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The Trouble With The Bixby Letter
The stirring Civil War document featured in Saving Private Ryan grew out of a lie and probably wasn’t really written by Lincoln
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Thus the historian William E. Barton was justified when in 1926 he deemed the Bixby letter “a beautiful blunder.” He was probably not justified, however, when he insisted that Lincoln himself wrote it. That, too, is very doubtful. In fact it was almost certainly composed by Lincoln’s assistant personal secretary, John Hay. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, told Barton that Hay had written it, having heard from the British diplomat John Morley that Hay had admitted as much. Barton expressed skepticism, but Hay had told others that he had written it too, including the literary editor William Crary Brownell and the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Hines Page. Spencer Eddy, Hay’s personal secretary, also insisted Hay had written the letter.
In 1866 Hay told Lincoln’s law-partner-turned-biographer William H. Herndon that Lincoln had written “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.” Lincoln would have been especially inclined to ask Hay to write letters for him during an unusually hectic time such as November 1864. That month Hay apologized to Charles S. Spencer, a New York Republican leader: “I regret that the President was literally crowded out of the opportunity of writing you a note for yr. banquet. He fully intended to do so himself &C for that reason I did not prepare a letter for him. But the crush here just now is beyond endurance.”
Most Lincoln specialists have, like Barton, resisted the notion that Hay wrote the Bixby letter. In 1943 Roy P. Basler, editor-to-be of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , dismissed Hay’s remark to Herndon as “inadequate, inaccurate, and incorrect.” If Hay had written the Bixby letter at all, Basler insisted, he probably had simply taken down words dictated by Lincoln. Basler argued that “the internal evidence of style seems to mark the letter as Lincoln’s. … If the student will read aloud the best of Lincoln’s lyrical passages in the ‘Farewell Address,’ ‘Gettysburg Address,’ or ‘Second Inaugural Address’ and then read aloud the ‘Letter to Mrs. Bixby,’ he will find it exceedingly difficult to believe that anyone other than Lincoln composed such sentences.”
However, in various letters, poems, and other compositions, Hay frequently used words and phrases that appear in the Bixby letter; some of them never appear in Lincoln’s works, and others appear far less often in Lincoln’s writings than in Hay’s. Hay used the word beguile at least thirty times, while Lincoln never used it. Hay occasionally employed the phrases “I pray that our Heavenly Father” and “I cannot refrain from tendering you,” while Lincoln never did. Hay used the words glory and cherish far more often than Lincoln did. Moreover, the tone of the Bixby letter resembles that of several of Hay’s messages of condolence, including this one written five months before the Bixby letter: “I will not intrude upon your sorrow further than to express my deep sympathy for your great loss and my prayer that a merciful God may give you that consolation which mortal love is too weak to offer.”
Hay, not Lincoln, most likely was author of “the most beautiful letter ever written.”
Moreover, a scrapbook donated to Brown University in 1954 as part of John Hay’s papers, which contains newspaper accounts of Hay’s writings, includes among various items a copy of the Bixby letter. So does a similar scrapbook in the Library of Congress. It is difficult to understand why Hay would have pasted the Bixby letter into these scrapbooks, full of his own literary creations, unless he had composed it.
This evidence may not amount to hard proof, hut Hay’s statement to Herndon in 1866; Hay’s stylistic fingerprints throughout the letter (“beguile, cherish, gloriously, I cannot refrain from tendering, I pray that our Heavenly Father”); the reminiscences of John Morley, Walter Hines Page, W. C. Brownell, Spencer Eddv, and others; and Hay’s scrapbooks all combine to suggest that Hay, not Lincoln, is most likely the true author of “the most beautiful letter ever written.”
This conclusion cannot, of course, in the least affect Lincoln’s literary reputation. The author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural will always command the world’s admiration. As a journalist wrote in 1925, “If under the merciless hand of investigation it should be shown that this remarkable document was not only based upon misinformation but was not the composition of Lincoln himself, the letter to Mrs. Bixby would still remain … ‘One of the finest specimens of pure English extant.’” The letter can never diminish the status of Lincoln, but it deserves to elevate that of John Hay. And of course it has long since won Mrs. Bixby a most unlikely immortality.