Nicolay had met Mr. Lincoln when he worked at the Free Press in Pittsfield, Illinois. Thomas Hall Shastid wrote how his father introduced Nicolay to Mr. Lincoln: "Once into the printing office, fresh from the courthouse in the adjacent square, stepped a long, lank, black-haired, gray-blued-eyed man, who needed some good printing and needed it quickly. To him my father introduced young Nicolay. And this, I am sure, was the first meeting of Lincoln..."3
By 1865 Nicolay had worked for Mr. Lincoln as his secretary for nearly five years and had a front row seat for the personal and political affairs of his boss and the nation. He wrote Therena: "I think that I do not yet, and probably shall not for a long while, realize what a change his death has wrought in my own personal relations and the personal relations of almost every one connected with the government in this city who stood near him....."4 Four days earlier, Nicolay had resigned his office - although with his colleague John Hay he continued to organize the papers of the assassinated President.
In early June 1860 Nicolay had written Therena: "Mr. Lincoln has engaged me to act as his private secretary during he campaign, and pays me at the rate of $75.00 per month for the service. Of course that will keep me here until the next November election. He has a room here in the State House, and so I go right along with any change of quarters or arrangements of any kind other than that indicated."5 At the time Nicolay was working for Illinois Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch.
Nicolay went to work in the Governor's office on the second floor." Having no ante-chamber, there could have been no formality had Mr. Lincoln desired it," wrote Helen Nicolay. "The hall door remained open. My father, Mr. Lincoln's sole attendant, sat, when other duties did not engage him, at a desk toward one corner, answering in longhand such letters addressed to the candidate as required replied. They came in what seemed to the young man unconscionable numbers - as many as fifty a day at first; later, seven or eighty." Young Nicolay ignored those the bulk of the letters - those expressing congratulations and those seeking a job."6
Even then the specter of assassination hung over Mr. Lincoln. A few weeks before the election, Nicolay wrote: "Among the many things said in a general way to Mr. Lincoln by his visitors, there is nearly always an expressed hope that he will not be so unfortunate as were Harrison & Taylor, to be killed off by the cares of the Presidency - or as is sometimes hinted by foul means. It is astonishing how the popular sympathy for Mr. Lincoln draws fearful forebodings from these two examples, which may after all have been only a natural coincidence. Not only do visitors mention the matter, but a great many letters have been written to Mr. Lincoln on the subject."7
On one occasion during the campaign, Mr. Lincoln sent Nicolay to Terre Haute, Indiana to interview a man who wanted an interview with Mr. Lincoln. He gave Nicolay a concise memo of instructions:
Ascertain what he wants.
On what subject he would converse,
And the particulars if he will give them.
Is an interview indispensable?
And if so, how soon must it be had?
Tell him my motto is 'Fairness to all"
But commit me to nothing.8
After the 1860 election Nicolay wrote how Mr. Lincoln's Springfield friends greeted news of his victory. Representatives' Hall in the State Capitol "was filled nearly all night by a crowd, shouting, yelling, singing, dancing and indulging in all sorts of demonstration of happiness as the news came in. Across the street, in an ice cream saloon kept by a Republican, a large number of Republican ladies had a table spread with coffee, sandwiches, cake, oysters and other refreshments for their husbands and friends. It was 'happy times' there also. I did not go to bed until about half after four in the morning, and then couldn't sleep for the shouting and firing of guns."9
Nicolay's brusque nature was well-suited to the difficult job he undertook at the White House "People who do not like him - because they cannot use him, perhaps - say he is sour and crusty, and it is a grand good thing, then, that he is," wrote fellow White House staffer William O. Stoddard. "If you will sit in that chair a month or so, you will see what has become of any easy good-nature you sat down with. Hot-tempered fellows like you and me have no business in that chair. It takes a steady fellow like Nicolay, or somebody as quick-witted as John Hay." According to Stoddard, "The President showed his good judgment of men when he put Mr. Nicolay just where he is, with a kind and amount of authority which it is not easy to describe."10
Stoddard acknowledged Nicolay's importance to Mr Lincoln: "There are seldom more than two or three members of the Cabinet who equal the Private secretary in real power, and he must be a man of more than ordinary brains and integrity if he does not at times do mischief. It is especially desirable that he should be devoted to his chief; and in this, at least, Mr. Lincoln's staff was as nearly perfect as possible."11
