Lincoln Discussion Symposium
The Bixby Letter - Printable Version

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The Bixby Letter - ELCore - 03-08-2013 09:13 AM

Who wrote it? Abraham Lincoln or John Hay? I see that it's been discussed here and there on the board, but I think we should have a thread just on this topic. Big Grin

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-08-2013 09:44 AM

This is a great question, Lane. The arguments on both sides seem convincing. Personally, I tend to agree with the latest research of Jason Emerson. Jason wrote an article titled "America's Most Famous Letter" for the February/March 2006 edition of American Heritage. Jason also wrote "New Evidence From an Ignored Voice: Robert Todd Lincoln and the Authorship of the Bixby Letter" in the Summer 2008 edition of the Lincoln Herald.

Here are just a couple of sentences from Jason's writing:


"The letters quoted prove not only that Robert Lincoln believed his father had written the Bixby letter but also that John Hay himself told Robert he'd had nothing to do with it.

So we come to a satisfying conclusion: America's greatest President wrote America's greatest letter."


I realize Michael Burlingame's research shows that John Hay told at least 6 people he wrote the letter; thus I am sure this debate will go on and on for a long time.

RE: The Bixby Letter - LincolnMan - 03-08-2013 12:24 PM

I would like to think Lincoln wrote. My unscientific thought is that he didn't. The words "assuage" and "beguile" found in the writing don't seem like Lincoln terms to me.

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-08-2013 02:09 PM

Good point, Bill. I do not believe Lincoln ever used either word in any other letter, speech, etc. I think Michael Burlingame has discovered Hay used both of those words often.

RE: The Bixby Letter - GARY POPOLO - 03-08-2013 03:06 PM

I myself want to believe that Lincoln wrote the Bixby letter. My thoughts on this controversy is this. Receiving a request from governor Andrews for the President to write such an important letter to a mother that had just lost five boys in service to their country I believe Lincoln with the compassion he had for his boys and all children would not have passed this task to someone else to write. Even with Mr. Hay's talent for writing which I am sure Lincoln knew of his skills he would not be given this letter to write. I believe at the time the letter was written it was not thought of by Lincoln that it was to be a letter to be listed as one of the best writings of Lincoln. This was a letter to a mother who had lost her sons in battle and nothing more. Also I believe that a handwriting expert concluded that the letter was written by Lincoln. I also think that if true Hay was the type of person who would have been proud to tell his family that he was the author of the letter but choose not to. Also didnot Hay tell Robert Lincoln that he had nothing to do with the writing of the letter? I don't know if we will ever know for sure which man wrote the letter. But what we all can agree on is it is what a doubt an eloquent and most compassionate letter.

RE: The Bixby Letter - Hess1865 - 03-08-2013 03:09 PM

Its such a confusing situation, but I lean towards Hay writing it.
RTL might have been great friends with Hay, but RTL always wanted to make his father to look good.
And RTL saying Abe wrote it falls in that category IMO

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-08-2013 03:21 PM

Gary, in my heart, I would like to agree with you. The book by F. Lauriston Bullard is quite convincing regarding Lincoln being the author. Mr. Hess, you make good points. As far as the handwriting goes, the original is lost (never surfaced), but lots of facsimiles were made to look like Lincoln's handwriting. Several years ago a museum in Texas discovered what was thought to be a government copy of the letter. The last I heard is they were trying to determine if it was authentic, but I don't recall seeing the results of that effort.

RE: The Bixby Letter - Gene C - 03-08-2013 03:36 PM

We have discussed some about this letter under "Things Lincoln Never Said", Post #6 on 8-09-12.

Did President Lincoln dictate letters for Hay or Nicolay to write for him? Considering the circumstances behind the letter, this seems to be the kind of letter Lincoln would write himself.

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-09-2013 05:24 AM

Gene, I cannot give you specific sources, but I am pretty sure I have read two versions of this. In one version Hay and Nicolay actually wrote a lot of Lincoln's letters. In this version, Hay, in particular, was skilled in imitating Lincoln's handwriting. In the other version, Lincoln himself wrote most all of his own correspondence. Maybe someone else will know more specifics on this. I would like to believe the second version, but I do not know for sure.

RE: The Bixby Letter - ELCore - 03-10-2013 07:17 AM

Thanks, everybody, for your thoughts. Another question, before I proceed.

Is the authorship of anything else that went out over Lincoln's name, so to speak, similarly disputed? I can't think of anything.

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-11-2013 04:12 AM

Lane, this did not go out under Lincoln's name, but it's not known for certain if Lincoln wrote it. It's an unsigned poem called "The Suicide's Soliloquy" and was published in the the August 25, 1838, issue of the Sangamo Journal. Joshua Speed told William Herndon in 1865 that Lincoln had written a poem about suicide that was published in the Sangamo Journal.


Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o'er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens' cry.

Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I'll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never know;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I'll headlong leap from hell's high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I'm prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn'd on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath,
And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

RE: The Bixby Letter - ELCore - 03-11-2013 09:55 AM

Thanks. Indeed, there are anonymous and pseudonymous works whose attribution to Lincoln is disputed. But I am wondering specifically about signed works. By "signed", I mean, of course, works explicitly attributed to him at the time (the time of composition or first publication or the like).

RE: The Bixby Letter - LincolnMan - 03-11-2013 08:18 PM

I really have my doubts about the poem too. Call me a skeptic. Somehow, it doesn't sound like Lincoln. But I suspect the thing about Lincoln being suicidal is probably overstated. I know there are many who disagree.

RE: The Bixby Letter - RJNorton - 03-12-2013 04:30 AM

Bill, I am also a skeptic. The paper explained that the note was found by the unidentified bones of an apparent suicide victim located near the Sangamon River. So how did the poem get by the body? Did Lincoln give the man his poem before he committed suicide? Did Lincoln find the man's remains by the river and place his poem nearby? Did the man acquire the poem in another manner? Did the man himself write the poem?

Three arguments given by Joshua Shenk that Lincoln probably wrote this are (from p. 41 of Lincoln's Melancholy): (1) it has the same meter as Lincoln’s other published verse; (2) it is close to the date given by Speed when he told Herndon about it; (3) its syntax, tone, reasoning, and references are characteristic of Lincoln.

Nevertheless, IMO, it is somewhat of a stretch to assume Lincoln was the poem's author.

RE: The Bixby Letter - LincolnMan - 03-12-2013 06:15 AM

Roger, I was feeling alone in my skepticism on this-so I'm glad you share in it! Even though J. Shenk gave his reasons for thinking Lincoln the author-it isn't convincing enough for me. I think the "depressed Lincoln" notion is overblown. Yes, he had periods of being "blue," for sure. As a biological depression- I'm not really sold on it.