John Nicolay Biography

Government Official, Writer (1832–1901)
John G. Nicolay served as secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, and later co-wrote a 10-volume biography on the president, Abraham Lincoln: A History.


John G. Nicolay was born in Essingen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, on February 26, 1832. He moved to the United States with his family at age 5, and worked at a local Illinois newspaper growing up. Nicolay went on to serve as secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. Nearly 30 years after Lincoln’s death, Nicolay co-wrote a 10-volume biography on the president, Abraham Lincoln: A History, with friend and fellow Lincoln White House employee John Hay.

Early Life

John George Nicolay was born Johann Georg Nicolay on February 26, 1832, in Essingen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, where he lived for five years until his family moved to the United States. His family first moved to Indiana, then to Ohio, and finally settled in Pike County, Illinois. Nicolay’s father and brothers worked together, operating a flour mill, until his father died in 1846.

After his father’s death, neighbors began to notice that Nicolay’s mother was not properly caring for her young son. As a result, Zachariah N. Garbutt, the editor of the Pike County Free Press, and his wife, adopted Nicolay. Growing up, Nicolay attended an academy in Pittsfield, where he met John Hay. He would later go on to work with Hay as a private secretary for President Abraham Lincoln.

After completing school, Nicolay worked for Garbutt's paper, the Pike County Free Press, as a printer's apprentice. He spent eight years at the paper, rising quickly through the ranks to eventually become proprietor, publisher and editor. The Free Press became a kind of political headquarters, acquainting Nicolay with the region's leading public and political figures, including Abraham Lincoln.

Two years after leaving the paper, Nicolay began working as a clerk for the secretary of state in Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln's Secretary

While working as a clerk, Nicolay once again crossed paths with Lincoln. The future president took interest in young Nicolay, and was impressed with his abilities and professional conduct. As a result, when Lincoln was nominated for president, he selected Nicolay as his secretary.

In his role as Lincoln’s secretary, Nicolay was responsible for the president’s most intimate and personal affairs during the Civil War. The two became very close, and Lincoln considered him one of his most trusted aides. Nicolay worked closely with both the president and Lincoln's assistant secretary John Hay—one of Nicolay's former schoolmates. Nicolay and Hay received and screened visitors, wrote and reviewed letters, and delivered messages for Lincoln, among other duties. Due to his particularly intimate role, Nicolay was completely entwined with the president’s executive business and personal life.

After Lincoln's death, Nicolay went on to serve as U.S. consulate in Paris and as marshal of the Supreme Court (1872-1887).

Author and Biographer

John G. Nicolay and his colleague, John Hay, wrote Abraham Lincoln: A History, a 10-volume biography of Lincoln that was published in 1890. The biography was a long and time-consuming project for the two men; in order to collect the appropriate material for the book, Nicolay and Hay spent several months reviewing the president's and his cabinet members' personal papers, conducted interviews, and examined an enormous amount of published content related to the president. Although the pair spent years collecting many extensive interviews, they didn’t use much of that material in the final book because they were skeptical of the accuracy of human memory. It took Nicolay and Hay nearly 30 years to complete the Lincoln piece.

Four years after the publication of Lincoln's biography, Nicolay published a separate collection of Lincoln's writings.

Personal Life

Nicolay died on September 26, 1901, in Washington, D.C. He was buried in the nation's capital, at the Oak Hill Cemetery.

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