Nicolay was able to give Therena periodic updates on Mr. Lincoln's state of mind and the state of the war. In early December 1860, he wrote: "Mr. Lincoln, while he is not unmindful of the troubles, which are on hand, and while he sincerely wishes they were not existing, is nevertheless not in the least intimidated or frightened by them."12 He wrote her in May 1863: "The President has just been in my room for a little while, and among other things told me that Senators Wade and Chandler, who returned from the army yesterday, report that it is in good spirits and courage, that they think it would be able to cross and whip the enemy now."13 In the middle of the Grant's Virginia campaign in May 1864, Nicolay wrote her: "The President is cheerful and hopeful - not unduly elated, but seeming confident; and now as ever watching every report and indication, with quiet, unwavering interest."14
Nicolay was also there for the tragic events in the Lincolns' lives. "At about 5 o'clock this afternoon, I was lying half asleep on the sofa in my office, when his entrance aroused me. 'Well, Nicolay,' said he choking with emotion, 'my boy is gone - he is actually gone!' and bursting into tears, turned and went into his own office."15
While his relations with the President were pleasant, those with Mrs. Lincoln could be highly unpleasant. "About three days of the week have been taken up with a row with my particular feminine friend here [Mary Todd Lincoln], but I have got through it without any serious damage, or even loss of temper," he wrote in December 1864.16
And his work load tended to grate on him. "He complained of being "constantly worked to death, and yet doing (accomplishing) nothing."17
"Lincoln came to regard the young man highly. In 1858 he recommended Nicolay to Horace Greeley as a correspondent, calling him 'entirely trust-worthy.' A year later, he had Nicolay deliver to a publisher in Ohio his carefully prepared scrapbook of the 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas. In early 1860 Nicolay visited Pittsfield to see his sweetheart," wrote historian Michael Burlingame. "While there, Nicolay called on the editor of the Pike County Journal, Col. Daniel B. Bush, who asked him to write an editorial. Nicolay penned an enthusiastic presidential endorsement of Lincoln, which Bush ran on 9 February."18
Nicolay also regarded Mr. Lincoln highly. In a speech he delivered in 1898, Nicolay said: "While I can confirm everything the books say about his greatness, I can also personally bear witness that he was at the same time one of the kindest, most humane and best men that ever lived. He was always gentle and never severe, always anxious to praise and never to blame, always eager to reward and slow to punish. Throughout the long and difficult years of his administration and the fluctuating vicissitudes of the war, through disappointment as well as success, through defeat as well as victory, dealing day by day with some of the most momentous acts of American history, wielding a power greater than that of European monarchs, he continued always to be the same plain, kind, unassuming, good man as when he lived in his father's cabin or sat in the quiet of his Springfield law office."19
Nicolay's personality combined several characteristics that were useful to the President - good judgment, literary facility, loyalty and even German brusqueness to dismiss those visitors who would waste the Presidents time. His personality was useful counterpoint to the usual compassion of the President's own personality But he could also admire the President's own tough character. "He will not be bullied even by his friends," noted Nicolay.20
The burdens of his job weighed heavily on Nicolay. He wrote Therena in February 1864: "I have had the blues badly several times this past week. It seems as if the circumstances surrounding my position were getting worse day by day. I am beginning seriously to doubt my ability to endure it a great while longer...."21 Nicolay wrote his fiancé a year later to explain his plans for the future: "As the case now stands, I am pretty well resolved not to remain here in my present relation after [March 4], and I think the chances are also against my remaining in Washington. This feeling does not result from any talk with the President about the matter, although I have once or twice alluded to the subject in our conversation, but from other causes and considerations. I think he does not now wish to be troubled with the question in any way, and therefore I do not repeat it to him. After his inauguration, however, other changes will necessarily take place, and after which I will probably be able to determine my own course." A month later, Nicolay wrote her to report that he was "yesterday appointed and confirmed as Consul to Paris. The salary is $5000 per annum."22