John G. Nicolay and John M. Hay were Lincoln's private secretaries and biographers. Nicolay, the older of the two, was born in 1832 in Bavaria, and came with his family to the United States in 1838. They finally settled in Pike County, Illinois, where his father and brothers operated a flour mill. After his parents died, the young Nicolay worked on the Pittsfield, Illinois, Free Press, and in 1854, he became its editor-proprietor. While operating the Free Press, Nicolay became close friends with Hay, who had come to Pittsfield to attend school.
In 1856, Nicolay sold the newspaper and became a clerk for the secretary of state in Springfield, Illinois. A Republican, he became acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, who often visited the office on political business and noted Nicolay's personal qualities and professional abilities. When Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, he selected Nicolay as his private secretary. Nicolay persuaded Lincoln to employ his friend Hay as an assistant secretray.
Upon Lincoln's election, the two secretaries first shared a room in the White House, and later moved to Willard's Hotel. Their responsibilities included writing letters, reading and sorting mail, receiving and screening visitors, serving as messengers, preparing digests of news, and occasionally attending to political matters for the President. Nicolay enjoyed Lincoln's confidence and was among the President's closest associates.
With Lincoln's death and the end of the Civil War, Nicolay served as consul at Paris, before returning to the United States where he became marshall of the Supreme Court from 1872-1887. While living in Washington, he devoted himself to a number of interests, artistic and mechanical, but of special significance was his collaboration with Hay to publish a ten-volume biography of Lincoln as well as an edited collection of Lincoln's writings. Nicolay died in Washington in September 1901.
John Hay was born in 1838 in Salem, Indiana, but grew up in Warsaw, Illinois. He attended local schools, and then enrolled in a private academy at Pittsfield, Illinois, where he met Nicolay. In 1852, Hay attended school in Springfield, and after three years entered Brown University as a sophomore. Drawn to a life of letters-- he was chosen class poet at his graduation-- Hay reluctantly returned to Illinois, where he eventually decided on a career in law as a way to make a living. In 1859, he entered the law office of his uncle, at Springfield, located next door to Lincoln. This circumstance, combined with his friendship with Nicolay, led to Hay's appointment as Lincoln's assistant private secretary.
After the Civil War, Hay undertook a literary and diplomatic career. In 1875, he joined with Nicolay in commencing a multi-volume biography of Lincoln, and three years later, moved to Washington as assistant secretary of state. In 1881, he turned to journalism, travel, and writing until he was again able to gain a diplomatic appointment. This opportunity arrived with William McKinley's presidency, and his selection as ambassador to Great Britain in 1897. The following year, Hay was named secretary of state, and became associated with the administration's "Open Door" policy. He remained secretary of state under President Theodore Roosevelt, but in 1905, his health failed. Medical treatment abroad proved unsuccessful, and in July of that year, shortly after his return to the United States, he died.