Writing many years after the fact, John Hay, who served as a young White House aide to Abraham Lincoln, noted that if his boss had “died in the days of doubt and gloom which preceded his reelection,” rather than in the final weeks of war, as the Union moved to secure its great victory against the Confederacy, he would almost certainly have been remembered as a middling or mediocre president. 

It’s a useful time to think about the historical construction of presidential reputations. Strange though it seems to the modern ear, in his own lifetime, Lincoln was a deeply controversial leader – reviled throughout the South, disdained by a strong plurality of Northern voters, and underrated even by many in his own party, who agreed with one Republican senator that the nation sorely needed “a president with brains; one who can make a plan and carry it out.”

“Lincoln”
Image: Lincoln Pres. Library

It took a massive, quarter-century effort on the part of his aides and family members to rehabilitate his legacy. Lincoln’s son, Robert, carefully managed his father’s historical image.  Choking off access to the president’s official papers until 1947, he allowed only two men – John Hay and John Nicolay, his father’s White House advisors – to consult and draw upon the vast presidential archive.

The result of this collaboration, a ten-volume biography that was widely serialized throughout the 1880s, gave rise to an enduring image of Lincoln as a sage political tactician and astute military strategist.  It’s an image that most historians would endorse, but its truthfulness alone did not ensure its public acceptance. That took some doing.

For those of us in the reputation business, there’s something to be learned from how historical figures and their advisors have crafted and in some cases manipulated public memory and legacy making.

We tend to think of news cycles, message and narrative development, and media machines as modern phenomena.  But they existed in Lincoln’s time as well as in our own. 

Today, we are witnessing the disruptive influence of social media, which has challenged longstanding rules about the construction and protection of corporate, political and personal reputations. But we are not the first generation to experience such rapid changes in the communications space.

In Lincoln’s era, which saw telegraph cables, railroad tracks and cylindrical printing presses dramatically shorten the time that it took news to travel from one side of the country to the other (and then to appear in the nation’s growing stable of daily and weekly newspapers), political professionals and journalists got very savvy, very quickly, about managing reputation. 

In his lifetime, Lincoln was deft at communicating directly to the Northern public through public letters and proclamations in Republican newspapers.  After his death, Nicolay and Hay harnessed the growing power of middle-class, general-interest magazines to change and then ossify the prevailing image of their slain leader.

In more recent times, presidents and their inner circle have played an even more active role in managing their legacies. Since Franklin Roosevelt laid plans for an archive and museum at Hyde Park, every president has turned to trusted political advisors to fashion research facilities and programming that influence the direction and tenor of scholarly research.

Over the past several weeks, President Obama’s staff have begun carefully planning the location, scope and mission of his presidential museum, while Lyndon Johnson’s family and former staff members have regrouped to begin pulling LBJ’s distinguished domestic policy record out from under the shadow of Vietnam. President’s don’t serve and simply leave their reputations to the gods of history. They manage their reputations carefully.

That Nicolay and Hay succeeded in their mission, there can be little doubt. The Lincoln Memorial Lincoln – an all-knowing master of politicians and generals, towering over the nation like no other leader – was very much one of their making.  It wasn’t always clear that we’d remember Lincoln in this way.

joshua zeitz* * *

Joshua Zeitz is senior Vice President in MWW’s corporate reputation practice and author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image (Viking, February 2014).