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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
“4. His methods of office working were simply those of a very busy man who worked at all hours. He never dictated correspondence; he sometimes wrote a document and had his draft copied by either Nicolay or Hay; sometimes he himself copied his corrected draft and retained the draft in his papers; there were no letter press books at all; he never owned such a thing. When he preserved letters to himself, it was ordinarily done by replacing them in their envelopes with the writer’s name inscribed; it was not his general habit to keep copies of letters written by himself.”
Could this last sentence explain one reason why no copy of the original Bixby letter exists? As John Hay was enamored enough of himself and of his own literary creations to fill multiple scrapbooks after publication, would he not have kept a copy of such a luminous letter, especially since he had no way of knowing if it would ever be published or would disappear once it reached Mrs. Bixby?
Markens was interested in tracking down Benson, the purveyor of the phony Bixby letter. Lincoln, however, could offer no specifics:
“I have made a little search but have failed to light on the box having the Benson package. I do not think however that I could answer your inquiry from anything in it; I recall clearly that Benson seemed to be a wanderer and that my last news of him indicated that he had been a member of the Front-Hall servants party at the White House; when I had a talk with Colonel Hay about the lithograph, when he suggested to me the easy possibility of its having been made from a forgery. I had already become satisfied that Benson was ‘no good,’ and gave no more thought to him.”
The final pertinent letter in the LincolnMarkens correspondence, written in 1919, shows that Lincoln eventually came to believe the original Bixby letter lost:
“I have had my file of Benson papers sent me from Vermont and enclose to you an abstract of my relations with him, which ended some sixteen years ago; I have no idea of his address. I think that if he were still alive he would be trying to pull my leg in some way. . . .
“I have given up all hope of discovering the original letter.”
The letters quoted prove not only that Robert Lincoln believed his father had written the Bixby letter but also that John Hay himself told Robert he’d had nothing to do with it.
So we come to a satisfying conclusion: America’s greatest President wrote America’s greatest letter.