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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
“A letter I have from Charles Moore, acting chief of the division of manuscripts, Congressional Library, regarding the famous letter to Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, quotes you as follows: ‘Mr. Robert T. Lincoln believes the facsimile to be made-up and not in his father’s handwriting.’
“Daniel Kilham Dodge, the historian writes me in part regarding the letter, ‘Of more interest is the question of the authorship of the letter, which has been attributed to John Hay, who, according to his diary wrote many letters which Lincoln signed without reading. From another source I have heard that Mr. Hay imitated the President’s handwriting.’
“A handwriting expert who examined several facsimiles as well as a photograph of the alleged original, informs me that the writing and signature appears to be that of President Lincoln. In view of the above, would you be good enough to clear up for me the question; is the letter or facsimiles you saw, in the handwriting of President Lincoln, or that of John Hay or someone else. How does the script differ from the President’s writing?
“I am trying to locate the original letter. Can you give me any information as to where it might be, when and where it was last seen.
“In case you are unable to supply the required information have you any idea where I may be able to obtain it? An early answer will be greatly appreciated.”
“I beg to advise you that inquiries concerning this letter have, from time to time, been received by Mr. Lincoln, to all of which he has responded in like manner, to wit, that he knows nothing of the whereabouts of the original; that he has a facsimile among his belongings here; that he does not know the origin of this facsimile; but that he knows it to be a copy of a document unquestionably in the handwriting of his father.
“Mr. Lincoln, however, has no desire to enter upon a discussion of the subject, either privately or publicly; and will appreciate it, therefore, if you will refrain from quoting him in connection with this matter. The contents of this letter are simply for your personal information.”
While these communications don’t prove whether Lincoln or Hay wrote the Bixby letter, they do show what Robert Todd Lincoln believed. But why did he believe it so strongly?
Before the great Bixby debate in 1925, many people tried to determine who wrote the letter and to find the original. Among them was Robert Lincoln. He began looking sometime between 1901 and 1905. He never found the letter. But during that time he looked at various “copies” of it, was approached by a man trying to sell the “original,” and consulted one of his closest friends, John Hay (then President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State), about its origins.
While Robert Lincoln was looking at various “copies” of the letter, he was approached by a man who wanted to sell him the “original.” He consulted his close friend John Hay.
The record of Robert Lincoln’s keen interest in the letter is preserved in his correspondence with a historian named Isaac Markens, who was writing a biography of the President. These letters, currently housed in the Chicago Historical Society, clearly refute the Hay authorship theory. Lincoln first mentioned Bixby in a letter he wrote on January 5, 1917: