Brown University Portrait Collection, Providence, Rhode Island

John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903

During the winter of 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to the White House to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp the large round knob of a staircase, as though to keep him in place. Since Roosevelt limited sessions to a half hour, Sargent improved the time by crossing Lafayette Square to the sumptuous house of John Hay, Roosevelt’s secretary of state, where he painted a portrait of Hay—a private commission—in his darkened library. While the youthful Roosevelt is depicted as a commanding presence, as though holding the diminished world in his firm grip, Hay at sixty-four, a slight man prone to obscure ailments, looks pensive, his right hand held tentatively aloft and a rebellious strand of hair straying across his creased forehead. One could almost imagine the two men posing for contrasting allegorical figures representing the Man Who Carries a Big Stick and the Man Who Talks Softly.

Perhaps there is something in the very nature of diplomacy that tends to blur the outlines of individual achievement, but no biography of Hay, or of others in his illustrious circle, has managed to capture the elusive figure in Sargent’s portrait, who once remarked, with characteristic modesty, that his life was an “oughtnottobiography.” Even Henry Adams, in his The Education of Henry Adams, with its incisive accounts of so many politicians and mountebanks, is oddly reticent about his closest friend and longtime Washington neighbor. John Taliaferro’s sympathetic but by no means hagiographic portrait, All the Great Prizes (2013), brought us closer to the subject than previous attempts, while exploring the motivations behind his self-effacement.

Three subsequent books on Hay, all of which build on Taliaferro’s findings, follow a revealing pattern. Each one pairs Hay with illustrious contemporaries: with John Nicolay, his fellow presidential secretary, in Joshua Zeitz’s Lincoln’s Boys; with Mark Twain in Mark Zwonitzer’s The Statesman and the Storyteller; and with Lincoln, Twain, Henry James, and Roosevelt, in Philip McFarland’s wide-ranging John Hay, Friend of Giants. The impression left by such partial portraits—of which Zwonitzer’s, principally concerned with Twain’s and Hay’s diverging views of the benefits of empire, is the most substantial—is that Hay, no giant himself, gained in stature by his association with others.

The subtitles of these books convey something about the sheer extent of Hay’s life, beginning with his youthful service in Abraham Lincoln’s White House. With his fellow private secretary, the German-born John Nicolay, Hay later wrote the official biography, as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, of Lincoln’s life and times. Hay was regarded as the literary stylist on Lincoln’s team, ghostwriting much of the president’s correspondence, including, apparently, one of his most famous letters. Later, he wrote popular dialect poems, drawn from the Midwest where he grew up, along with an anti-labor novel much admired in its day.

But it is as a statesman specializing in foreign affairs—first as a diplomat serving in European posts after the Civil War, and then as secretary of state in the successive administrations of McKinley and Roosevelt—that Hay makes the greatest claim to historical significance. He was of that generation that guided the United States from its fledgling years as a peripheral participant in the world to its still ambivalent embrace of empire. It was Hay who famously characterized the Spanish-American War as a “splendid little war.” He also defended the horrific American occupation of the Philippines and arranged the secret meetings that eventually led to construction of a canal under American control in “independent” Panama—independent, because the United States had encouraged the state of Panama to declare independence from Colombia in exchange for military support and a favorable deal on the canal.

Hay also—and it is still regarded as his greatest achievement—established the American policy regarding China, expressed in his successive “Open Door” notes of 1899–1900. These documents, agreed to by the other imperial powers, ensured that China would be open to trade with all foreign powers on an equal basis; they are widely viewed as having prevented the partition of China—by Great Britain, Russia, Germany, France, and Japan—into exclusive economic “spheres of influence,” essentially colonies. Taliaferro follows other historians in considering the Open Door Hay’s “masterpiece,” adding the hyperbolic claim that “if Lincoln had saved the Union, John Hay deserves a nod of credit for saving China from ‘spoliation’ at the hands of the other powers.”

Hay conceived of diplomacy as a transaction among gentlemen. He believed in trust among civilized nations and fought tenaciously for treaties against an obstinate Senate that despised such self-limiting agreements. George Kennan, a distinguished diplomat of a later, less civil era, once characterized “the America I know and love and owe allegiance to” as “the America of…John Hay and Henry Adams and Roosevelt,” specifying that “it stood for certain ideals of decency and courage and generosity which were as fine as anything the world has ever known.” Hay’s conviction that the United States was a beacon to a world struggling toward democracy could easily be abused, as in the case of the Philippines and later American interventions in Asia. “He was a man of his time—,” Kennan concludes, with perhaps a touch of irony, “a man of dignity and sensitivity—a great American gentleman.”


