All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Rooseveltby John Taliaferro
If Henry James or Edith Wharton had written a novel describing the accomplished and glamorous life and times of John Hay, it would have been thought implausible—a novelist’s fancy. Nevertheless, John Taliaferro’s brilliant biography captures the extraordinary life of Hay, one of the most amazing figures in American history, and restores him to his… See more details below
If Henry James or Edith Wharton had written a novel describing the accomplished and glamorous life and times of John Hay, it would have been thought implausible—a novelist’s fancy. Nevertheless, John Taliaferro’s brilliant biography captures the extraordinary life of Hay, one of the most amazing figures in American history, and restores him to his rightful place.
John Hay was both witness and author of many of the most significant chapters in American history— from the birth of the Republican Party, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, to the prelude to the First World War. Much of what we know about Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt comes to us through the observations Hay made while private secretary to one and secretary of state to the other. With All the Great Prizes, the first authoritative biography of Hay in eighty years, Taliaferro has turned the lens around, rendering a rich and fascinating portrait of this brilliant American and his many worlds.
Hay’s friends are a who’s who of the era: Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Henry Adams, Henry James, and virtually every president, sovereign, author, artist, power broker, and robber baron of the Gilded Age. As an ambassador and statesman, he guided many of the country’s major diplomatic initiatives at the turn of the twentieth century: the Open Door with China, the creation of the Panama Canal, the establishment of America as a world leader.
Hay’s peers esteemed him as “a perfectly cut stone” and “the greatest prime minister this republic has ever known.” But for all his poise and polish, he had his secrets. His marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the country did not prevent him from pursuing the Madame X of Washington society, whose other secret suitor was Hay’s best friend, Henry Adams.
With this superb work, Taliaferro brings us an epic tale.
“One of the most intriguing political figures of the Gilded Age, Hay emerges in this beautifully narrated book as an astute, if sometimes unwilling, eyewitness to history. Making deft use of Hay’s own letters, some only recently discovered, Taliaferro brings the man to life.”
“John Hay began his career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, writing many of Lincoln's letters, and ended it as secretary of state in the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, responsible for many of their foreign-policy achievements. He was at the bedside of Lincoln and of McKinley as each president lay dying of an assassin's bullet. John Taliaferro's absorbing biography of this notable author, diplomat, and bon vivant who knew most of the important people of his time fully measures up to the significance of its subject.”
"John Hay has long been one of those remarkable American figures who hide in plain historical sight—until now. With insight and eloquence, John Taliaferro has brought Hay into the foreground, telling a remarkable story remarkably well."
“John Hay led more than one charmed life—yet endured more than his share of tragedy. John Taliaferro brings Lincoln's gifted secretary and biographer—and Theodore Roosevelt's accomplished secretary of state—back to vivid life in this page-turning account of an extraordinary eyewitness to, and maker of, American history. After generations of bewildering neglect, Hay needs a great biography no longer.”
“At long last, John Hay has gotten the biography he deserves. From his youthful service at Lincoln's side to his late years as Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State, this gifted writer, diplomat, and friend was a central figure in America's exciting journey from near-death to world power. John Taliaferro tells this remarkable life in rich and flowing detail.”
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Read an Excerpt
All the Great Prizes
The White House would never be the same.
To those who worked there, it was an “ill-kept, inconvenient, and dirty old rickety concern,” made even shabbier by the heavy footfalls and hard use of civil war. But for all its disarray, it had been John Hay’s home. For four years he and his fellow private secretary, John George Nicolay, had shared a bedroom across the hall from the president’s office, and throughout the war no one had lived more intimately with the Lincolns; no one had witnessed more closely the toll of work and worry and death—of a son and of three quarters of a million of the nation’s sons—upon Abraham Lincoln.
