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Book Reviews

The President and His Private Secretaries

July 3, 2021

Daniel Mark Epstein. Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries. New York. Smithsonian Books/Harper Collins Publishers. 2009, 262p., $26.99.

Daniel Epstein is a Baltimore-based writer who has authored more than fifteen books of poetry, biography and history, including Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. This work deals with the three men who served as private secretaries for President Lincoln: John Nicolay, John Hay and William Stoddard. Hay kept a diary during his White House years. Stoddard wrote a memoir of his time in the Lincoln administration. Nicolay’s daughter wrote a biography of her father. Personal correspondence of the three also exists and was used in researching this book (although love letters exchanged between Nicolay and his fiance were destroyed by mutual consent, and many entries in Hay’s diary were excised or removed). Stoddard wrote a critically successful biography of Lincoln in 1884 which has been largely forgotten. Nicolay and Hay collaborated on a definitive ten-volume biography published in 1890.

I found this work only mildly interesting. The general history is all too-familiar, although some of the minor tasks assigned the men constitute new information for me. After presenting some background information on their careers prior to Lincoln’s election and their subsequent hiring, the book proceeds in chronological order. Likewise, their post-Lincoln years are summarized in the final chapter of the book. The style of writing seems uninspired, lacking a point-of-view or any kind of edge. We really don’t get a sense of the drama or flavor of the times. The author deserves credit for not taking at face value the statements of the principals. On several occasions, it is necessary to “read between the lines” and we are presented with some alternative explanations. He does speculate reservedly on the possible relationship between Hay and actress Jean Margaret Davenport. Hay saw her perform in the 1850s while a college student in Providence, RI and was immediately smitten by her talent and beauty. Their paths crossed again in Washington during the war. I was sufficiently intrigued to check out a daguerreotype portrait of Davenport taken at the height of her career, so I could know what we were talking about here. Believe me, no great beauty! She reminded me of a youthful, only SLIGHTLY thinner version of Mary Todd Lincoln. Tastes in women and fashion have surely changed!

Except for the cover image, the book contains no illustrations. The facts presented all appear to be accurate and unbiased. There are some interesting historical tidbits peppered throughout the work (especially the details behind the choice of a running mate for Lincoln in 1864, although nothing is mentioned of Hamlin’s reaction to getting dumped from the ticket). The “behind-the-scenes” story obviously has historical import, but the presentation unfortunately lacks verve. Then again, perhaps the story of the three secretaries, serving behind the scenes at the White House, is only intermittently interesting.