John Milton Hay was born in Salem, Indiana, in 1838. His father, a bookish physician, moved his family further west, to Warsaw, Illinois, a river town just above Twain’s Hannibal and just below the Morman settlement at Nauvoo, and founded the public library there. Taliaferro mentions two events that he thinks shaped Hay’s childhood. Hay came across a runaway slave hiding in the family basement, and later said, “that incident has given me a greater horror than anything I have ever read about slavery.” His father was drawn into the anti-Mormon activities of the Warsaw militia “as its surgeon,” though Hay, while denouncing the Mormon leaders as “blackguards,” claimed that his father opposed the lynch mob that marched on the jail in nearby Carthage and murdered Joseph Smith and his brother. Hay’s father, who read Homer and Virgil for pleasure, instructed his precocious son at home, encouraging his gift for languages. Hay attended a local academy, where he met John Nicolay, and enrolled, at age sixteen, at Brown. Drawn into the literary circle of the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who had once been engaged to Edgar Allan Poe, Hay wrote poetry in a sappy Byronic mode.

Back in Illinois, Hay read law at the firm of his uncle Milton, who in Springfield had an office next to that of Abraham Lincoln. Nicolay was clerking for the Illinois Secretary of State. When Lincoln, who had begun his campaign for public office, needed someone to answer his letters, Nicolay suggested Hay. After Lincoln’s surprising victory, the two young men followed Lincoln to Washington, a city Hay found, in Taliaferro’s deft phrase, “at once august and disgusting.” At the ill-equipped White House of the early 1860s, where Mary Todd Lincoln couldn’t muster matching table settings for a dozen guests, ordinary citizens lined up every day by the hundreds to get by the gatekeepers, Hay and Nicolay, and meet with the beleaguered president face to face.

John Hay was “the stylish one” on the White House staff, according to Taliaferro, “dapper and erudite, with the pen of a poet.” Nicolay, by contrast, was “short-tempered and dyspeptic,” in Zeitz’s account, “a brooding figure to those seeking the president’s time or favor.” Two or three hundred letters arrived at the White House every day. Hay told William Herndon that Lincoln “signed without reading them the letters I wrote in his name.” One of Lincoln’s most famous letters is known as the Bixby letter. A Mrs. Bixby of Boston had reportedly lost five sons in the war (it later came to light that she had lost two, and was a southern sympathizer); the governor of Massachusetts thought something special was called for to honor such conspicuous sacrifice. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” the letter reads in part.

But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save…. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost.

The letter was long considered among the greatest writings in the Lincoln canon. It was later set to music; I’ve heard it sung, movingly, by the baritone Thomas Hampson. The World War II film Saving Private Ryan drew major elements of its plot from the Bixby exchange. It is now widely believed that the letter was written by John Hay, who reportedly told friends that he had written it, and who pasted it in scrapbooks along with poems he published anonymously during the war. One can see how the Bixby letter could have been written by someone convinced that he was expressing what a more eloquent Lincoln ought to have written on such an occasion. The genteel phrases—“to beguile you from the grief,” “refrain from tendering to you the consolation,” “may assuage the anguish”—are, as Taliaferro notes, “more characteristic of Hay, appearing over and over in his own letters and seldom in Lincoln’s.” Hungover at Gettysburg after a long night of reveling, Hay had only this to say about the famously terse address, in which he himself had no hand: “The President in a firm free way, with more grace than is his wont said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home through crowded and cheering streets.”


During the war, Hay bought some orange groves in Florida, and thought about returning to Illinois as a gentleman farmer. He was still in Washington when Lincoln was shot and, by his own account, was standing at the head of the bed when the president died. Neither the orange groves nor the Midwest held much appeal for Hay, who accepted a minor diplomatic post in Paris instead, followed by postings in Vienna and Madrid, where he also wrote for American magazines. “The Empire attained its most resplendent bloom the year before its fall,” he wrote of Paris in 1869, on the eve of the ruinous war with Prussia.

Hay’s study of European revolutions persuaded him that nations could grow in democratic directions. In Spain he claimed to hear, with his customary effusiveness, “strains of lyric beauty that are only heard in the fresh and dewy dawn of democracies.” In the editorials he began writing in 1870 for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Hay developed his ideas about the inevitable progress of democracy in the world, with the United States in the vanguard:

The leading liberal minds of the Old World clearly recognize that the American system of government is the nearest to perfection of all that have ever been evolved from the intelligence of man and the force of circumstance.

