John Hay

“. . . 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. . . . ”

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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.

Picture of John Hay

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.”
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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.)

More Noise

When primaries wind down, campaigns shift to political party conventions of the summer.  Americans running for office will make noise and more noise, positive for themselves and negative for their opponents.  Name-calling and rumors are nothing new.  But perhaps they are more hard to ignore in our time because of the many and diverse kinds of media, and it is harder to decipher the truth.  Unless you’re up in the mountains off the grid (which often sounds superlative) you’re probably not going to avoid the spin.

When Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel of 1804, it was after a dozen years of high profile conflict.  Like Thomas Jefferson, Burr was a Democrat-Republican.  Then he ran for the governor of New York as an independent, and Hamilton, the Federalist, set out to thwart the campaign.  His mistrust of the candidate was great.

The two were still insulting each other as Burr, now Vice President, challenged Hamilton to a duel.  A meeting of seconds was not successful.  At the chosen site in New Jersey, Hamilton was said to have fired prematurely; however moments later it was he who was wounded, and died the next day.  Burr was arrested but never tried for murder.  He was later tried and acquitted for treason and his final years were spent in obscurity.

In this 1834 cartoon, Kentucky senator Henry Clay tries to sew Andrew Jackson’s mouth shut to stop his talk of ending the Bank of the United States.  Jackson believed its purpose was to benefit the wealthy.  He had conflicts with many and was never afraid to address them directly.

Ten years earlier, Old Hickory had won more popular and electoral votes for the presidency than John Quincy Adams, but lost in the House of Representatives with the help of – Henry Clay.  In the 1828 election, which Jackson won, his opponents publicized Rachel Jackson as a bigamist and she literally died of humiliation before her husband was inaugurated.  This naturally added more fuel to the fire of his political ire.

Most all of us have the image of lanky Abraham Lincoln debating squat Stephen Douglas before the Civil War (there was a one-foot difference in their height, exaggerated by Lincoln’s hat).  Seven times the two engaged in a three-hour debate to help Illinois voters decide who they wanted to fill their senate seat.  Though the incumbent Douglas won, the publicity propelled Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.

Douglas was author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave settlers in new territories the right to decide whether to allow slavery.  He considered Lincoln a radical, who with the new Republican Party believed the country could not endure “half slave and half free.”

According to, both men were adamant about preserving the union, but differed in philosophy as to how it could be done.  Douglas died of typhoid fever in 1861, never knowing that his adversary would accomplish the goal.

I’ll bypass the Theodore Roosevelt/Woodrow Wilson rivalry which transcended the 1912 election to World War 1, to talk about T.R. Jr. and his run-in with first cousin Eleanor.  Her husband, Franklin, was not a candidate for the New York governorship in 1924, but they supported Al Smith rather than Ted.  Franklin was critical of Ted’s performance as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

Ted’s brother Archie was involved with the Sinclair Oil Company, which had been implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal about oil leases in the west.  Eleanor and her friends drove through the state in a car with a giant steam-emitting papier mache teapot on the roof and denounced her cousin over a loudspeaker.

Smith won and Ted continued in business ventures.  In World War II, though, he was once again a soldier on Utah Beach, on D-Day.  He suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after on the eve of a promotion to Brigadier General.

Amid upheavals there are always small victories, as shown by a favorite story of my aunt’s.  She worked in a senator’s office on Capitol Hill in 1948.  Her boss, angry that Truman had pulled off the presidency, refused to go to the inauguration and gave his tickets to her and her brother.  The two obscure twenty-something Indiana Republicans were ringside at the president’s swearing-in ceremony, much to the chagrin of prominent Democrats who wanted the seats.

Pitch & Timbre

george-washington-large.jpg - Photograph Source: Public Domain

If you were able to ask George Washington a question, what would his answer sound like?

I wonder.  In portraits his mouth is always closed, due to the state of his teeth.  But according to the head librarian at Mount Vernon, our first president probably had an understated yet firm voice.  Unlike New Englanders, Virginians were soft-spoken.  Intonations came from the throat rather than the nose.  The regional dialect of the time would have included holt for hold, flo’ for floor, holp for help, sho-er for shower, wid or wud for with, and yaller for yellow.

