“. . . A little after midnight as I was writing . . . , the President came into the office laughing, with a volume of Hood’s works in his hand to show Nico[lay] & me the little Caricature ‘An unfortunate Bee-ing,’ seemingly utterly unconscious that he with his short shirt hanging about his long legs & setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at. What a man it is. Occupied all day with matters of vast moment, deeply anxious about the fate of the greatest army of the world, with his own fame & future hanging on the events of the passing hour, he yet has such a wealth of simple bonhomie & good fellow ship that he gets out of bed & perambulates the house in his shirt to find us that we may share with him the fun. . . . ”
The short young man whose 1862 cabinet card showed him to be even younger was foremost a writer. His diary entries, like the one above, and poems attest to it. A long biography of our most revered president which he co-authored quickly sold 5,000 copies. After becoming a top government official in later life, he must have thought himself a bad luck charm, because four chief executives whom he worked for were assassinated. He was John Hay.
John’s Uncle Milton worked next door to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, and asked his nephew to work on the 1860 campaign. Just a few years older than Lincoln’s son Robert, Hay became a favorite with the president-elect and was hired as a second secretary, in addition to John Nicolay. Because there was only room in the budget for one position, his official paycheck came from the Agriculture Department.
One biographer has called him the “court jester” of the administration, as he could supply a little humor to soften the hard blows of the Civil War. “Now John, just tell that thing again,” Lincoln said once when his young friend had brought up a joke. They would ride together in the afternoon and dine at the Soldiers’ Home in the evening.
After Lincoln’s death Hay returned to journalism and worked for newspapers. He married a girl from a wealthy Cleveland family, Clara Stone, and so had no financial worries thereafter. For twenty years, with their diaries and private papers loaned to them by Robert Lincoln, he and Nicolay collaborated on the biography. When it came out in 1895 it was sold door to door, a common practice then, and became an immediate classic.
About the same time the ten-volume biography was published, John Hay built a mansion in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park at the corner of H and 16th Streets. It was adjacent to his best friend’s place of equivalent architecture and cost. He and Henry Adams hosted a salon of the most interesting people in the capital, including Theodore Roosevelt, who’d been a family friend to both before his fast-rising career in politics.
Hay was Secretary of State under William McKinley and was asked to remain when Roosevelt inherited the top position. He famously referred to the Spanish-American conflict as “a splendid little war,” owing to its brief length. The achievement he is remembered for is the Open Door Policy for all nations to trade with China.
John Hay died in 1905 at age 66. On the occasion of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration earlier in the year, he’d presented the president with a gold ring containing a strand of Abraham Lincoln’s hair. He felt a responsibility to share what he’d experienced, stating in the introduction to Abraham Lincoln: A History, “The young men who have been born since Sumter was fired on have right to all their elders know of the important events they came too late to share.”
+ + + +
At dinners at the Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War, Lincoln liked to read from Shakespeare’s Richard II. Hay remembered that the terrible outbreak of grief and despair had a particular fascination for him:
“For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings
All murdered from within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples…”
(The site of the H. H. Richardson mansions close to the White House is now occupied by the posh Hay-Adams Hotel, in which original paneling from Hay’s home may be seen in a meeting room. Theodore Roosevelt’s gold ring is on display at the Sagamore Hill Historic Site in Oyster Bay, Long Island.)