America’s Most Famous Letter

Abraham Lincoln signed it. A lot of scholars say he didn’t write it. Now, newly discovered evidence helps solve an enduring mystery.

In a records box in a back office in a house in the hills of Vermont, six letters about Abraham Lincoln’s famous “letter to the Widow Bixby” lay unknown and undisturbed. For how long is uncertain, although this author’s fingerprints made last March were the only ones visible in the thick chalky dust of years.Read more »

The Trouble With The Bixby Letter

The stirring Civil War document featured in Saving Private Ryan grew out of a lie and probably wasn’t really written by Lincoln

Saving Private Ryan , Steven Spielberg’s big movie of 1998, prefaces its plot with the very moving reading of a famous letter of condolence written by Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow in Boston who had lost five sons in the Civil War. The letter, dated November 21, 1864, says: “I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. Read more »

Matters Of Fact

Vidal’s Lincoln

WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S wartime secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, serialized their life of the President in Century magazine in 1885, Lincoln’s old friend and law partner William H. Herndon did not like it. The articles were too reverential, he thought, too Republican, too everlastingly long. But worse than that, he added, the authors “handle things with silken gloves & a ‘cammel hair pencil’: they do not write with an iron pen.” Read more »

Lincoln’s Life Preserver

To stave off despair, the President relied on a sense of humor that was rich, self-deprecating—and surprisingly bawdy

A great “intensity of thought,” Abraham Lincoln once counseled his friend Joshua Speed, “will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.” No aspect of Lincoln’s character has become more tangibly real in the literature than his melancholy.Read more »

The Ten Best Secretaries Of State…

When the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1790, his entire staff consisted of just six people, including himself and a part-time translator. The current Secretary presides over almost fifteen thousand employees scattered around the globe. During the intervening years, of course, the challenges facing Jefferson’s successors have changed dramatically as the infant republic has grown into a world power. Read more »

Taking Sides In The Boer War

The United States remained officially neutral, but many Americans fought alongside both opposing armies and several became legendary heroes

“I have been absorbed in interest in the Boer War,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to his friend Cecil Spring Rice in 1899. He was not alone. Most Americans took a keen interest in this remote conflict.Read more »

A Taste Of Victory

Not so long ago, indeed well within a lifetime, there was no “dearth of heroes” in this country, to quote the title of our opening article a little out of context. At the end of what John Hay called our “splendid little war” with Spain, there seemed to be a plethora, and the occasion shown above still exudes the pride and joy of that moment.Read more »