John Hay grew up in Indiana and Illinois. After graduating from Brown University, he began reading law but became Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary during the 1860 presidential campaign. Hay retained his position at the Lincoln White House. After the Civil War, Hay entered the diplomatic service and served in several European posts. He also found success in the literary sphere as a poet, editorial writer, and coauthor of a ten volume history of Lincoln. A noted Anglophile, Hay was elated to be appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1897 where he helped bring about rapprochement between the United States and Britain that would be so impactful in the next century.
Hay reluctantly became McKinley’s Secretary of State near the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, famously termed by Hay as the “splendid little war.” He was an unexpected holdover when Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. His accomplishments as Secretary of State include originating the Open Door policy in China, which maintained China’s territorial integrity and kept open trade. Hay also fostered strong Anglo-American relations and negotiated with Panama for American control of the canal zone.
Roosevelt and Hay got along well and respected each other. They were both intellectually accomplished and Roosevelt certainly enjoyed Hay’s renowned charm and wit, which may be seen in this letter regarding the appointment of a consul who had been an actor.
Letter from John Hay to Theodore Roosevelt, June 9, 1902. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.
Roosevelt’s exuberance and confrontational style contrasted sharply with the considerably more staid Hay. However, they eventually settled into a complementary working relationship with Hay often steadying, or repairing, the ship of state while Roosevelt pushed forward with his characteristic “speak softly and carry a big stick” style. During the last years of his life, Hay’s health declined steadily and Roosevelt took a stronger hand in foreign policy. The elder statesman of the Roosevelt administration passed away on July 1, 1905, at his summer home along Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire.
Clymer, Kenton J. “Hay, John Milton.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 10. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Taliaferro, John. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.