To be sure, not every day had been dark, and Lincoln’s spirit had not always been so somber. On the occasions, spontaneous and evanescent, when Lincoln’s native humor had shown forth, it radiated most directly on the two secretaries—Nicolay an earnest twenty-nine and Hay a callow twenty-two when they first accompanied the president from Springfield in 1861. With unconditional devotion and respect, Hay and Nicolay had taken to calling their Zeus-like employer “the Tycoon” or “the Ancient.”
But now in May of 1865 they too were a good deal more ancient. And Lincoln was dead. A month after the assassination, the White House seemed like a corpse itself, laid out in the clothes of a stranger.
Of the two secretaries, Hay had been struck more bluntly by the murder. Nicolay was away from Washington on April 14, when the president and Mrs. Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre. Hay had remained at the White House with Robert Lincoln, the president’s eldest son. Over the past five years, Robert had spent little time with his father—off at boarding school in 1859 as Lincoln prepared to run for the presidency; away at college in 1860 when Lincoln won his party’s nomination and then the national election; gone for nearly the entire Civil War. After Robert’s graduation in 1864, his father found him a place, out of harm’s way, on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert had been with Grant at Appomattox when Robert E. Lee gave up his sword. Robert and John Hay had known each other for quite a while, and there could easily have been cause for awkwardness between them. Hay in many respects was closer to the president, knew him better than did the twenty-one-year-old captain home from the war. But to the credit of both, there was no uneasiness at all.
On that fateful Good Friday, the two young men were upstairs in the White House, catching up, when a doorman burst in with the news, “[S]omething happened to the President.” Robert and Hay hurried by carriage to the boardinghouse where Lincoln lay unconscious with a bullet through his brain. There they remained throughout the night, as doctors probed and Mrs. Lincoln sobbed. They were at the president’s bedside at seven the following morning, when he stopped breathing. Indelibly, Hay remembered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttering, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
The corpse was taken to the White House, where, in an upstairs bedroom, embalmers drained its blood and doctors autopsied the skull. In the hours that followed, Stanton and the other cabinet members (except Secretary of State William Seward, who had been quite nearly slain by one of John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices) rallied to take charge of the federal government and to arrange for Lincoln’s funeral. The job of handling the president’s personal affairs fell jointly to Robert Lincoln and John Hay. Hay suggested to newly sworn President Andrew Johnson that, under the circumstances, Mrs. Lincoln and the family ought to be allowed to remain in the White House for as long as they wished, and when Johnson’s emissary appeared later in the morning, he found Robert in the presidential office, standing amid his father’s papers. Abraham Lincoln might belong to the ages, but much of the contents of his office now belonged to his family.
Hay stood beside Robert in those first numbed days after the assassination, and when Nicolay at last arrived, he pitched in as well. Hay and Nicolay had been in charge of most aspects of Lincoln’s workday. They had handled nearly every military order, every letter and telegram, every request for appointment, promotion, and pardon that crossed Lincoln’s desk. They had transcribed his letters and speeches. Nicolay, German-born, was the more organized of the two private secretaries and much stiffer in manner and expression. Hay was the stylish one, dapper and erudite, with the pen of a poet. Mastering Lincoln’s signature had been easy for him; what now seems likely is that he also wrote a good many of the letters that went out above Lincoln’s signature, including at least one letter regarded today as a gem of Lincolniana.
Indeed, Hay and Nicolay had a vested interest in the papers of Abraham Lincoln, for, with the consent of the president, they had filed away Lincoln’s correspondence and other writings with the aim of eventually writing a book about him. Though the assassination had been jarring in the extreme, they never lost sight of their objective. While undertakers dressed Lincoln’s body for public viewing in the East Room of the White House, Hay and Nicolay made a careful appraisal of the president’s effects. Once Lincoln’s widow and sons left the White House, Robert Lincoln would become the new custodian of the presidential papers, with the understanding that he would make them available to the two secretaries—to them and nobody else. They signed no agreement; Hay’s friendship with Robert was assurance enough.
