Saturday, August 5, 2023

The German-Born Secretary Who Made Abraham Lincoln Great

I need one of these guys.

From Arizona State University's Zocalo Public Square:

The German-Born Secretary Who Made Abraham Lincoln Great
John George Nicolay Devoted Himself to Burnishing the Memory of the 16th President—and Kept Him From Carrying Papers in His Hat 

Less than a month after dark horse candidate Abraham Lincoln won the new Republican Party’s presidential nomination at its convention in Chicago, on May 18, 1860, he made a decision that would impact his campaign, his presidency, and his image for generations to come: He asked a 28-year-old German immigrant named John George Nicolay to be his campaign secretary.

Nicolay, who eventually became Lincoln’s private secretary, may not be well-known today, but he was one of the most significant people working behind the scenes in the Lincoln administration and his efforts on behalf of the 16th president changed the course of American history. Possessed of organizational skills that Lincoln lacked, Nicolay managed White House operations and protected Lincoln’s time, allowing the president to become perhaps the nation’s most active and involved wartime commander-in-chief. Nicolay was devoted to Lincoln and his friendship eased the president’s burdens during the terrible ordeal of civil war. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Nicolay and his friend John Hay worked for years on a massive biography of Lincoln that shaped the president’s image as the good and wise Father Abraham who saved the Union, ended slavery, and gave America renewed freedom. Nicolay helped Lincoln achieve greatness in both life and legend.

Born Johann Georg Nicolai in 1832 in the village of Essingen in what is now Germany, Nicolay was five when his family arrived in the United States, anglicized its last name, and settled in a German immigrant community in Cincinnati, Ohio. When Nicolay’s mother died soon thereafter the family left for a series of western locations, eventually settling in Pike County, Illinois, where they operated a grist mill. While physically frail, the academically inclined George, as he was called, learned English quickly. By the age of 14 he had lost his father and been dismissed from the family mill by his eldest brother. But he soon landed a job at the Pike County Free Press in Pittsfield, the county seat of Pike County, Illinois.

Lincoln at the time was a circuit-riding attorney who often argued cases in the Pike County courthouse, across the street from the newspaper’s offices. Nicolay followed Lincoln’s court appearances and budding political career with growing interest and enthusiasm. Like Lincoln, Nicolay was drawn to the new Republican Party, which opposed slavery’s expansion. And like Lincoln, he was vehemently opposed to Senator. Stephen A. Douglas’s 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which negated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and permitted slavery anew in territory that had been closed to it.

At the Free Press, Nicolay worked his way up from printer’s apprentice to reporter to sole proprietor. The paper supported Republican candidates in Illinois, including Ozias M. Hatch, who after his election as Secretary of State in 1856 invited Nicolay to become his chief clerk. After selling the newspaper, Nicolay moved to Springfield to join Hatch’s staff in 1857. While executing his duties at the state library and election archives, located directly across the street from Lincoln’s law office, Nicolay finally got to meet Lincoln in person. Although Lincoln was 23 years older than Nicolay they became fast friends, often conversing and playing chess in the State Library....