Who was John George Nicolay?
John George Nicolay was a German born American who served as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, former President of the United States of America. Migrating with his family from Germany to the United States at only five years of age he lost his father in his teens and went on to be adopted by his neighbours. Starting as a printer’s apprentice at the ‘Pike County Free Press’, in his eight years stint with the paper, he soon climbed the ranks and subsequently held the positions of proprietor, editor and publisher. Through the paper he eventually became acquainted with prominent political and social personalities of the region which included Lincoln. Nicolay along with John Hay, who also served as private secretary to the President Lincoln, penned down a ten volume biography of the President almost thirty years after his death. The biography was named ‘Abraham Lincoln: A History’. Many documentaries, television mini-series and films based on President Abraham Lincoln feature his character.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on February 26, 1832, in Bavaria, Germany to Johann Jakob Nicolay I and Helena Nicolay. His family migrated from Germany to the United States in 1838 when he was around five years of age. They stayed in Indiana and Ohio before settling down in Pike County in Illinois. For some time he studied in a school in Cincinnati before moving to Illinois.
The family operated a flour mill. He lost his father in 1846 during his teens and went on to be adopted by his neighbours Zachariah N. Garbutt and his wife after the couple noticed Nicolay lacking his mother’s care. Garbutt served as the ‘Pike County Free Press’ as its editor.
He studied in a Pittsfield academy where he became friend with John Hay, both of whom went on to become private secretaries to Lincoln.
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Starting as a printer’s apprentice at the ‘Pike County Free Press’, he worked for eight years with the paper and soon climbed the ranks, subsequently holding the positions of proprietor, editor and publisher. Through the paper, which became a political nerve centre, he eventually became acquainted with prominent political and social personalities of the region which included Lincoln. He sold the newspaper in 1856.
He served as the secretary of state in Springfield as a clerk after two years of leaving the ‘Pike County Free Press’. Here, he often came across Abraham Lincoln who was fascinated by his personal qualities, skills and professional commitments. On the other hand Nicolay, a Republican became Lincoln’s ardent follower.
In 1861, Nicolay was selected by Abraham Lincoln as his private secretary, the post Nicolay served till President Lincoln was alive in 1865. Convinced by him, Lincoln appointed Nicolay’s friend John Hay as assistant secretary. As a private secretary Nicolay not only had the responsibility but also the opportunity to deal with business affairs as also the most intimate personal life of the president.
Some of his responsibilities as secretary of the president during the American Civil War included screening and receiving guests, writing and reviewing correspondences, sorting mails and conveying messages for the president among others. Eventually he became one of the closest aides of the president.
Nicolay was inducted in a diplomatic post in France by Lincoln just before his assassination. From 1865 to 1869 Nicolay served as U.S. Consul in Paris in France.
After returning to the US, he worked as editor in the ‘Chicago Republican’. From 1872 to 1887 he remained ‘Marshal of the United States Supreme Court’. Later he had to resign from the post due to poor health conditions. In 1881, he penned down ‘The Outbreak of the Rebellion’.
He was one of the founder-members of the ‘Literary Society of Washington’ which was established in 1874.
He collaborated with his friend and colleague John Hay in writing a biography of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The official biography was first issued serially in ‘The Century Magazine’ from 1886 to 1890. Later, it was published as a ten volume biography as ‘Abraham Lincoln: A History’ in 1890 that holds an account of the life of the president and his time.
Nicolay and Hay also edited the two-volume ‘Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln’ that encompass a collection of important letters, speeches, documents, manuscripts and correspondences of Lincoln. It was first published in 1894 and later reprinted in 1905.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Therena Bates in Pittsfield, Illinois, and their daughter Helen Nicolay was born in 1866.
He suffered from various ailments and died on September 26, 1901. He was buried in Washington’s ‘Oak Hill Cemetery’.