Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Booknotes: John George Nicolay

New Arrival:
John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow by Allen Carden and Thomas J. Ebert (UT Press, 2019).

Given John Nicolay's enormous significance to both the Lincoln White House and historiography, I was surprised to learn that no scholarly biography of the president's influential secretary has been published before now. In terms of existing standalone works, my admittedly shallow search only revealed a 1949 biography (Lincoln's Secretary: A Biography of John G. Nicolay) written by daughter Helen Nicolay. Released this month, Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert's John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow seeks to fill in this gap.

From the description: "Apart from the president’s family, arguably no one was closer to Abraham Lincoln during his tenure in the White House than John George Nicolay. A German immigrant [born Johann Georg Nicolai in Essingen, Rhineland-Palatinate] with a keen intelligence and tenacious work ethic, Nicolay (1832-1901) served as Lincoln’s personal secretary and, owing to the extraordinary challenges facing the White House, became in effect its first chief of staff. His subsequent role as lead researcher and coauthor of a monumental ten-volume biography of the sixteenth president made him the progenitor of Lincoln scholarship."

More: "Drawing on extensive research in the Nicolay Papers, Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert trace Nicolay’s childhood arrival in America to his involvement in journalism and state government in Illinois. Acquainted with Lincoln in Springfield, Nicolay became a trusted assistant selected by Lincoln to be his private secretary. Intensely devoted to the president, he kept the White House running smoothly and allowed Lincoln to focus on the top priorities. After Lincoln’s death, Nicolay’s greatest achievement was his co-authorship, with his White House assistant, John Hay, of the first thoroughly documented account of Lincoln’s life and administration, a work still consulted by historians."

I have an author Q&A lined up for July.


  1. Drew:

    I assume Nicolay has been overshadowed by Lincoln's other secretary, John Hay, who had an incredible life post-Lincoln including as Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State. Americans owe a debt to both Nicolay and Hay for preserving Lincoln's papers and memories for future generations to study. Good to see a separate bio on Nicolay coming out.

    1. It is interesting that the description describes Hay as Nicolay's assistant. I guess I never thought of the pair as having a 'rank' order.


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