June 23, 2014

John Hay

Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, John Hay

One of the things that make At Times Dull cozy for me is the secondary characters of American history that I get to follow through 3, 4, or in this case 7 biographies. John Hay is one of my favorites. John Hay was born in Indiana (woohoo!) in 1838, and after graduating from Brown found himself clerking at a law office in Springfield, Illinois, right next door to the law office of Abraham Lincoln.

Hay and Lincoln got to know each other via proximity and Hay's school friend John Nicolay, and after being elected president Lincoln took both of them to Washington with him as his personal secretaries. In Spielberg's Lincoln, Hay is shown as the sweet and slightly befuddled right-hand man to Lincoln (as pictured above), and while it's true that their relationship was very close and loving, Hay was more like the life of the party. He was smart, funny, and boyish — the Josh Lyman trifecta — and a big hit with men and women alike. (Notable exception: Mary Todd Lincoln.) He and Lincoln used to wake each other up in the middle of the night to hang out, and they went horseback riding in the summer. He might have been closer to Lincoln than anyone.

While his relationship with Lincoln is the first line of his obituary, he went on to have an illustrious career in public service. Under Johnson and then Grant he was a US diplomat to Paris, Madrid, and Vienna, before leaving politics for a few years to write and edit for the New York Tribune.

Hayes pulled him back in as Assistant Secretary of State for the last 2 years of his term, but then Hay sat out the next 5 administrations. He spent that time in part working on the 10-volume biography of Lincoln he co-wrote with Nicolay, which remains the bedrock and final word on Lincoln’s legacy.

Then in 1897 William McKinley asked him to be US Ambassador to the UK, and a year later named him Secretary of State. When McKinley was assassinated, Hay reluctantly stayed on at State under Roosevelt and held that position until his death in 1905, eventually coming to love and admire him.

Hay had learned almost as much from William Seward (Lincoln’s SoState) as he had from Lincoln, and was a remarkable statesman. He helped negotiate the end of the Spanish-American War, authored the treaty that would allow construction of the Panama Canal, wrote the Open Door policy in China, and settled the eastern border of Alaska. Despite how good he was at his job, it never hurt that people saw him as the surviving link to Abraham Lincoln, and as his biographer said, he mourned Lincoln for his entire life.

Shortly before his death he was returning to the US from abroad, and getting ready to report to Roosevelt. While on the ship, he dreamt that he reported to the White House and was greeted instead by Lincoln. It’s no surprise that he never got over Lincoln — nobody really has. A statesman whose career began at the right hand of Lincoln and ended at the right hand of Roosevelt, he understood better than anyone the rarity and impact of a great man in the presidency. On the occasion of Roosevelt’s second inauguration, aware that his own life was coming to a close, he gave the young president a ring that contained a hair from Lincoln’s head.

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