America’s Most Famous Letter

PrintPrintEmailEmailIn 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. The letters, received and written by Robert Todd Lincoln within a span of eight weeks in late 1925, point to a son’s knowledge—and a friend’s knowledge—about who really wrote the Bixby letter.

Considering that this is one of the most enduring and indefatigable mysteries in all Lincoln lore, how is this new discovery possible? The answer lies in the simple truth that scholars have long overlooked Robert Todd Lincoln, believing him a minor character in the Lincoln legend. He is perceived as cold and aloof, a Todd more than a Lincoln, and a son dissociated from his famous father. Many think that the naturally reticent Robert said little of consequence about his father and that everything of value he owned concerning him was given to the Library of Congress in 1919 or resides in Springfield, Illinois, at the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. None of this is true.

The Bixby letter is famous for its perfect use of the English language. Along with the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, it is one of Lincoln’s most revered literary legacies. The letter was published in the Boston Transcript on November 25, 1864, the same day Mrs. Bixby received it:

“Dear Madam,—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.

“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

“Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

“A. Lincoln”

Controversy has raged for 80 years about whether the President actually wrote these words. A widely accepted current theory holds that the true author was Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, who was a skilled poet and journalist. In the July/August 1999 issue of American Heritage magazine, the Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame defended this view at length, basing his verdict on Hay’s writings, the testimony of witnesses, and a textual analysis of the letter. Burlingame admits that while taken separately, none of these pieces of evidence “clinch the case,” when considered together they make a decisive argument.

If Hay, a proud, even vain man, wrote the letter, why would he have told casual acquaintances but not members of his own family?

One of the frequently cited pieces of evidence is a statement in Hay’s own words, written to William Herndon in 1866. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner, was at the time collecting material for a Lincoln biography and asked Hay for recollections of the war years. Halfway through his reply Hay stated that Lincoln: “wrote very few letters. He did not read one in fifty that he received. At first we tried to bring them to his notice, but at last he gave the whole thing over to me, and signed without reading them the letters I wrote in his name.”

Of course this implies that Hay wrote all of Lincoln’s correspondence. Hay proponents, however, continually leave the next sentence in the letter conspicuously absent: “He wrote perhaps half-a-dozen [letters] a week himself—not more.” This statement proves that Lincoln did in fact write some of his own letters, probably the most important ones. Could the Bixby letter be one of these?

Abraham Lincoln was among the most compassionate of leaders. He knew the awful pain of losing a loved one, especially a child; it had been just 2 years since his son Willie died and 14 years since his son Eddie’s death in 1850. That Lincoln also had a deep respect for life in general is evident in the number of death sentences he commuted during the war. As John Hay wrote in his diary in 1863, “Today we spent six hours deciding on Court Martials, the President, Judge [Advocate General Joseph] Holt, & I. I was amused at the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact which would justify him in saving the life of a condemned soldier.” Furthermore, the letter to Mrs. Bixby, a widow who was believed to have lost five sons, was not written on whim but was personally requested by the governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew. Considering all this, it seems unlikely that Abraham Lincoln would have delegated this particular task to his secretary.

After the Herndon letter, Hay proponents go on to mention the statements of five men—diplomats, journalists, and even Hay’s personal secretary—who claimed Hay had openly declared himself the author. The problem with these testimonies is that they all are secondand thirdhand hearsay. The most often cited one comes from the Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler, who said in his autobiography that in 1904 Hay told a friend he’d written the letter and that the friend passed this information on to Butler in 1912. Not only was this secondhand information delivered eight years after the supposed telling, but Butler set it down more than a quarter-century after that, in 1940.