- All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro
John Hay (1838–1905) was born in Salem, Indiana, and grew up in Warsaw, Illinois. His search for education drew him to larger towns and richer cultures: Pittsfield and Springfield in Illinois, then to Providence, Rhode Island, where he graduated from Brown University. During the Civil War, Hay and his friend John George Nicolay (1832–1901) served President Lincoln as personal secretaries. In 1890 the two published Abraham Lincoln: A History in ten volumes. Hay was also an effective diplomat under Presidents Johnson, Hayes, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. His last two posts were his most important: ambassador to Britain and secretary of state. Along the way he drew national attention as a poet, novelist, and journalist, working especially in New York City for Horace Greeley’s and later Whitelaw Reid’s New York Tribune. He knew most of the powerful politicians and writers of his era; among the latter he counted Bret Harte, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James.
In 1874 Hay married Clara Stone, daughter of the wealthiest man in Cleveland. The couple eventually built a home on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. John and Clara had four children, two daughters and two sons. Adelbert, the older son, rose astonishingly fast in the foreign service as consul in Pretoria during the Boer War, where he assisted prisoners on both sides. Tragically, at the young age of twenty-four he died when he fell out of a hotel window in New Haven, Connecticut. He had been celebrating with former Yale classmates.
A fine command of languages, several residences in Europe, a keen mind, and an amiable disposition made John Hay an ideal diplomat. As such he upheld the Monroe Doctrine during the difficulties between Venezuela and Europe’s two greatest powers, Great Britain and Germany. He created the Open Door policy and maintained it through the Boxer Rebellion in China. Of greatest value to the United States, however, Hay negotiated treaties that earned the right for the United States to build, manage, and defend the Panama Canal, something for which he has been criticized, then and since. The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty terminated the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom. Its intention had been to make sure neither power would build a canal or railroad in Central America that might exclude the other. As directed by President McKinley, Vice President and then President Roosevelt, and the majority in the U.S. Senate, Hay then negotiated treaties to give full rights to the United States [End Page 463] alone to build and operate a canal. First came the Hay-Herrán Treaty with Colombia, and then, when that nation rejected it, the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the suddenly independent nation of Panama.
While representing the United States in London, John Hay’s charming manners, wide knowledge, and powers of persuasion contributed to the improvement of Anglo-American relations. Queen Victoria was especially fond of him. There has always been a tolerably well-defined aristocracy—or, if one prefers, upper class—in the United States. John Hay was certainly not part of it at his birth, but by applying his remarkable talents he became one of its shining lights in his later years.
Readers chiefly interested in politics and diplomacy may be surprised by the amount of attention Taliaferro gives to the odd triangle of John Hay, Henry Adams, and Elizabeth Sherman Cameron (1860–1944). Both men had a sort of infatuation with this charming and very wealthy wife of a Pennsylvania senator that ended only with their deaths. But whereas Hay remained solidly grounded in a conventional and fruitful marriage, Adams, after the suicide of his brilliant wife in 1885, continued writing letters and paying visits to Lizzie, as they invariably called her, and to her daughter Martha, until his death in 1918. We also see, however imperfectly, something of Hay...