Hay and Nicolay’s own eviction from the White House was scarcely a surprise. They were both leaving anyway. As strong as the bond had been between Lincoln and his private secretaries, Mary Lincoln, vengeful and devious, had made life difficult for them from the start, and she had made it quite obvious that she did not want them around for her husband’s second term of office. Hay and Nicolay did not protest. They were thoroughly drained from four years of relentless, at times crushing, toil and stress, and only too ready to move on. The week after the inauguration, Nicolay had been appointed consul to Paris. Hay, too, was going to Paris, as secretary of legation. The jobs had been promised before Lincoln’s death.
Yet neither bright prospects abroad nor an understanding with Robert Lincoln on the presidential papers made the final days in Washington any less dreary. On April 24, five days after Lincoln’s funeral, Nicolay wrote to his fiancée: “Words seem so inadequate to express my own personal sorrow. . . . I think that I do not yet, and probably shall not yet for a long while, realize what a change his death has wrought in . . . the personal relations of almost every one connected with the government in this city who stood near to him.” Nicolay added, “Hay and I are still here arranging the papers of the office, which has kept us very busy.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s body wended its way, first northward, then westward, taking more than two weeks to reach Springfield, giving millions of Americans a chance to view the darkening face of the martyr. Hay and Nicolay traveled on their own to Springfield, arriving in time for one last memorial service in the Illinois State House. On May 4, the coffin was closed and the president was placed in a receiving vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery, awaiting the erection of a permanent monument to his greatness.
Hay and Nicolay returned to Washington to finish crating the contents of Lincoln’s office. By the end of the month, they were through and able to make more leisurely visits back to Illinois—Nicolay to be married in Pittsfield, with Hay as his best man; and Hay to see his family in the Mississippi River town of Warsaw.
Once more Hay returned to Washington, this time to receive his instructions for Paris. Throughout the war years, he had become accustomed to the capital’s mood careening from one quarter of the emotional compass to another, depending on the latest news from the war’s many fronts: military, civil, political, and diplomatic. Nevertheless, he was not ready for the scene that greeted him in Washington after an absence of only a few weeks.
Andrew Johnson had begun his dubious tenure by setting up temporary shop in the Treasury Building until Mary Lincoln was ready to decamp, which she finally did on May 22, accompanied by some twenty trunks filled with a great many White House furnishings. When Hay paid a visit to the mansion in June, it felt at once haunted and unfamiliar. “I found the shadow of recent experiences resting on everything,” he wrote Robert Lincoln later. “The White House was full of new faces, a swarm of orderlies at doors and windows—the offices filled with new clerks, the anterooms crowded with hungry visitors. It was worse than a nightmare. I got away as soon as I could from the place. I think it will never be again anything less than the evil days in which we left it.” He sailed for Europe on June 24, along with Nicolay and his bride.
Over the next four decades, John Hay would cross the threshold of the White House hundreds more times, as a friend of presidents, as assistant secretary of state, as ambassador, and finally as secretary of state. But there would always be a before and an after: before the assassination and all that came next. Lincoln was the line of demarcation, by far the deepest tree ring, of Hay’s sixty-six years of personal history and public service. He had lived with Lincoln; he had witnessed the infancy of the Republican Party; he had served and survived the republic’s trial by fire; and while many of his contemporaries would proudly wave the bloody shirt of Republicanism into the next century, Hay bore the distinction of having been bathed, or nearly enough, in the Great Emancipator’s actual blood, not to mention his intelligence, humor, and love.
For the rest of America, Lincoln would represent a bundle of ideals: patience, perseverance, wisdom, humility, kindness, charity—a full panoply of biblical virtues. To Hay, he was the sum of all these, “the greatest man of his time.” Yet to Hay, Lincoln was also corporeal. Hay knew firsthand how Lincoln ate his breakfast, sat a horse, cracked a joke. He had been with Lincoln at Gettysburg. On summer evenings he had rocked with him on the veranda of the Soldiers’ Home. Lincoln would wake Hay in the middle of the night and read aloud to him. When he finished, Hay recalled, “the tall gaunt figure would rise from the edge of my bed and start for the door and on down the dark corridor. The candle carried high in his hand would light the disheveled hair as the President in flapping night-shirt, his feet padding along in carpet slippers, would disappear into the darkness.”
