For about a century the Lincoln profession has analyzed statements by John Milton Hay that he wrote many of Lincoln’s letters, and/or signed his name to many documents, with the president’s acquiescence. Hay was the assistant private secretary in the Executive Mansion for the entirety of Lincoln’s presidency, serving under secretary John Nicolay, his friend from western Illinois and his elder by six years.
Hay achieved notoriety in many fields. He was graduated from Brown University in 1858 as class poet and then worked in his uncle’s law firm in Springfield. That uncle, Milton Hay, had clerked for Lincoln two decades before. Young John Hay was quick with a pen, providing signed as well as anonymous reportage to newspapers and keeping a fascinating war-years diary. After the years in Mr. Lincoln’s service, he co-authored with Nicolay the 10-volume biography of Lincoln (1890), then rounded out that picture with the 12-volume edition of Lincoln’s own writings (1905). In all this they had close cooperation with and access to documents belonging to Robert Lincoln and others. So Hay knew Lincoln’s hand. And he knew Robert — the two young men were playing cards in the family quarters of the Executive Mansion on the night of 14 April 1865 when Robert’s parents went to Ford’s Theatre. John Hay was nearly a son, perhaps more like a shadow, to the man he had dubbed the ‘tycoon.’
Hay later published poems, stories, a novel, and travel sketches, was U.S. ambassador to London soon after Robert Lincoln served there; and as Secretary of State in the McKinley and T. Roosevelt administrations authored the ‘Open Door’ policy for trade with China. He negotiated the important Hay-Pauncefote Treaties that led to the building of the Panama Canal. In so doing he pursued policies about which Mr. Lincoln had a nascent interest, though did not pursue during the crisis of the Civil War. Hay began to intimate that he had written the famous Bixby letter for Lincoln in 1864 (the original was lost that year), and scholars still hotly debate that topic.
But what of his claim that he ‘signed for’ Lincoln? The document at the right contains Lincoln’s signature only. The document below — a scrap, really — is the closest thing we have to substantiation of Hay’s claim. Most of the text is clearly not in Lincoln’s hand, nor is the date. And the signature does not look very good either. It would be dismissed from the pantheon of ‘Lincoln documents’ were it not for the fact that the main text is in Hay’s hand, and thus the ‘A. Lincoln’ cannot really be a forgery. Did Mr. Lincoln hand over a stack of pleas like this one, from Confederate soldiers who in the days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox suddenly wished to renew their loyalty to the Union? There are perhaps a hundred of these notes written out and/or signed by Lincoln in 1863-65, and the flood of them grew as the war’s eventual victor became clear.
If John Hay was trying to make his hand look like Lincoln’s, he did not execute a particularly good likeness here. Is it possible that Hay’s later claim to have written many of Lincoln’s letters owes mainly to those last days of Lincoln’s life, perhaps this very last day? The harried President wanted to oblige his wife, his friends Major Rathbone and Miss Harris, his own interest, and the nation’s acclaim by getting to Ford’s Theatre for the show. Did he leave some papers behind for the able and trusted young secretary to ‘take care of, if you please, Mr. Hay?’ And was it that last conversation with his chief that caused Hay, in his very later years, to inflate his own memory and thus his words about the frequency of his vicarious role as official presidential signatory? Or have a host of ‘A. Lincoln’ signatures on short notes been dismissed, perhaps undeservedly, because we have not learned to recognize John Hay’s hand?