In a lighter mode, Hay wrote poems in dialect celebrating a native American virtue sprung from the rough circumstances of the frontier. “Jim Bludso” is about the engineer of a steamboat on the Mississippi who, in an ill-advised race with a newer boat, accidentally sets his boat on fire. Bludso remains on board until all the passengers except himself are safely ashore:

He were n’t no saint,—but at
    I’d run my chance with Jim,
’Longside of some pious
    That wouldn’t shook hands
        with him.
He seen his duty, a dead-sure
    And went for it thar and then;
And Christ ain’t a going to be too
    On a man that died for men.

Among the many admirers of the poem was Mark Twain, who pointed out that Bludso, if he steered the boat, should have been a pilot, and not an engineer.

Hay was well paid by the Tribune, but he found a better way to secure his financial future when he married Clara Stone, one of the richest women in America, in 1874. Her father was Amasa Stone, a name that Edith Wharton might have invented, who, from his base in Cleveland, had amassed a fortune in steel and railroads. Stone persuaded Hay to work for him in Cleveland, building a huge mansion next door to his own house in anticipation of many grandchildren. Hay witnessed the intense labor agitation that followed the worldwide depression of 1873 and wrote darkly of international conspiracies and proletarian uprisings instilling “the very devil…into the lower class of working men.”

Library of Congress

Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in ‘The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids’; illustration by Leon Baritt from Vim, 1898

The novel Hay wrote on the subject, The Bread-Winners, published anonymously in 1883, is a sentimental romance set in a gritty city modeled on Cleveland. Two workers vie for the same young woman. One is the hardworking carpenter Sam Sleeny, “whose daily life was a practical argument against the doctrines of socialism.” The other is the dark-skinned and “oleaginous” Andrew Jackson Offitt, who has organized, among “the laziest and most incapable workmen in the town,” a secret society called the “Brotherhood of Bread-winners.” In a melodramatic sequence, Offitt organizes a factory strike, nearly kills the owner with a hammer while pinning the crime on Sleeny, and finally gets his due. Sleeny marries the novel’s erstwhile siren, while the recovering factory owner marries the highborn and angelic Alice (modeled on Hay’s own very maternal wife). “Hay tells his story from the omniscient point of view,” McFarland writes, “yet one feels—readers felt it at the time—that his view is hardly objective, but rather in favor of the rich, against the strikers, the discontented, the upstarts.”

Ohio was a center of Republican politics, and Hay supported the candidacies of the Ohio-born presidents Garfield and McKinley. Hay had helped to bail out McKinley, then governor of Ohio, when he incurred a large debt in 1893, and later contributed to his candidacy. President McKinley gratefully appointed Hay ambassador to Great Britain and later secretary of state. Hay was not directly involved in the American suppression of the insurgents (former allies against Spanish rule) in the Philippines, but he defended American policy there, arguing that the Filipinos were not “oppressed” but were being schooled for democracy. (Twain referred to the American presence in the Philippines as “a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.”) Hay praised “the men who are striving…to ameliorate their condition and to make them fit for self-government and all its attendant advantages.”

Such rhetoric would become all too familiar in twentieth-century American foreign policy. Hay’s high-handed treatment of the parties in the various canal negotiations strikes a similar tone. Convinced that an “Isthmian” canal would be, as Roosevelt said, “one of the future highways of civilization,” Hay considered anyone who opposed it, such as the “greedy little anthropoids” in Bogotá, barbaric and unworthy of respect.

Hay’s diplomacy was more admirable when he was dealing with men he considered his equals, such as the European ministers he skillfully coerced into agreeing to the Open Door in China. Here, too, however, his success may have had inadvertent liabilities, since “a myth was established,” as Kennan put it, “which was destined to flourish in American thinking for at least a half-century.” The myth was that American statesmen could be relied on for ideas that would save the world.

The main facts of Hay’s diplomacy have been known for a long time. It is an aspect of Hay’s private life that Taliaferro presents as a new discovery, one that subsequent writers on Hay have tended to accept, though McFarland, for one, adopts a more cautious attitude toward it. Adams and Hay had commissioned the architect H.H. Richardson to build adjacent houses on Lafayette Square (where the Hay-Adams Hotel now stands), opposite the White House. The ostentatious Hay residence had a gold-leaf ceiling and a fireplace of emerald green marble; the Adams house, inspired by Japanese design, was contrastingly austere. Just before the houses were complete, in late 1885, Adams’s wife, Clover, committed suicide, ingesting potassium cyanide used in her photographic work.