Lincoln had four sons: one died very young; Willie died in the White House at age eleven; Tad, though his father’s pet, was unruly and learning-disabled. Robert was bright, but he and his father for some reason never hit it off. More than with anyone else in the immediate family, Lincoln had a rapport with John Hay. Neither of them ever acknowledged that Hay was the son Lincoln wished he’d had, not in so many words. But by default, Hay became Lincoln’s fair-haired boy. Lincoln sanctioned Hay (and Nicolay) to write his biography. Beyond that, he awarded Hay the most precious gift of his patrimony: the spark to forge ahead, first as writer, next as statesman, then both together.
Lincoln did not give his young protégé a specific target so much as the sheer confidence to take aim and fire, and to make his life count for something. The underlying purpose was manifest, the same one Lincoln himself had striven to achieve as president and commander in chief—namely, the protection, preservation, and prosperity of the Union.
Hay was not nearly as single-minded as Lincoln; he was not a man of far-encompassing vision but more a man of successive vantage points, one guiding him toward the next, sometimes by leaps and bounds, at other times rather fitfully, but forward and upward always. He insisted humbly that the opportunities and accomplishments in his life were little more than a series of fortunate accidents, discounting what others recognized as his unfailing perspicacity and sound judgment. Whichever the case, he consistently did his best to repay Lincoln’s largesse—by championing Lincoln personally and by furthering the Republican cause in whatever ways he could. These loyalties in turn brought credit and glory to his own name.
And no matter what, Lincoln was the example that Hay always came back to. Lincoln’s standards were the standards against which he measured everyone in the world, starting with himself.
HAY’S RISE WAS RAPID and enviable. After Paris, he served in two more legations, Vienna and Madrid, returning to the United States a polished diplomat, conversant in four languages, precociously cosmopolitan in his manners and appetites. In New York he joined the staff of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and quickly won respect as its most able editorialist. He never gave up poetry, and his verses brought him unexpected and extraordinary fame. He wrote a provocative and widely read novel, and with Nicolay he completed the ten-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History, which, at a million and a half words, was the heftiest historical exposition since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and a benchmark for all Lincoln books to follow.
His marriage to Clara Stone, daughter of a Cleveland railroad, steel, and banking baron, ensured he would never again have to worry about money, and his appreciation for fine living bloomed accordingly. His manses on Cleveland’s Millionaires’ Row and on Washington’s Lafayette Square were filigreed to Gilded Age paragon. He built a summer retreat in New Hampshire, and he traveled lavishly in Europe, amassing a magnificent art collection and cultivating distinguished friends, especially in England, which he came to love nearly as much as his own country.
All the while, he never let go of politics. In the years after Appomattox, he looked on with increasing chagrin and frustration as Lincoln’s legacy was blasphemed by the chicanery of his party and the venalities of the Johnson and Grant White Houses. “I’m keeper of the President’s conscience,” Hay had joked in 1861, shortly after first arriving in Washington. Going forward, he never shirked this responsibility. As the age of spoils and graft escalated, he came to be counted on not merely as a steadfast Lincoln man but as a trustworthy guide who helped lead the Grand Old Party back onto the path of righteousness. That he gave generously and regularly to the candidates he considered of the truest mettle further established him as one of the party’s most influential lamplighters.
He served briefly in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes but turned down the invitation of Hayes’s successor, James Garfield, to stay on. Instead, he returned to New York to guest-edit the Tribune and wound up covering Garfield’s assassination and long slide toward death with a sense of alarm that was as much personal as partisan.
