America’s Most Famous Letter

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“In regard to the Bixby letter there is a mystery which I have been unable to solve. . . . Briefly I can say that unfortunately I did not take up the question as to the existence or location of the original Bixby letter until after the death of Mr. [John G.] Nicolay [President Lincoln’s personal secretary, in 1901]; it was he and not Colonel Hay who did the work of compiling the two final documentary volumes [which included the Bixby letter] of their Biography. Colonel Hay died about ten years ago and before that I had received from the Republican Club of New York, a package of lithographed Lincoln letters which the Club had got up as a present to their guests at one of their Annual Lincoln Birthday Dinners; among these lithographes was that of the Bixby letter. I was a very busy man in those days, but on one of my visits in New York I made an effort to ascertain the location of the document from which the lithograph was made. . . . I finally secured an interview with one or two gentlemen of the Club who were on the dinner committee for that particular dinner; neither of them could tell me anything about the getting up of these particular souvenirs, but they promised that they would investigate the matter and communicate with me again; they never did so and in the pressure of my other affairs, this went out of my mind. Then there came to me from a man named Benson a curious letter which had some queer things about it which led me in acknowledging it not to use my own name, but to have my Secretary, Mr. Sweet, now dead, act for me. As I remember, Benson said that he owned the original Bixby letter and that it was pledged for a loan on $100, I think, made to him by a Brooklyn banker, and that it was his intention to present it to me. Sweet wrote him suggesting that he cause the letter to be sent to any bank in Chicago for me to inspect and that if I considered it genuine I would be very glad to pay his debt to the Brooklyn banker instead of having him give me the letter. I think Benson then replied that it was not possible for him to go to Brooklyn to arrange this for some time to come, but that in the meantime he being hard up, would like to have me cash a note of his for an amount which I now forget, but I think it was $250; this he enclosed to avoid delay and it was returned to him. I cannot remember other details, but being in Washington I showed Colonel Hay, in the State Department, this lithograph and told him the story; Colonel Hay knew nothing whatever of the source of the printed copy of the letter in the Nicolay and Hay book. He suggested a curious thing; namely, that my father’s hand writing was very easy to imitate. This I knew myself because several times as a boy to amuse myself I used to write his ordinary signature so well that I think it would have passed muster with himself. Colonel Hay went on to say that pretty nearly all the words in the Bixby letter could be found in photographs of genuine letters and that perhaps this lithograph had been made from a forged document. I think Colonel Hay’s suggestion a very shrewd one.

“I examined the Museum document as well as I could, it being framed in a case, and I came to the conclusion that it was simply one of the facsimile copies of the lithograph. . . . That is the end of my investigation. I do not remember having brought to my attention any other supposed lithograph of the letter. . . .

“Both Mr. Sweet and myself were strongly impressed with the feeling that Mr. Benson was not a gentleman with whom we would care to do business. . . .

“When I speak of a possible forgery I do not of course mean that there was not a genuine Bixby letter; I mean merely that a shrewd forger could from the printed copy in the Nicolay and Hay book, make an apparently genuine original. Personally I have no doubt of the authenticity of the letter.”

Markens, obviously fascinated by the Bixby business, sought to continue the discussion. Here is the most important letter in the Lincoln-Markens correspondence. On February 24, 1917, Robert Lincoln wrote:

“I think I have not acknowledged your letter of February 20th in regard to the Bixby letter. Your suggestion that neither Nicolay nor Hay probably had any special knowledge of the letter at the time is correct. Hay himself told me so; when I took the matter up Nicolay had died and it was he who had compiled the collection of papers. It is entirely possible that neither of them knew of the letter at all; my father had no letter books and copies of his letters and documents were only made in special cases, many such copies being in the papers I now have, mostly drafts in his own hand; it is entirely possible that my father wrote this letter at his desk, folded it, addressed it and gave it to General [William] Schouler [adjutant general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts] without anybody else about him knowing of it.”

The letters prove that not only did Robert Lincoln believe his father had written the Bixby letter, but John Hay himself told Robert he’d had nothing to do with it.

What’s amazing about this letter is its statement that the man purported to be the author of the letter told his best friend —and his hero’s son—that he had no knowledge of it when it was written.

A year later Lincoln answered a series of Markens’s questions about his father. Two of his responses are relevant here:

“3. I heard nothing of this while in London [as President Benjamin Harrison’s minister to Great Britain], but I have in some way understood that in one of the college libraries, whether in Oxford or Cambridge I do not know, is hanging framed a lithographed copy of the Bixby letter. . . .