Nicolay and Hay, and Their “Other” Lincoln

Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History

16 March 2016

Abraham Lincoln: A History, by President Lincoln’s private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, stands even today as the most massive single work ever written on the sixteenth president. The publication of the ten-volume set by the Century Company in 1890 gave the public the first comprehensive life based upon Lincoln’s own papers – papers that Robert Todd Lincoln made exclusively available to Nicolay and Hay. No other biographers had access to these papers until James G. Randall in 1947. The list of great Lincoln writers who did not have access to Robert’s collection includes Albert Beveridge and Carl Sandburg.

The publication of the ten volumes in well-known green cloth binding did not, however, represent the first opportunity for the public to sample the work.  Century Magazine, the publication that created the famous compilation, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, published the chapters of Abraham Lincoln: A History serially during the 1880’s.  By the time students of Abraham Lincoln’s life read Nicolay and Hay in 1890, they could already have read much of the story in the Century.  The serialized version was not an exact reprint of what came later.  In fact a third contributor to the project, editor Richard Gilder, effected the Century version of each chapter substantially.  Gilder received drafts from Nicolay and Hay – or in some cases Nicolay or Hay, because while the authors collaborated on some sections they wrote other chapters independently of each other – and then fashioned them for the magazine.  Of especial concern to Gilder were certain long sections describing the Civil War from the authors’ pointedly Unionist perspective.  Since Century was a national publication Gilder made changes to soften criticism of the Confederacy, and to focus on Lincoln as a unifier rather than a warrior-president.

It is exceedingly difficult to acquire a full-length copy of this “Gilder” version of Nicolay and Hay.  To do so almost requires finding a set that a loyal Century subscriber personally collected and bound at the time they were released.  The set we are offering now is bound in slightly non-matching ¾ leather spines, with cloth boards and marbled end pages.  The condition of all the volumes are very good. There are other copies of the “Gilder” version on the market, but because each set was personally curated by a collector at the time of publication each set is essentially one-of-a-kind.