Nudged by Republican high priest Mark Hanna, whom, like Garfield, he had come to know in Cleveland, Hay pitched in to help rescue candidate (and fellow Ohioan) William McKinley from personal insolvency, thereby securing the one job he ever truly coveted, the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s. President McKinley quickly recognized that Hay’s extraordinary diplomatic aplomb could be put to higher use, and so, at the close of the Spanish-American War, McKinley brought him home to be secretary of state. In September 1901, for the second time, John Hay hurried to the bedside of a president mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet. When McKinley expired a week later, the new president was Theodore Roosevelt, whom Hay had known since Teddy was a child. At first Hay was not convinced that Roosevelt was not still a child—so impetuous, so rambunctious, “more fun than a goat,” Hay quipped.
Much could be made of the differences between Roosevelt and Hay. Hay was genteel, soft-spoken, tailored by London’s best, his Van Dyke beard groomed fastidiously. Hay’s word for fun was “gay”; for Roosevelt, “bully” was better. Roosevelt was looking for the next war; Hay had his fill with the last one. (While it was Hay who famously described the 1898 conflict between the United States and Spain as a “splendid little war,” lost in translation is his relief that it was splendid because it had been so mercifully little.) Roosevelt was an unabashed campaigner, a gate-crasher by temperament; Hay was the one whom everyone begged to be on their ticket and in their cabinet, and he gave in only under a heavy barrage of supplication and flattery. Roosevelt dominated his relations with other men as much by physical force as by the acuity of his ideas. Hay was a sublime conversationalist; great men—and women, too—leaned forward to listen to him and the next day repeated his bon mots.
On the other hand, Hay and Roosevelt did have a great deal in common. Roosevelt had two sides—he was both dog and cat, as the newspaperman William Allen White observed—and Hay, while never entirely able to leash the canine in his president, found the feline aspect winsome.
As ardent Republicans, they had mutual aggravations: anyone who was less than one hundred percent convinced that republicanism was the boon and salvation of “civilization,” a list of antagonists that included “jack rabbit” Latin American officials, smug sultans, Filipino insurgents, brigands of any hue, “anti-imps,” labor agitators, not to mention Democrats and their waffling poll mates, the Mugwumps. And to the surprise of each, Hay and Roosevelt formed a superb partnership, navigating tricky waters at home and abroad, where the effective strategy was to tread softly (Hay’s job) and brandish a big stick (Roosevelt, naturally). Together they jockeyed with the so-called Great Powers—England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan—a stubborn and testy lot of empires, some too long in the tooth, others too sharp. This family of nations was on the road to dysfunction even before they began competing aggressively in the global grab for “spheres of influence,” a guileful euphemism if ever there was one. The United States and Britain were hardly chaste, not after ugly campaigns in the Philippines and South Africa, but at least the Americans and English had forged a lasting rapprochement, thanks in no small part to the bridge-building that Hay had done while ambassador. The other powers were unapologetically on the make, inferring and avoiding alliances in a jittery choreography of chauvinism and distrust. For the most part, they left the Western Hemisphere alone—once Hay and Roosevelt dissuaded Britain from remapping Canada’s boundary with Alaska, bluffed the Germans from the Caribbean, and, last but not least, pried Panama loose from Colombia in order to build, control, and fortify a long-anticipated “American canal” between the Caribbean and the Pacific.
At the close of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, the biggest canvas of all was China, and here is where John Hay painted his masterpiece, the Open Door. It wasn’t a treaty by any stretch but simply a double dare to play fair in China, consented to by various world powers, one by one, with Hay’s coaxing. If Lincoln had saved the Union, John Hay deserves a nod of credit for saving China from “spoliation” at the hands of the other powers. How he accomplished this is a wonder, an act of feather-light finesse that shaped not just the future of Asia but also the long-term relations of every nation involved.
