The Magazine

Witness to History

A golden life in the Gilded Age.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By RYAN L. COLE
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When John Hay’s name is mentioned today, it is often as a footnote attached to the names of the two giants he worked for, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. But he was much more than an associate of great men. Hay was a creature now mostly extinct on our national stage: a genuine man of letters; a poet disguised as a political operative; an accomplished diplomat and grandee of the Republican party; and an acute social critic with a roster of friends and admirers that included presidents, artists, and fellow authors.  

John Hay by John Singer Sargent

John Hay by John Singer Sargent

His life may sound like a fairy tale, but John Taliaferro’s superb biography proves this was not the case. As the first life of the subject to appear since 1934, it is a welcome arrival—not only because Hay has gone too long without a worthy biography, but because Taliaferro’s stylish narration is so well-suited to his subject.  

Born in Indiana and raised in Illinois, Hay, like his mentor Lincoln, was a man of the West. But his studies at Brown transformed the intellectually gifted youth into (in Taliaferro’s telling) a “precociously world-wise and prematurely world-weary” snob. 

“There is, as yet, no room in the West for a genius,” Hay pouted after returning home from Providence. As it turned out, he was wrong. While disinterestedly studying law in Springfield, Hay found himself drawn into Abraham Lincoln’s long-shot presidential quest in 1860, at first flacking as propagandist and then managing the campaign’s voluminous correspondence. When the president-elect’s train left Springfield’s Great Western Railroad station in February 1861, winding its way towards Washington, Hay, along with campaign secretary John Nicolay, was on it. 

The four years that followed constituted John Hay’s true education. Sharing a room with Nicolay in the White House, he was on hand for the heights and depths of Lincoln’s presidency. His observations of the 16th president—rushing to his secretaries’ chamber clad only in a nightgown, “his short shirt hanging about his long legs,” to share an anecdote, and reading Shakespeare at the Soldiers’ Home, to name just two—are compelling. This is by no means Lincoln’s book, but he makes a fascinating flesh-and-blood cameo. 

Hay was not only an observer in the White House, but also a trusted assistant. He was the president’s press man, occasional ghostwriter (Hay likely wrote the famous letter of condolence to Lydia Bixby), and emissary, venturing outside of the capital city on sensitive assignments dealing with the defiant General John C. Fremont and, later, a chimerical peace gesture from Confederate agents in Canada. 

This experience inadvertently turned Hay into a diplomat. After Lincoln’s death, he was dispatched to France. Assignments to Austria and Spain followed. By the time he was 30, Hay had an understanding of international politics that was unparalleled. 

Once his mission in Spain concluded, Hay returned to the United States—“dressed by London tailors, conversant in the finest opera and art, and polished in the etiquette of the haut monde”—to write for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. So commenced the second phase of his career: From his time in New York forward, Hay turned his attention to literary pursuits, editorializing for the Tribune, and then writing a series of popular poems employing the vernacular of a certain breed of Illini. (These were eventually compiled, in 1871, as Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces. An impression of his time in Spain, Castilian Days, soon followed.)

Marriage to Clara Stone, daughter of an Ohio railroad magnate, brought family, financial stability, and relocation to Cleveland’s opulent Euclid Avenue. In 1884, Hay, though distracted by what would become a recurring mix of ailments, anonymously produced his chef-d’oeuvre, The Bread-winners, an inquiry into the class system of the Middle-American town of Bluffland, a stand-in for Cleveland. A long-time-in-the-making 10-volume biography of Lincoln, co-written with Nicolay, appeared in 1890. The election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency in 1876 brought Hay back to Washington, this time as assistant secretary of state. It also fortified a relationship with Henry Adams, whose intellect and elitism matched Hay’s own. Many assumed that The Bread-winners and Adams’s Washington novel Democracy (1880), also written anonymously, had come from the same pen. It was as if the two, who would build adjoining homes off Lafayette Square, across from the White House, “had been friends forever,” writes Taliaferro.  

A sizable portion of this book is dedicated to this partnership and to the fascinating men and women who intersected it: Adams’s acerbic wife Clover; Clarence King, the acclaimed geologist who lived a scandalous double life; Lizzie Cameron and Nanny Lodge, the alluring wives of senators Donald Cameron and Henry Cabot Lodge. We will never know if Hay and Adams had affairs with Cameron and Lodge, but their relationships were inappropriately intimate—and the author spends perhaps a bit too much time scrutinizing the subject. 

Still, Hay’s relationships inside and outside of the Five of Hearts (the self-adopted sobriquet for Hay, Adams, their wives, and King) amaze. Hay compared notes with Henry James and Mark Twain; he was a patron of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Albert Bierstadt. He traded advice with Andrew Carnegie and Robert Lincoln. Hay’s personal and literary lives form two parts of this story. The third, of course, is his public life—and that is where his greatest, and longest-lasting, accomplishments lie.  

Shortly after William McKinley won the presidency in 1896, Hay slyly positioned himself to be ambassador to London; once installed, he obtained the admiration of the aged Queen Victoria, who specifically rearranged her seating charts to be next to him at dinners. Hay’s rapport with the British laid the groundwork for an Anglo-American alliance otherwise known as the Special Relationship. Hay became secretary of state in 1898. 

As secretary, he persuaded Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia to honor China’s territorial integrity and to keep its ports open for international commerce. Hay, who had grown close to McKinley (“He is awfully like Lincoln in many respects”), continued to guide the ship of state for Theodore Roosevelt after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. In a considerable display of diplomatic prowess, Hay fought for and won a series of treaties granting the United States rights to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama. 

Of import equal to his achievements was Hay’s comportment in their pursuit: Always influenced by Lincoln’s pragmatism, he cultivated a dignified, patient, and polished image as a statesman-diplomat for the United States. His tenure as secretary of state, however, drove him to the grave. The accumulation of the demands of work, personal grief at the accidental death of his son, and years of poor health finally claimed Hay in 1905, at age 66. 

In the middle of All the Great Prizes stands a man who, rather than being driven by blinding ambition, seems almost to have ambled through it all. Hay was “not so much a striver as he was an inquirer,” writes the author. But for a man directed, at least in part, by whimsy, Hay enjoyed a remarkably full existence, and John Taliaferro has done an admirable job of bringing to life one of the most interesting Americans of his, or any, age.

Ryan L. Cole, a former adviser to Governor Mitch Daniels, writes from Bloomington, Indiana.