Book Review: John Hay biography a worthy story of a worthy man

Last modified: Sunday, June 23, 2013
In the summer of 1886, John Hay was a restless rich man looking for a summer retreat in the mountains. He and John G. Nicolay, who had served as secretaries to Abraham Lincoln in the White House, were toiling away at what would become the late president’s 10-volume official biography. Together they had bought land near Pike’s Peak in Colorado, but Hay discovered Lake Sunapee and found its greener, gentler peaks more to his liking.

Two years later, Hay and his wife, Clara, bought a farm on the lake in Newbury, and over time they added much more land. The farm, on a “fell,” a high, barren field, became “The Fells,” the name by which it is known today.

As John Taliaferro tells it in his new biography, John Hay used the estate as an escape from the Washington swamp during his tenure as secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He held the job until his death, which occurred at The Fells.

The story of Hay’s time as Lincoln’s secretary has been told in his diary, many Lincoln biographies and even Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: A Novel. The main strength of Taliaferro’s account is his portrait of Lincoln as a father figure to Hay.

Hay was 22 years old when he was hired to help Nicolay with the avalanche of mail and other paper addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Robert Lincoln was away at Harvard – remote from his father in location as well as temperament. The president, who had lost one son in infancy before the Civil War and another to illness in 1862, liked Hay and contrived ways to spell him from overwork. He also made Hay a major and sent him on various military fact-finding missions.

Hay also learned to write in Lincoln’s hand. Aside from giving fits to future generations of autograph collectors, this useful skill and Hay’s own eloquence as a writer called into question who wrote some of the letters over Lincoln’s signature.

Taliaferro is not the first historian to conclude that Hay wrote the famous Bixby letter. The White House was informed that Lydia Bixby, a mother in Massachusetts, had lost five sons in battle. The president’s letter of condolence, much quoted then and now, has long been lost, but it was known to have been signed “A. Lincoln.”

Here is the text: “I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering 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, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

In fact, Lydia Bixby was a Confederate sympathizer, and two of her five sons, not all of them, had been killed in battle. But the facts and the letter’s cloudy authorship do not diminish its expression of noble sentiments.

After the war, Hay married into big money and bounced among diplomatic tours, fiction-writing and journalism. He had been a stellar student at Brown University, but his real education came in diplomatic work in Paris, Vienna and Madrid. As a novelist, he anticipated Primary Colors, writing a roman a clef without putting his name to it. In postwar presidential campaigns, he toiled as a mudslinger, again anonymously, on the editorial page of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Later, when Greeley’s successor took a leave, Hay ran the paper for him.

His editorial writing sometimes reflected the class divide of his time and his own place in it as a man of independent wealth who worked mainly for his own amusement and stature. During the presidential campaign of 1896, he took up McKinley’s cause by lambasting McKinley’s opponent. William Jennings Bryan, he wrote, roved the country “begging for the Presidency, as a tramp might beg for a pie. . . . He only makes one speech – but he makes it twice a day. . . . He simply reiterates the unquestioned truths that every man who has a clean shirt is a thief and ought to be hanged; that there is no goodness and wisdom except among the illiterate and criminal classes.”

Hay’s support, experience and reputation won him appointment as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. After Secretary of State John Sherman resigned in 1898, McKinley chose Hay to succeed him. And after McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt kept Hay on.

The two men laid the groundwork for the American Century. Hay helped craft the so-called Open Door Policy in China and dug the diplomatic and political trenches that helped bring about the Panama Canal Treaty.

Hay had long suffered from the symptoms of heart disease. He left Washington for New Hampshire on June 23, 1905, arriving at The Fells the next day. He was soon bedridden, and despite an optimistic prognosis from a doctor hustled in from Massachusetts by his wife, Clara, he died in his bed shortly after midnight July 1. He was 66 years old.

In two private letters a short time later, Roosevelt expressed personal fondness for Hay but added a caveat. “His name, his reputation, his staunch loyalty, all made him a real asset of the administration,” he wrote. “But in actual work I had to do all the big things myself.” The president found that Hay’s “moral timidity” made him “shrink from all that was rough in life, and therefore from practical affairs.”

Taliaferro does his best to rescue his subject from the sting of this posthumous lashing. He also labors to minimize Hay’s stuffed-shirt tendencies and to read past the maddening discretion in the paper trail Hay left about his extramarital dalliances.

Taliaferro’s greatest challenge as a biographer is to make Hay’s desultory career, especially between the Lincoln and Roosevelt years, lively and interesting. The literary genius of Hay and some of his friends, particularly Henry Adams, is both blessing and curse in meeting this test – blessing when the matters they discuss are serious or momentous, otherwise a curse.

All in all, Hay is lucky to have such an accomplished biographer. All the Great Prizes is a pleasure – well-written, well-researched, the worthy story of a worthy man who served two of the most interesting of U.S. presidents.

(Mike Pride is the former editor of the “Monitor.”)