The career of John Milton Hay is that of a man who always made the most of his associations. Friendship and fortune were his constant companions and he was always ready to capitalize on opportunity. There seemed to be little in his youth that would commend him to fame or fortune. He was born in Salem, Indiana, and as a child was taken to Warsaw, Illinois, on the Mississippi River. His education was in public schools and then at Pittsfield Academy in Pike County. There he met student John George Nicolay, with whom he was to be associated for almost twenty-five years during and after the Civil War years. As a fourteen year old, already able to read Latin and Greek, Hay entered Illinois State University, which later became Concordia College and was more a high school than a university. Three years later, Hay was sent to Brown University, from which he graduated in 1858 with honors as class poet and a Phi Beta Kappa membership. He apparently also took an M.A., which by Ivy League tradition could be had for $25. He had cultivated a taste for the refined atmosphere of the east, but he had no employment prospects. He had a predilection for snobbery that became more enhanced as he matured.
Hay had hopes of becoming a poet, but he soon realized how impractical that was. He was sent to his uncle Milton’s law office in Springfield, Illinois, as an apprentice in 1859. The office was adjacent to Abraham Lincoln’s, and Lincoln’s law secretary at the time was Hay’s childhood friend, John Nicolay, who suggested that Hay might be useful as an assistant secretary. Because Lincoln had risen in status after his senatorial race against Stephen Douglas, the office was a center of political action.
Hay worked with Nicolay handling the correspondence and planning appointments. The groundwork for establishing Lincoln’s drive for the presidency was being planned, and opportunity and fortune became Hay’s companions. Lincoln’s election encouraged Nicolay to ask that Hay be appointed an assistant secretary to the new president. There was budgetary provision for only one secretary, so Hay was given a job as a clerk in the pension office with assignment to the White House. He was admitted to the bar in 1861, and now at the age of twenty-two he was a confidante of the president on the eve of civil war.
The workload was huge for the two men and invaluable for Hay as they handled appointments of important visitors, dealt with correspondence, and attended the needs of the first family. There were crises every day of Lincoln’s presidency, and the craving for patronage appointments and party favors was endless. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln required special tact, and Hay was often given this special assignment. The two secretaries lived in the White House as part of the official family, a vantage point that provided Hay with an increased admiration for the man who was the embodiment of the frontier that he had come to disown. Hay gained the trust and confidence of the president, who gave him delicate assignments and often confided privately with him on virtually a daily basis. Hay spent almost five years as Nicolay’s assistant.
Military rank during the war years was to become immensely important after the war. In 1864 Hay was given a commission as major and assistant adjutant general in the volunteers and elevated to colonel in 1865, though he did not serve on active duty. Hay left the White House in May 1865, a month after Lincoln’s death, and retained his rank until 1867. He had grown in awe of Lincoln, whose manner with his two secretaries was always ingratiating and sociable. Conversations, correspondence, ideas, humor, and private assessments of daily matters were fodder for the three men. These were defining years of Hay’s life. In his dying days he still had dreams of Lincoln.
His experiences in the White House meant that Hay could never go home again. The excitement of government had infected him. Hay secured foreign appointments as secretary to the U.S. legation in Paris for a year, an interim appointment as secretary and chargé d’affaires at Vienna for another year to 1868, and secretary at Madrid to 1870. He also found time to work on his poetry, publishing in Harper’s Weekly and also a collection entitled Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces in 1871. Mark Twain admired his work and they became friends.
Hay was hired by Whitelaw Reid to write editorials for the New York Tribune, where he worked until 1875 and had opportunities to mix socially and professionally with the best writers in the east. He was at last comfortable economically, but in 1874 he advanced himself by marrying Clara Louise Stone, daughter of Amasa Stone, Cleveland financier and railroad entrepreneur. Hay moved to Cleveland to help manage his father-in-law’s business interests and to accept an offer from his old friend Nicolay to write a definitive history of the Lincoln presidency. Nicolay had gained permission from Robert Todd Lincoln to use the masses of documents in his possession. Before beginning the writing, Hay took an appointment as assistant secretary of state in James A. Garfield’s administration in 1881, but the assassination of the president brought Hay’s resignation and return to Cleveland.