Following this disaster, a group of friends came regularly to the Adams or the Hay residence, and often summered together, at Adams’s family retreat in Beverly Farms or at yet another Hay mansion in New Hampshire. The circle included the charismatic mining engineer Clarence King, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and his wife, Nannie, and, centrally, Elizabeth Cameron, a native of Cleveland and the much younger wife of Pennsylvania Senator Donald Cameron, a rich, drunken lout. It has been widely believed for some time, and was given its fullest expression in Patricia O’Toole’s racy biographical study The Five of Hearts, that Hay was in love with Nannie Lodge, and that Adams in turn was in love with Lizzie Cameron. Taliaferro underplays Hay’s “conjectured” attachment with Mrs. Lodge, which he thinks “dimmed” with the years. He maintains, instead, that Hay, like Adams, was passionately in love with Mrs. Cameron, a famous beauty who posed as Nike in Saint-Gaudens’s gilded sculptural group, located at the southeast corner of Central Park, commemorating the victory march of General Sherman, Cameron’s uncle, through the defeated South.

I suspect, however, that Cameron’s unavailability made Hay’s letters and love poems a harmless diversion. “The lady of my love bids me not to love her,” he wrote in one sonnet. “I can but bow obedient to her will.” His letters to her are carefully “diplomatic,” hedged with ambiguous longing and couched in the language of religious adulation. “My proud goddess,” he wrote, “my glorious beauty, my grand, sweet woman, I want to shut my eyes to everything about you here, and adore you as I did at Dulwich.” Such conventional remarks might be contrasted with Adams’s agonizing pleas to Lizzie: “I must always make more demand on you than you can gratify…. I am not old enough to be a tame cat; you are too old to accept me in any other character.”

“On looking them over,” Cameron wrote, when William Roscoe Thayer asked if Hay’s letters to her might be included in a posthumous collection,

I find that most of them are what would seem to anyone not well acquainted with Mr. Hay, ardent love letters! You, who must have handled many such, will understand that they merely express his habit of gallantry, and his love of writing pretty phrases.

Taliaferro thinks Cameron is hiding something here. An easier explanation would be that she was right about Hay.

Hay’s final years were marred by tragedy. His son Del, attending his Yale reunion during the summer of 1901, fell to his death, perhaps deliberately, from a hotel window. “Good luck has pursued me like my shadow,” Hay wrote Adams. “Now it is gone—it seems to me forever.” Barely two months later, McKinley was assassinated. Hay’s service under the undisciplined Roosevelt, who dismissed him as “a fine figurehead,” wore him down further. In his final diary entry, in June 1905, Hay wrote, “By mere length of service I shall occupy a modest place in the history of my time,” adding:

I know death is the common lot, and what is universal ought not to be deemed a misfortune; and yet—instead of confronting it with dignity and philosophy, I cling instinctively to life and the things of life, as eagerly as if I had not had my chance at happiness & gained nearly all the great prizes.

Some of the prizes have not aged well. Too facile and self-consciously literary to be an interesting poet or writer of fiction, Hay held a lifelong allegiance to the party of Lincoln, which turned out to be similarly melodramatic. As the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to the less fortunate and embraced big business, Hay remained resolute. “To Hay,” Adams observed acidly, “the difference [between Democrat and Republican] was that of being respectable or not.”

It is in Hay’s diplomacy that we should look for a new tone in foreign policy. After Hay managed to rally the Great Powers and the Chinese government, Henry Adams’s brother Brooks wrote admiringly, “I believe you to be one of the two or three Americans living who have measured the present situation, and that your policy will prove to have carried us round one of the great corners of our history.” It was Hay’s ability to quietly take the “measure” of an international crisis that struck his contemporaries as something new. A key word for Hay, in this respect, was to exploit what was “possible.” “I do what seems possible every day—not caring a hoot for consistency or the Absolute,” he wrote to Adams of the turmoil in China.

If Hay’s rhetorical pitch was often too high or too low in his melodramatic fiction and his bathetic poetry, in his diplomacy of the possible he often found the right, the realistic measure. After Hay’s death, his close friend William Dean Howells, the foremost proponent of realism in fiction, handsomely called Hay “the most innately American of our statesmen.”