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.

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.

The one substantial reference occurred in 1951, when Bullard published a letter from Robert Lincoln to Dr. James H. Canfield, then the librarian of Columbia University. At the time, during the Lincoln centennial in 1909, Columbia had mounted an exhibit that contained a copy of the letter, and Robert wrote Canfield: “I have long been desirous of what has become of the original ‘Bixby’ letter, which I regard very highly. Doctor [Nicholas Murray] Butler said there was some suspicion as to whether the copy . . . is not a forgery. I told him that once in conversation, John Hay and I discussed the ease with which such a forgery could be made in consequence of the possibility of anyone finding for such a use an authentic original in my father’s hand-writing of almost every word and certainly every letter in the ‘Bixby’ letter. . . . Last year, I learned that there was in Huber’s Museum, which is a combination of museum and continuous performance variety house in 14 Street a few doors east of the subway, the original ‘Bixby’ letter. Accordingly, I dropped in to see it, and found on a frame on the wall a much discolored letter which is either an original or a very clever forgery—Which I do not know. The proprietor of the museum was not there so that I could not make any inquiry as to where he got it. . . . I should be greatly obliged to you if you will ascertain from the owner, who loaned it for the exhibition, what he knows of its history.”

Incredibly, none of Robert Lincoln’s thoughts on the subject have ever been so much as cited in any Bixby historiography.

Canfield responded that the letter on display at Columbia University was the one from Huber’s Museum, but that upon examination by experts, it was clearly a lithographic copy. “I am not sure, therefore, that I can throw any light upon the present ownership of the Bixby letter,” Canfield wrote.

This exchange from almost a century ago had been the only known primary material about Robert Lincoln’s knowledge of the Bixby letter. Now, however, newly discovered letters in the archives of Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln’s house in Manchester, Vermont, as well as those stored (and apparently ignored) in the Robert Todd Lincoln papers at the Chicago Historical Society do much to illuminate the subject. Incredibly, none of them has ever been fully published or even cited in any of the Bixby historiography.

A worldwide search for the original copy of the Bixby letter began in the summer of 1925 after The New York Times printed a story saying that the original letter was not at Oxford University, as had come to be universally believed. The story started a flurry of press activity as journalists tried desperately to find the sacred relic. They questioned the Library of Congress, the Illinois State Historical Society, Oxford University, the War Department, the Pension Bureau, the old State House in Boston—and Mrs. Lydia Bixby’s descendants. They concluded that the original was either lost or destroyed.

During this journalistic brouhaha, Robert Todd Lincoln received a telegram from the New York Evening Post :

newyork ny 457P aug 7 1925

robert todd lincoln

manchester vt

Frederick H Meserve [a prominent Lincoln authority and collector] has given us photographic copy of Bixby letter apparently establishing authenticity beyond doubt he does not know nor does anyone else whereabouts of the original he suggested you might have some knowledge of it or could tell us something about its history we would think it very kind if you could wire at our expense 200 words about this

newyork evening post

Lincoln replied the next day through his private secretary, Frederic N. Towers:

“Gentlemen:

“At the direction of Mr. Robert T. Lincoln I beg to acknowledge receipt of your telegram of yesterday in which you inquire as to whether Mr. Lincoln has any knowledge of the present whereabouts of the so-called ‘Bixby letter’, and whether he would be willing to set forth such knowledge for publication.

“In reply Mr. Lincoln has directed me to advise you that he has no knowledge of the present whereabouts of the letter referred to. He has, however, among other things here a photographic copy of the letter, and, although he does not know the exact original of this copy, he says that it is certainly a reproduction of the original, which was in the handwriting of his father. Mr. Lincoln can say no more than this about the matter, however; and, in any event, would not care to make any statement for publication.”

A few days after the Post telegram, Lincoln received a letter from the Lincoln Club of Brooklyn asking him to “set at rest, once and for all, the current stories concerning the letter to Mrs. Bixby. . . . a word from you right now will do much to stem any impending criticism or questionings of the good faith of America’s best-loved son.”

Lincoln’s secretary’s response was similar to his statement to the Post :

“Mr. Lincoln does not know the present whereabouts of the letter; but he has here, among other things, a photographic copy of the original, which, he says, is unquestionably in the handwriting of his father. . . .

“Mr. Lincoln, however, does not wish to be drawn into a controversy or dispute as to the origin or authorship of the letter; but, I am sure, himself feels that there can be no question but that his father wrote it.”

A few weeks later an editor from the Boston Herald wanted to know about the Bixby letter:

“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.”

Towers responded:

“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:

“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. . . .

“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.

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