quite different from William Herndon's damaging caricature, emerged. The Nicolay and Hay work, authorized by Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, possessed both the merits and defects of an official biography. Though exhaustive, its argument was marred by party bias and was lacking in fundamental interpretive skill. Nevertheless, Nicolay and Hay's detailed volumes remain indispensable to the serious Lincoln scholar. His two secretaries were dedicated and loyal men whose exhaustive writings mirrored their close personal association with and adulation of their chief.

Abridged and edited now by Paul M. Angle, the original ten volumes are made available to modern readers in manageable form. An introduction precedes the digested text. How successful this condensation into a single volume is remains a matter of individual opinion. In this reviewer's judgment, the results are commendable. Yet it is doubtful that Nicolay and Hay should now be labeled "classic" or "great" historians and thereby included in the company of Prescott and Parkman. They were hardly skilled practitioners of historiography, although they performed a valuable service for posterity.

Occidental College

Andrew Rolle

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.