Thursday, July 18, 2019

Author Q&A: Allen Carden & Thomas Ebert on "John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow"

Dr. Allen Carden
Thank you to authors Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert for joining me to discuss their book John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow, which was released last month by University of Tennessee Press. Carden is a professor of history at Fresno Pacific University and is the author of Puritan Christianity in America: Religion and Life in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts (1990) and Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (2014). Ebert is a Librarian Emeritus (reference and government documents) and Emeritus Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at California State University, Fresno.

Here are some excerpts from the description to serve as an introduction to their book (or you can just skip down below to the interview itself): "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 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.

Thomas J. Ebert
This study represents the first scholarly biography of this self-effacing man so long overshadowed by Lincoln. 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."


CWBA: To start things off, can you provide a quick summary of Nicolay’s early life up to the time he met the future president?

AC&TE: Nicolay was born in Essingen in the Rhenish Palatinate in 1832. He had a hard childhood as his family emigrated to America in 1837. His mother died when he was seven, his father when he was fourteen. At fourteen, his older brother kicked him out into the world. After working in a mercantile in White Hall, Illinois, he eventually worked for the Pike County Free Press, a newspaper in Pittsfield, Illinois. By age twenty-two, he was the owner of the Free Press and a rising figure in the community. He sold the paper in 1856.


CWBA: How and when did Nicolay first meet Abraham Lincoln?

AC&TE:  According to Robert Lincoln, Nicolay and Lincoln first met when Nicolay was working for Ozias M. Hatch, the Illinois Secretary of State. The two men often played chess together in the large room which also doubled as the State Library in the old capitol building.


CWBA: Why did Lincoln choose Nicolay as his personal secretary?

AC&TE: We believe Lincoln chose Nicolay for his connections to the German American press and to demonstrate in a quiet manner to the German American community that he (i.e. Lincoln) was not a nativist.


CWBA: Do you believe that Nicolay had a significant role in shaping Lincoln’s knowledge of and attitude toward the large German-American segment of the U.S. population?

AC&TE: Nicolay, who could read, write, and speak German, could keep Lincoln informed about the opinions and mood of the German immigrant community and German cultural practices and attitudes. However, Nicolay, whose family lived in rural western Illinois where there were few if any German immigrants, did not identify himself as part of the German immigrant community.


CWBA: Did Nicolay personally participate in the war effort’s ethnic lobbying? Did German-American politicians, military officers, etc. ever attempt to use him as a conduit to the president?

AC&TE: There is no evidence that Nicolay personally participated in ethnic lobbying. Nor would he have likely done so given that he only took cues from Lincoln. However, his German cultural background, his ability to act as translator for Lincoln when necessary, and his ability to socialize with these politicians, military officers, etc. in their native tongue afforded Nicolay the opportunity to glean additional information from them on behalf of Lincoln. Nicolay was very adept at not revealing anything to others while pumping others for information. Nicolay was an important link to the German American community during the war.


CWBA: In the capacity of the president’s private secretary, what were Nicolay’s daily duties in the Lincoln White House?

AC&TE: Nicolay was responsible for oversight of the White House operation, which consisted at various times of John Hay, William Stoddard, Edward Neill, and Charles Philbrick. In contrast to Lincoln’s lack of organizational skills, Nicolay brought in file cabinets, created a filing system, and organized the office routines. He handled important correspondence, sometimes responded on behalf of the President, sat in and took notes on meetings in Lincoln’s office as requested, prepared legal documents, acted as chief gatekeeper limiting access to the President, went on missions on behalf of the President, and did anything and everything to ease the President’s workload. There is no evidence that Nicolay ever revealed the contents of any discussion he had with Lincoln, unless instructed by Lincoln to do so. Then Nicolay would merely repeat word for word what he was instructed to say without interpretation or embellishment.


CWBA: Did Nicolay ever clash with the president over personal or policy matters?

AC&TE: Nicolay had unquestioning loyalty to Lincoln and his leadership and as such would only voice an opinion when asked. Nicolay saw his role as Private Secretary as one where he sought to remain as unobtrusive as possible. His daughter Helen noted that, according to her father, there was never any "red tape” between Nicolay and Lincoln. There is no evidence of any clash between the President and his secretary.


CWBA: What was his relationship with John Hay like? In terms of White House ‘rank,’ was there a pecking order in the duties and responsibilities exercised by both secretaries?

AC&TE: Although Nicolay and Hay were close, life-long friends; shared the same sleeping quarters; had meals together, and were otherwise constant companions; Hay recognized that Nicolay was ultimately 'in charge.' Consequently, the working relationship was cooperative and with a shared responsibility in assisting the "Tycoon," whom they both adored.


CWBA: Did Nicolay maintain any regular personal correspondence that you found especially useful in your research?

AC&TE:  Much that we know about Nicolay in the White House years comes from his correspondence with his fiance Therena Bates back in Pittsfield, Illinois. Unfortunately, we only have his correspondence since he complied with a request from Therena to destroy her letters.


