Abraham Lincoln is remembered in U.S. history as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, whose steadfast leadership in the Civil War helped preserve the union and free the slaves. But Lincoln wasn’t always held in such high esteem – and the men history might thank for that blazed a trail that leads straight to modern-day presidential advisers such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod.
In the years following the president’s assassination, Lincoln’s closest aides John Hay and John Nicolay were waging a full-out public relations war to counter what was then a popular notion that Lincoln was a “failed president,” according to historian Joshua Zeitz. They started what is now a well-established process by which presidential aides work to craft a president’s lasting narrative.
“They were riding against a current in the 1870s and 80s this sort of elite opinion about Lincoln that he was a nice man but a bad president,” Zeitz told “Top Line.” “It was their mandate to correct that.”
In the new book, “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image,” Zeitz examines the role that these two young advisers, whom Lincoln referred to as “his boys,” had in shaping Lincoln’s legacy.
“They were the White House secretaries, which is a term back in the 19th Century that would be something akin today to a combination of chief of staff, press secretary, political director, body man, all rolled up into one,” Zeitz said. “He called them the boys, because they were very young when he worked for them and lived in the White House and they were in their early to mid-20s.”
As two of Lincoln’s closest confidants, Hay and Nicolay were granted exclusive rights to all of his presidential papers following his death and worked to weave memories of the late president’s character and integrity into the official narrative.
Most of the stories we know about Lincoln’s White House today, Zeitz said, came from Hay and Nicolay originally.
“Whether its Lincoln's frequent tussles with George McLellan … as well as the process behind which the Gettysburg Address was written and delivered and the process behind it, most of that comes from them,” he said.
To learn more about how Lincoln’s image was shaped, and how the president waged public relations wars during his lifetime, check out this episode of “Top Line.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Hank Disselkamp, and Pat Glass contributed to this episode.
- Executive Branch
- John Nicolay
- Joshua Zeitz
- Abraham Lincoln