John Hay modestly insisted that the unique opportunities that came his way during an extraordinary life, and the accomplishments that resulted from them, were just the result of fortunate accidents. His public career began when he was in his 20s and became the assistant private secretary to Abraham Lincoln in the White House, where, living and working in close quarters, he grew close to the president. The first entry in Hay’s diary, which he kept through most of the war, was “The White House is turned into barracks,” when—with Confederate campfires visible across the Potomac—some of the first northern volunteers arrived to defend the capital and were temporarily housed in the East Room. As he observed the president struggling day after day with momentous problems, the young man came to consider Lincoln “the greatest man of his time.”
John Taliaferro gives us a fascinating portrait of the life of a greatly gifted figure in All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. The title comes from Hay himself, who, as he neared death, wrote, “I cling instinctively to life and the things of life, as eagerly as if I had not had my chance at happiness and gained nearly all the great prizes.”
Hay was born in Indiana and grew up in Warsaw, Illinois, a small town on the Mississippi River, where his father was a physician. Educated at Brown University, where he excelled at rhetoric and wrote a lot of poetry, he returned to Illinois and accepted an offer to read the law at the firm in Springfield where his uncle was a partner. Their office just happened to adjoin Lincoln’s. When Lincoln became a presidential candidate, Hay became an unpaid aide, whose numerous skills during the campaign and immediately after the election made him indispensable to the president-elect.
After his work with Lincoln, Hay accepted several diplomatic appointments and then became a very highly regarded and well-paid editorial writer in New York City—a career Taliaferro surmises he probably would have continued had he not married Clara Louise Stone of Cleveland, Ohio, and became part of her wealthy family. He continued to write for publication and was co-author of the highly acclaimed 10-volume Abraham Lincoln: A History. Late in his life he was among the first seven members inducted into the new American Academy of Arts and Letters, a group that included Mark Twain and William Dean Howells. (Henry James and Henry Adams were not so honored until the following year.)
As a diplomat, he was assistant secretary for Rutherford B. Hayes, after which came the government roles for which he became best known: secretary of state for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Taliaferro details the often difficult negotiations that led to such policies as the “Open Door” toward China and the events that led up to the building of the Panama Canal. We also learn how Hay worked with the contrasting leadership styles of McKinley and Roosevelt. McKinley was kind and considerate, T.R. bombastic and ready to charge ahead, while the more moderate Hay counseled caution. Although T.R. praised Hay profusely for many attributes, he also downplayed his role in important decisions.
Hay also occupies a prominent place in The Education of Henry Adams, the unconventional autobiography (if it can be categorized as such) written by Hay’s best friend. Next to Lincoln, no one, not even his wife, played as important a role in Hay’s life as Henry Adams. They eventually had houses built next to each other in Washington and took afternoon walks together. Both were very independent and their views often differed, but they had great respect for each other, Hay as a participant in government, Adams as a spectator. They also shared an interest in Elizabeth Cameron, an impressive woman much younger than they were. Although apparently happily married to Clara, Hay remained in love with “Lizzie” until he died. Despite his sometimes romantic letters to her, it is obvious that she was never as dedicated to him as he was to her.
Taliaferro draws on many sources for his engaging biography, including his subject’s own words. Although known for his gentlemanly approach to others as well as his wit and charm, Hay was plainly aware of his place in history. He kept thousands of pages of his own writing—diaries, letters, speeches, poetry and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about his role in the events of his time.
This balanced, insightful biography is a delight to read.