CWBA:  Of course, Nicolay is primarily remembered for the ten-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890) he co-authored with John Hay. Can you describe the origins of the project and the research and writing process that went into it (including how Hay and Nicolay divided the work)?

AC&TE:  Nicolay had always wanted to write a biography of Lincoln. He was severely disappointed when Lincoln chose William Dean Howells to write the 1860 campaign biography. A Lincoln biography was discussed with the president before his death. After their return from Europe on diplomatic missions, Nicolay and Hay began working with Robert Lincoln to gain access to the Lincoln papers. The history is based on only verifiable documented facts as Nicolay and Hay declined to include any of their memories without substantiation. Hence, their more intimate conversations with Lincoln, which historians would have valued even more, are lost to us. Each man would take on a series of chapters on a particular topic and then share them with the other for editing and further verification. From their correspondence it is evident that Nicolay, whose sole goal in life was the completion of the Lincoln history, did a significantly larger portion of the writing and editing, including the page proofs.


CWBA:  One might surmise that both biographers were not in complete accord over every aspect of Lincoln’s life. Were there any major areas of disagreement between Hay and Nicolay? And if so, how were they resolved in the final version of their manuscript?

AC&TE:  There is no evidence that Nicolay and Hay had any major disagreements, both being Lincoln men through and through. There is some evidence that one or the other would “tone down” criticisms of individuals. This was done through their conversations either by letter or sometimes in person. A case in point is when Hay got Nicolay to tone down his criticism of Robert E. Lee. Hay wrote Century Magazine editor Richard Watson Gilder that Nicolay thought Lee should be shot as a traitor, an opinion that did not make its way into the history.


CWBA: Families of major historical figures frequently seek some measure of control over biographer access to private documents. How well were Nicolay and Hay able to work with Robert Lincoln? Wanting his father portrayed in the best light possible, did Robert also employ major editorial power over the project?

AC&TE:  Unquestionably, Robert Lincoln was a background presence in the writing of the history. Nicolay and Hay were very conscious that their continued access to the Lincoln papers depended on Robert’s good graces. However, since Nicolay and Hay had the goal of writing political hagiography, a goal shared by Robert, there was little conflict. Some sensitive topics in the Lincoln history were treated gingerly, including Lincoln’s relationship with his father, his love for Ann Rutledge, and the portrayal of the First Lady. In such cases the authors looked over their shoulder, especially in light of Robert Lincoln’s relationship with his own father, the embarrassment to the family that Robert’s mother might have been seen as a consolation prize, and the subject of the erratic behavior and mercurial temperament of Mary Lincoln (who at one time had been committed to an insane asylum by her son).


CWBA: What were the commercial and critical responses to the biography?

AC&TE: The critical reviews were generally positive as Nicolay kept copies of them in his papers. Carl Schurz wrote a particularly positive review. At the initial publication in 1890, there was a strong demand for the history. However, as time went on, subscriptions dropped off. This was due to a number of factors, including a Northern slant to the work and their refusal to go along with the national reconciliation at the time which enshrined the Lost Cause mythology and the Confederate leadership as heroes. They blamed the cause for the war squarely on the planter class and, particularly, slavery. For them, “states rights” had been a Southern code word for “slavery.” Their negative comments on Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee along with a number of other Confederate political and military leaders undoubtedly turned off Southern subscribers who wanted their heroes treated as patriots not traitors. Another factor was the size of the history—ten volumes, 4800 pages—that discouraged a mass audience. There were also criticisms from Northern military men who, in the print media of the day, were still fighting the war and justifying their actions and pointing their fingers at others. Many of these individuals took exception to how their leadership was portrayed.


CWBA: Beyond the published biography, what else did Nicolay do to shape the early Lincoln legacy?

AC&TE: Nicolay devoted his life, his being, to the glorification of Abraham Lincoln. He would give talks on Lincoln, and he was a founding member of Washington’s Literary Society. After the completion of the history, Nicolay and Hay published the first compilation of Lincoln papers. He also prepared notes for another Lincoln book on the president’s personal traits. However, poor eyesight and declining health prevented its publication in his lifetime. His daughter, Helen, published Personal Traits of Abraham Lincoln in 1912 based on her father’s notes. It may be considered a supplement to the history. Helen, in 1902, published a condensed version of the history based on her father’s editing. Helen, through the influence of her father for all things Lincoln, wrote a popular biography of Lincoln, The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln, for young people. The book went through multiple editions. Finally, in 1949, Helen wrote a biography of her father, Lincoln’s Secretary: A Biography of John George Nicolay. The biography, like anything connected with John George Nicolay, has much about the sixteenth president.


CWBA: Thanks for your time gentlemen. Readers, once again, the title is John George Nicolay: The Man in Lincoln's Shadow. Check it out.

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview, Drew. I wish you did more of them. I know a guy who has access to a lot of good authors.

    ReplyDelete

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