The Magazine

Witness to History

A golden life in the Gilded Age.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By RYAN L. COLE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.