In 1885 Hay joined with Nicolay to begin the great historical memoir of the Lincoln presidency, a project that extended ten volumes and took ten years to complete. It was serialized in Century magazine from 1886 to 1890 and finally published in 1895. Hay also wrote a novel, The Bread-winners (1883), which, like that of his friend Henry Adams’s Democracy, was published anonymously. The book betrayed the conservatism of Hay who held the working class in contempt for challenging their employers. The new immigrants came in for particular disdain by Hay who believed that obeisance to one’s economic and social betters was imperative in an orderly society. Hay despised the Democratic Party, which had cultivated the votes of the working classes.
Hay and his wife mixed with the elite of society. Hay’s close friend was Henry Adams and their special friend was the genial and adventurous Clarence King, who had become head of the geological survey. The three men were diminutive in size but large in social and intellectual significance. Clara Hay and Adams’s wife, Marian, completed what became known as the Five of Hearts, an association brilliantly depicted in Patricia O’Toole’s work of the same title (1990). The three men were very close and joined by understanding of each one’s foibles. Hay financially supported King’s secret black wife and children even after King’s death. Only when Mrs. King sought her inheritance in court did Hay’s widow end the subsidy. Hay, of course, had commiserated with Adams after the suicide of his wife. The two men built adjoining houses in Washington designed by the architect H. H. Richardson. Their homes later became the site of the Hay-Adams Hotel.
Both men were shameless in their sympathies toward England. Hay especially appreciated the social distinctions of the English and the notion of the white man’s (Anglo-Saxon) burden. He tried to gain the ambassadorship under Benjamin Harrison’s administration, but failed despite his generous contributions to the Republican Party. He finally got his wish realized by President William McKinley in 1897. Hay had written speeches for McKinley attacking the Democrats, and he had created a special fund to aid him financially. He also contrived to displace Whitelaw Reid from contention for the ambassadorship in order to gain the job himself. The joy he felt as ambassador was shared by Henry Adams who saw it as a perfect fit of man and job. Hay, in his year and a half as ambassador, was solicitous of England’s interests and sought to bind U.S. policy with the British. He was vexed at the dispatch of special emissaries by McKinley to handle problems such as seal hunting in the Bering Sea, currency regulation between the two countries, and even stand-in for the president at Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebration. Hay had to take a back seat.
Hay was called back to the United States to become secretary of state with the nation in crisis over the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor, but he seemed oblivious to the significance of the act and was on holiday in Egypt rather than at his desk in England at the time. The war was over when he reached Washington, and his contribution was the comment about it being a “splendid little war.” Hay supported the idea that peace negotiations should take the nation on an imperial path of dominance in the Caribbean and in the Pacific Ocean. Concern over European partitioning of China pushed Hay to offer a policy of open-door economic relations. Despite evidence to the contrary, Hay presumed that Europe was in concert with his policy. He also encouraged McKinley to maintain a military presence in China. Curiously, despite the contempt inherent regarding China, the idea of a U.S. military presence became popular in the United States. Hay was to oppose American opinion when he sought to align the United States with Britain in the Boer War on the eve of McKinley’s reelection bid. Hay even appointed his twenty-four-year-old son Adelbert as consul in Pretoria to replace those he fired for their Boer sympathies. Adelbert, as newly appointed assistant secretary of state, became a tragic figure shortly thereafter, when he met his death in a fall from a dormitory window while attending a class reunion at Yale.
Hay’s Anglo sympathies persisted in his negotiations over the Canada-Alaska boundary and when the prospect arose of building an interocean canal in Central America. Hay was thwarted in his compromise attempts by the Senate and by nationalistic enthusiasm for U.S. interests. Hay lost his patron McKinley in 1901, again by assassination. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had his own ideas of how to negotiate foreign policy, especially in Central America. In dealing with Roosevelt, Hay proceeded to support a revolution in Panama and to negotiate a canal treaty with the new nation. Roosevelt had come to see Hay as a “useful ornament” in the state department, but Hay’s health was failing. Hay died at his summer home in New Hampshire on 1 July 1905.
Lincoln, Abraham; Nicolay, John George.For further reading:
- Henry Adams and His Friends (1947). .
- John Hay: From Poetry to Politics (1963). .
- Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890). , and John G. Nicolay.
- John Hay: The Union of Poetry and Politics (1977). , and Anne Hummell Sherrill.
- Henry James and John Hay: The Record of a Friendship (1965). .
- The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 (1990). .
- The Life and Letters of John Hay (1915). .
- Clarence King: A Biography (1958). .