John George Nicolay

The Man in Lincoln’s Shadow

  • Author(s): Carden, Allen and Thomas J. Ebert
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2019-06-15
  • Status: Active
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Apart from the president’s family, arguably no one was closer to Abraham Lincoln during his tenure in the White House than John George Nicolay. A German immigrant with a keen intelligence and tenacious work ethic, Nicolay (1832-1901) served as Lincoln’s personal secretary and, owing to the extraordinary challenges facing the White House, became in effect its first chief of staff. His subsequent role as lead researcher and coauthor of a monumental ten-volume biography of the sixteenth president made him the progenitor of Lincoln scholarship.

This study represents the first scholarly biography of this self-effacing man so long overshadowed by Lincoln. Drawing on extensive research in the Nicolay Papers, Allen Carden and Thomas Ebert trace Nicolay’s childhood arrival in America to his involvement in journalism and state government in Illinois. Acquainted with Lincoln in Springfield, Nicolay became a trusted assistant selected by Lincoln to be his private secretary. Intensely devoted to the president, he kept the White House running smoothly and allowed Lincoln to focus on the top priorities. After Lincoln’s death, Nicolay’s greatest achievement was his co-authorship, with his White House assistant, John Hay, of the first thoroughly documented account of Lincoln’s life and administration, a work still consulted by historians.

“Nicolay,” Carden and Ebert write, “did not make Lincoln great, but he helped make it possible for Lincoln to achieve greatness.” An essential addition to Lincoln studies, this edifying volume reveals not only how Nicolay served the Great Emancipator during his administration but also how he strove to preserve and shape Lincoln’s legacy for generations to come.


ALLEN CARDEN, professor of history at Fresno Pacific University, is the author of Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865.

 THOMAS J. EBERT is a retired reference and government documents librarian at California State University, Fresno where he also served as associated vice president for academic personnel.