As a clerk in Secretary of State Ozias Hatch’s office from 1857 to 1860, John Nicolay provided some of the earliest descriptions of the State Library and recollections of the room as meeting place for prominent Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln.
The Bavarian-born Nicolay came to America at age six in 1838, and his family eventually made their way to Illinois. In 1848, Nicolay landed a job as printer’s devil at the Free Press, a Whig newspaper in Pittsfield. He later became the paper’s owner, but sold the enterprise in 1856, and the following year became a clerk in the office of Hatch, a longtime family friend. 1
By now an ardent Republican, Nicolay was in his element in the Secretary’s office, where he came in contact with most Illinois political leaders. Among them was Lincoln – whom Nicolay met in the State Library – and the two men soon forged a close friendship, spending many hours in the library talking politics or playing chess. Soon after receiving the 1860 Presidential nomination, Lincoln made Nicolay his personal secretary. Described as loyal, quiet, reserved, and occasionally foreboding, Nicolay accompanied Lincoln to Washington and remained the President’s secretary throughout the White House years. Near the beginning of Lincoln’s second term, he was appointed consul resident in Paris and was on a cruise when he learned of the President’s assassination. 2
Nicolay kept his post in Paris until 1869 and was later Marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1872 to 1887. The latter position brought him back to Washington and enabled him to pursue his goal of writing a thorough biography of the 16th President. Beginning in 1874, he and John Hay (another Pittsfield resident who also served as secretary to Lincoln) started work on the project, and continued for the next 16 years, proceeding through the deaths of Nicolay’s wife and infant son, as well as his own declining eyesight. 3
Starting in 1886, portions of the work began to appear as a serial in Century Magazine, and the final work, 10 volumes in all, was finally completed in 1890. Titled Abraham Lincoln: A History, the landmark work is still considered one of the pre-eminent biographical sources on Lincoln. Nicolay and Hay again joined forces for a two-volume set on Lincoln’s previously unpublished manuscripts in 1894. Nicolay compiled considerable historical research and was working on other Lincoln-related historical projects when he fell ill during a stop in Genoa following a journey to Egypt, one of his many leisure excursions. He died on Sept. 26, 1901. 4
- Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, 25, 27; Neely 224.
- Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, 27; Nicolay, “The Writing of Abraham Lincoln,” 263; Temple 102; Neely 224.
- Neely 224-225; Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, 326.
- Neely 225; Nicolay, Lincoln’s Secretary, 326-334, 340-341.