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.
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
The most impressive witness is Spencer Eddy, Hay’s personal secretary, whose words would carry much weight given his closeness to Hay. The reality is weaker: a thirdhand statement. Catherine Beveridge, the wife of the Lincoln scholar Albert J. Beveridge and Eddy’s sister, stated in a memo in 1949 that her brother told her Hay was the author, a story “that he had presumably heard (or inferred) from some conversation with Mr. Hay or Mr. [Henry] Adams.”
F. Lauriston Bullard, a Bixby-letter historian, makes a point that bears repeating: Hay never told his children he was the author. Both Bullard and another Lincoln scholar, William E. Barton, specifically asked them and they reiterated that their father had never claimed authorship (although they also said he never denied it). There can be no doubt that Hay was a proud, even vain, man, as the glut of clippings about himself in his personal scrapbooks attests. So the question is reasonable: Why would he tell casual acquaintances but not his own family?
Two additional arguments by Hay proponents are subjective interpretations of printed matter and thus unprovable. They also seem to this writer suspect from the outset. First, they point to Hay’s “stylistic fingerprints” in the letter by his use of the words beguile , cherished , and gloriously and the phrases “I cannot refrain from tendering to you” and “I pray that our Heavenly Father”—words and phrases that Lincoln rarely wrote. Reading through the Bixby historiography, however, one can find as many arguments in favor of Lincoln’s literary style as one can find for Hay’s. Bullard cites half a dozen uses of “our Heavenly Father” or similar variations, while the enthusiastic Lincoln student Joe Nickell found nine instances of Lincoln’s using the verb to tender . The point then becomes not that Lincoln never used these words, merely that Hay used them more often.
The strongest textual argument, forwarded by Burlingame, is that Hay had an “inordinate fondness” for the word beguile and used it at least 30 times in his published writings, although it never appears any other time in Lincoln’s collected writings. There is, however, a strong rebuttal to this. When Nickell asked the scholar Jean Prival, a specialist in English linguistics and rhetoric, for a comparison of the Bixby text with the known writings of Lincoln and Hay, she found great generational differences in the two men’s syntax and vocabulary. The 55-year-old Lincoln had been deeply influenced by his intensive reading of Elizabethan literature; the 26-year-old Hay had absorbed many more modern influences. She concluded that the letter’s use of beguile is in the Elizabethan sense of “to divert,” while Hay’s meaning usually is closer to the contemporary use of “to charm or entice.”
The strongest evidence in favor of Hay is the fact that two newspaper clippings of the Bixby letter are in his personal scrapbooks. Burlingame sees their presence as a tacit admission of authorship: “It is difficult to understand why Hay would have pasted the Bixby letter in these scrapbooks, full of his own literary creations, unless he had composed it himself.” This is a compelling argument. Yet while the bulk of the scrapbook contents are known to be Hay’s, not everything in them can be traced to his authorship, and some of the clippings are definitely not from his hand.
Moreover, there is a second Hay scrapbook in the Library of Congress covering the same period of time as the book containing the Bixby letter, 1860–74, that is replete with articles about Abraham Lincoln. Still another oversized scrapbook is half-filled with Lincoln writings, including the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Certainly Hay did not write these, so why did he include them?
Hay began collecting memorabilia for a history of Lincoln’s administration as soon as he reached the White House in 1861; therefore he was gathering anything and everything of importance that newspapers ran about his subject. Perhaps more important, however, was Hay’s reverence for Abraham Lincoln. It’s evident throughout his letters but is made especially clear in his 1866 response to William Herndon: “I consider Lincoln Republicanism incarnate with all its faults and all its virtues. As in spite of some rudenesses, Republicanism is the sole hope of a sick world, so Lincoln with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ.”
Hay’s scrapbooks are of great importance to understanding him as a writer, and the assumption that they establish the Bixby letter authorship is not a feckless one. But it is certainly not conclusive.
There is one great gap in the historical record of the Bixby letter’s authorship. Considering that Robert Todd Lincoln was one of Hay’s closest friends and Abraham Lincoln’s son, would it not be prudent to check his papers to try to discover what he did or did not know? Yet few authors of Bixby-related articles even so much as mention his name in their essays.