HAY HAD ONLY FRIENDS, it seems. The closest was Henry Adams, and arguably theirs was one of the most remarkable friendships of any era. They lived side-by-side in Washington (future site of the Hay-Adams Hotel), and for a quarter century they were inseparable, which is not to say they were always together. Yet when they were apart, they wrote to each other faithfully—long, gossipy, joshing, but always affectionate epistles. They wrote to each other knowing that they would see each other before the letter arrived, and they wrote to each other not knowing whether the letter would ever arrive.
From his parlor, Hay could see across to the window of the bedroom where he lived during the Lincoln years. He and Adams took to walking together every afternoon at four o’clock, followed by five o’clock tea with Hay’s wife, Clara, and Adams’s wife, Clover, until the latter’s death; and on rare and cherished occasions, they were graced by the company of Clarence King, the enchanting and far-roving geologist explorer whose follies of love and speculation gave them all fits. On a whim, they named their nucleus “the Five of Hearts.”
Hay and Adams did not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. For starters, Adams was more of an iconoclast and twice the snob that Hay was. As a grandson and great-grandson of presidents, he looked down his nose on the parade of White House occupants, post-Lincoln, as misfits all. Besides being a keen historian, he also postured himself as a futurist, and the future he foresaw was not pretty. The world order was on the verge of a colossal economic, political, and social comeuppance. Adams poured a steady dose of dourness into Hay’s teacup, but, if anything, it worked as a tonic. Hay, meanwhile, discovered a trustworthy sounding board in Adams. He could go on in detail about the affairs of state, knowing that Adams wouldn’t think of betraying their confidences. When each published novels anonymously—first came Adams’s Democracy, a wry send-up of Washington vanity and corruption, followed by Hay’s The Bread-Winners, a cautionary tale of labor unrest in a city similar to Cleveland—they were tickled when the public suspected that the same author wrote both.
But there were also betrayals within Hay’s circle and deeper secrets kept from one another. It has been conjectured that Hay had a romance with Nannie Lodge, the wife of Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Clara Hay evidently never learned of her husband’s dalliance, nor did Cabot Lodge, though one wonders if the chronic friction between the senator and the secretary of state, ostensibly over treaties and the direction of foreign policy, was not exacerbated by the subtext of cuckoldry.
Clarence King possessed an even bigger secret—now common knowledge but at the time unspeakable. The reason the Hays and Adamses never succeeded in finding a bride for the fifth Heart was because he already had one. Without telling any of his friends, he was leading a life of a completely different sort in New York.
The dance card gets more intricate still, with Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cameron the center of attention. She was from Cleveland also, the daughter of a judge and the niece of two of Ohio’s most illustrious figures, General William Tecumseh Sherman and Senator John Sherman. She arrived in Washington at the age of twenty and within the year was married to Pennsylvania senator Donald Cameron, twenty-four years her senior. Tall, wasp-waisted, and fetching, she quickly became the Madame X of Washington society. After Clover Adams died unexpectedly, Henry Adams was overwhelmed first by grief and then by the charms of young Lizzie Cameron.
The pas de deux between Henry Adams and Lizzie Cameron might otherwise be a sidebar to the life of John Hay if it were not for a trove of titillating revelations: several dozen letters, ignored or misinterpreted for the past hundred years, that now cast the character of John Hay in an immensely more intriguing light. Unbeknownst to Clara Hay, Henry Adams, and Nannie Lodge, Hay too was in love with Lizzie Cameron.
Their romance flamed in London and Paris in 1891, while their spouses were at home in the United States and Henry Adams was half a world away in the South Seas. “You do things so easily,” Hay gushed in one of his tributes to her. “You write as you walk. There seems no muscular effort in your démarche. You go over the ground like a goddess. . . . Don’t you see, you darling, why I love to grovel before you? It is such a pleasure to worship one so absolutely adorable. There is no one in sight of you in beauty, or grace, or cleverness, or substance of character. . . . You are all precious and divine: one to worship en gros et en detail.”
