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Lewis Lapham: Lincoln Moaned, Died as Secretary Watched

"All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt," by John Taliferro. Source: Simon & Schuster via Bloomberg

June 1 (Bloomberg) -- John Milton Hay went east from Warsaw, Illinois, to finish his education at Brown University in Rhode Island, where he decided to become a poet. When he went back home, a depressed Hay changed course and in May 1859 began to study law with his uncle in nearby Springfield.

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Next door, Abraham Lincoln was running a busy practice working for railroads, merchants and the gaslight company. Swamped after receiving the presidential nomination, Lincoln hired Hay’s old friend, John Nicolay, as his secretary, and soon enough, the 22-year-old Hay was onboard as well.

Both moved to the White House with Lincoln, with Hay taking charge of the correspondence. “I only work about 20 hours a day,” he said.

As President Lincoln lay dying in the boarding house across from Ford’s Theater, Hay stood at the head of the bed and later described the scene: “His automatic moaning, which had continued throughout the night, ceased; a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features.”

For the rest of his long and accomplished life, Hay mourned the fallen leader.

I spoke with John Taliaferro, author of “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt,” on the following topics:

1. Lincoln’s Correspondence

2. Refusing to Run

3. Presidential Deathbed

4. Diplomatic Career

5. Secretary of State

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg on NYC Weekend and Greg Evans on movies.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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