By Emily Gold / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007
At left, the newspaper clipping of the Bixby letter pasted into John Hay's scrapbook. Below, John Singer Sargent's 1903 painting of Hay, and at right, a photo of Hay taken in 1861, when he was twenty-three.

Buried in a scrapbook kept under lock at the John Hay Library is a newspaper clipping of a letter signed by Abraham Lincoln. Addressed to a woman named Lydia Bixby, it has been considered by many scholars to be on a rhetorical par with Lincoln's Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses. According to a recent book by Connecticut College history professor Michael Burlingame, however, there's only one problem with the letter: Lincoln didn't write it.

In his new book, Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, Burlingame argues that the author of the Bixby letter was none other than Lincoln's secretary, John Hay, Brown class of 1858, after whom the Hay library is named. "This one letter," Burlingame says, "entitles [Hay] to at least a secondary position in the ranks of distinguished American writers."

Authorship of the Bixby letter has been a subject of dispute for many years. Burlingame first became interested in it about six years ago, when he was at the Hay library researching a multi-volume Lincoln biography. When a staff member suggested he look at Hay's scrapbook, Burlingame politely flipped through it. Until he came upon the Bixby letter, which was tucked among two pages of Hay's Civil War poems. Why, the professor wondered, would Hay take the trouble to clip and paste the article if he was not the author? "I thought, 'Well, for heaven's sake, this bears looking into.' "

The Bixby letter, Burlingame concluded, bears Hay's "stylistic fingerprint." The word "beguile," for instance, is used at least thirty times in Hay's writings, while Lincoln never used it. Other Hay writings include the phrases "I pray that our Heavenly Father" and "I cannot refrain from tendering you," which are completely absent from Lincoln's writings. Burlingame also noticed a similarity in tone between the Bixby letter and several condolence letters signed by Hay. What's more, Hay told six people that he'd authored the letter, and as secretary, Hay often wrote letters for the President at busy times. "You add all those things up," Burlingame says, "and it seems to be pretty conclusive."

Other Lincoln scholars contest his assertion, but Burlingame says they should not fear that Hay's authorship might tarnish Lincoln's literary reputation. "What it should do is not diminish respect for Lincoln," he says, "but enhance respect for Hay."

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September / October 1999