Caution cooled passion when he was in the company of family and friends, and by all outward measures he appeared devoted to Clara, mother of their four children, font of his substantial wealth. But while Lizzie was lithesome and clever, Clara was quiet, matronly, and, as one society column politely described her full proportions, “embonpoint.” During the final fifteen years of his life, Hay repeatedly circled back to Lizzie, never retiring from the field.
“I AM INCLINED TO think that my life is an oughtnottobiography,” Hay wrote in 1902. Unlike Henry Adams, he had no desire to write a memoir. Throughout his life he urged his friends to destroy his letters after reading them (most did not), but despite Hay’s repeated plaints of privacy and self-abnegation, he clearly did not wish to be swallowed by obscurity or diminished to a footnote in the lives of others. He himself kept many thousands of pages of his own writing—diaries, correspondence, poems, speeches—along with letters received over half a century, and he conscientiously kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about himself and the events of his day. And to glance at even one of the volumes of his Lincoln oeuvre is to appreciate his high esteem for biography as literature and as one of humanity’s vital measurements. Hay was a low-key man in many respects, but he was not without a sense of his own worth. He was aware of the imprint of his career, the momentous passages of history of which he had been witness and, in many cases, author. He knew he had put his signature on the world.
Even so, few twenty-first-century Americans recognize John Hay as more than a Zelig in the corner of someone else’s portrait. And the hard reckonings of two world wars and the absolutism of the nuclear age have led historians to look upon Hay’s brand of statesmanship as lacking in firmness and forcefulness. Gentleman’s agreements like the Open Door have been dismissed as ineffectual and passé.
But to most of Hay’s contemporaries, his manners, his mind, and his conduct as spokesman for a nation finding its voice on the world stage were nonpareil and pitch-perfect, and their praise for him was profuse. “He so far overshadows all the other ‘statesmen’ in Washington and is so far superior to any and all Republicans who have held high office in Washington in the last decade,” the Evening Sun of New York editorialized in 1903. “That John Hay has been the main wheel of the Roosevelt administration . . . has long been made manifest to everybody who has observed the numerous instances wherein Mr. Roosevelt’s strenuous, headstrong actions have been deftly smoothed over by the quiet, notoriety-hating secretary of state. There have been a score of instances . . . where the president in his happy, devil-may-care, we-can-lick-the-world style has overstepped the bounds of diplomacy and the presidential prerogative only to be rescued from a difficult predicament by John Hay.” “In sum,” the Sun declared, “John Hay has performed greater and more substantial service to his country than any Republican since Abraham Lincoln.” This from an otherwise unfriendly paper.
His partisans were even more appreciative. “If a man [were to] look over the changes in the world during the last decade to decide what is the most hopeful measure of human progress,” the highbrow journal World’s Work eulogized in 1905, “he might well say that it is the lifting of diplomacy from the level of sharp practice to the level of frank and fair dealing; and this change is the measure of the work of John Hay. For he was a great man [and] if we had not such a man . . . [d]iplomacy might have gone on as the art of low cunning applied to great problems—the good weak and the strong tricky. He made frankness and uprightness strong, and he made trickiness weak by forcing it to confess its character or to retire.”
Hay’s successor as secretary of state, Elihu Root, was at once a student, observer, and beneficiary of Hay’s superb tact and politesse—his “extreme refinement,” as Root reminisced at the dedication of the John Hay Library at Brown University in 1910. “He was the most delightful of companions. One found in him breadth of interest, shrewd observation, profound philosophy, wit, humor, the revelations of tender and loyal friendship and an undertone of strong convictions—and now and then,” Root went on, “expression of a thought that in substance and perfection of form left in the mind the sense of having seen a perfectly cut stone.”
And yet, Root continued in his encomium, “His life was his own and he shared it only with those he loved. The proud modesty of his self-respect made it impossible for him to testify in his own behalf or to allege his own merits.”
The pages that follow aim not so much to speak for John Hay as to allow him to speak for himself, in order that the brilliance of his life, the example of his life, and, what is more, the sheer poignancy of his life might at last be considered in full.
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