Evaluating the Historical Bias of One Modern Assessment of Lincoln’s Contemporary Biographers
The assessment of biographies poses many of the same challenges as primary source evaluations. In addition to considering the objective truth of events described by a biography’s author, consideration must also be given to what kind of agenda is being supported, and whether or not it leads to a distortion of the historical facts. Joshua Zeitz’s article, “The History of How We Came to Revere Abraham Lincoln,” poses these and other important questions in regards to John Hay and John Nicolay’s extensive biography of President Abraham Lincoln. He claims that these two men are personally responsible for reshaping the narrative surrounding Lincoln’s life in the decades after his untimely death.
According to Zeitz, the men’s “exhaustive, ten-volume biography…constituted one of the most successful exercises in revisionism in American history” (2). The first step taken by the author toward proving this assertion is to establish that Hay and Nicolay’s biography was by no means the only, or even the first, attempt to capture in an historical document the life of the President and his role during the civil war. In fact, he claims that many contemporary biographers tackled the subject. Men such as George Bancroft, Josiah Holland, Jeremiah Black, and Horace Greeley all created through their work images of a very different man than the one described by Hay and Nicolay. “Bancroft,” he points out, “cast a critical eye on Lincoln’s abilities” (5). Holland “introduced the president as a Bible-quoting evangelical whose hatred of slavery flowed from an eschatological belief that ‘the day of wrath was at hand’” (5). Jeremiah Black, with the help of Chauncey Black, portray him as lacking in refinement in comparison to the “highly cultivated gentlemen” (6) who preceded him as president. And Greeley “portrayed Lincoln as a bungling leader who squandered multiple opportunities to end the war early” (7). It is clear from the diversity of these biographical portrayals that each author had his own agenda to push forward. Hay and Nicolay were no exception.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
It is clear that the article’s author believes Hay and Nicolay’s biography to be not only more extensive, but also more historically correct. Zeitz points out that after Lincoln’s death, “the war was beign recast as a brothers’ squabble over abstract political principles like federalism and states’ rights, rather than as a moral struggle between slavery and freedom” (7). He notes that the effect of this change in perspective was to propel Hay and Nicolay forward in the creation of their own biography, but does not offer concrete proof that their interpretation of the events surrounding Lincoln’s Presidency and death hold more objective truth than the conceptualization of the war as a “brothers’ squabble.” Without offering evidence to support his claim, the author makes his own bias toward Hay and Nicolay apparent. He points out the secretaries’ discernment and skepticism when it came to using “memories recorded years or decades after the fact” (8), lending additional credence to the men’s work, only to later point out that they did not hold fast to this rule themselves in their interpretation of the Civil War and its underlying causes. The only proof offered in the article that Lincoln was, in fact, driven not by a practical desire to keep the Union whole, but by a moral objection to slavery, is the recollection of an old man decades after the fact. His aging cousin’s memory of Lincoln, whose “heart bled” when they saw “negroes chained, maltreated, whipped, and scourged” (9) is given great credence despite a lack of less subjective corroboration.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
In many cases throughout the article, there is a lack of adequate reference material. Although in-text citations are provided, it is hard for readers to evaluate their objective truth without being able to follow them up. Zeitz claims that “As an antebellum politician, Lincoln – though not an abolitionist or a radical – had boldly affirmed that black Americans were fellow men and women” (10). This statement is only one example of affirmations of Hay and Nicolay’s biographical interpretation made throughout the article without any attempt at offering concrete evidence to back it up.
Like the biographers Zeitz attributes with creating the lasting impression of Lincoln as a hero of the war, and, as Hay put it, “the one unapproachably great figure of a great epoch” (11), the author of the article has chosen a side and shows this bias throughout the piece. He is not attempting to change an already accepted historical narrative, but to assign responsibility for its creation. This he does effectively, although he fails to objectively establish whether Hay and Nicolay, or their many contemporaries who argued in opposition to Lincoln’s now almost uncontested greatness, were correct in their interpretation of Lincoln’s actions. His assertion that their biography has come to shape the modern conception of Lincoln as a President, however, is undeniably valid. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
Zeitz, Joshua. “The History of How We Came to Revere Abraham Lincoln: The Slain President’s Two Personal Secretaries Battled Mudslingers for a Quarter-Century to Shape His Image.” Smithsonian Magazine. February, 2014.