We’ll never know for sure because nobody had a way to record sound in the Eighteenth Century.  The phonautograph, ahead of Edison’s phonograph, made the first recording of a human voice in 1860.  A Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville found a way to save sound waves forever, in particular a lady singing Clair de Lune, on a turning cylinder.

Lincoln’s first inaugural address on the east side of the Capitol (

In the 2012 movie Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis probably represented the main character’s speaking voice accurately.  Historians like Harold Holzer agree that it was tenor in pitch.  It carried into crowds; it had a folksy twang; it could effortlessly change to a Scottish accent due to its host’s frequent study of the poetry of Robert Burns.  Abraham Lincoln did not move while speaking, with one observer stating that you could put a silver dollar between his feet when he began, and be able to measure the same distance from it to his shoes when he finished.  By looking at a photographic still of him in his stovepipe hat, one would think he had been a deep and robust bass.

Isn’t that the way it is?  Someone you’ve only seen in a picture sounds differently than imagined, or someone you’ve talked to only on the phone has an unexpected appearance.

I figured Theodore Roosevelt boomed those speeches from the tail end of trains and from tabletops and platforms.  Not so.  Several recordings of them are available on the Library of Congress website.  He almost sounds British to me, and his pitch is pretty high, maybe because it was coming from a pair of very asthmatic lungs.  I know that in person he was warm and personable, for it was said after he met you and shook your hand, you had to “wring the personality out of it.”  When I showed surprise at the sound of the commentary by his daughter, Ethel, in an award-winning film called My Father the President, a park ranger told me her voice was typical of old New York upper class society.

Once I asked an aunt what my grandmother, whom I never got to meet, sounded like.  She thought for a minute.  “Like Lilah,” she said, referring to one of her sisters.  That was a comfort to me.  I knew what my aunt sounded like, so I could imagine what it would have been like to talk to her mother, my grandma.

The average human voice registers 60 decibels.  I can’t resist saying that the Guinness World Record was made by Jill Drake of Kent, England at 129 dB — 30 dB above a jackhammer (She’s a teacher’s aide).  Anything that can’t be classified as pitch or loudness falls into the category of timbr, according to a recently published piece of research.  It’s a mixture of harmonics.  The relationship of bass clarinet:oboe is similar to the relationship of male voice:female voice.

“So, Mr. President: What improvements are you making at the plantation this summer?”

“Wid some holp, we’re painting the sheds yaller, even the flo’s (hesitating), but if there’s a sho-er we’ll have to stop for a spell.  In the meantime, join us fo’ a treat of ow-a own wah a tah mill ians.”

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I’d a general studies understanding of muckrakers in the Progressive Era, including Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle.  His novel led to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which in turn made food safer for all Americans to eat.

I’d a small memory of reading about a woman writer in this group, so labeled by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Her work helped bring down Standard Oil Company.

Ida Tarbell.

Born in 1857, Ida grew up in a comfortable home in northwestern Pennsylvania.  Her father developed wooden tanks for storing oil, and then became an independent refiner himself.  When John D. Rockefeller made secret deals with major railroads, most of the competition in the area were forced to sell out to him.

Not Tarbell.  But his business partner committed suicide, and things were rough for the family.  In the meantime Rockefeller repeated his tactics in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, building up the Standard Oil monopoly.

Ida was the only female in her freshman class at Allegheny College.  After graduation she taught science, quitting after two years (I imagine most teachers entertain the same thought).  She became a writer for a magazine called the Chataquan in her hometown.  Then she left to live in Paris as a freelance writer, where she met Samuel McClure.  He asked her to join his new magazine’s staff in New York.

Something happened next which typifies her career in journalism.  Remembering from childhood the effect of Lincoln’s assassination on her family and community, she wondered if there was more information about his life yet to publish.  His former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, had used access to his papers and their personal memories to write a well-received, multi-volume biography.  Was there anything left to be found on Abraham Lincoln?  So she went to see Nicolay.

No, he told her.  They’d covered it all.

Well, this is one reason I’d a liked Ida.  No one can say they’ve covered it all, and she knew it.  So she began to look.

She visited Robert Todd Lincoln.  He had the earliest known photograph of his father, a daguerreotype which had not been circulated outside the family, and was pleased to share it with her.  She dug deeper, finding Lincoln’s first published speech, and his and Mary’s marriage license.  Hay and Nicolay had missed both.  She interviewed many others who had known Lincoln, putting together a picture of his early life in Indiana and Illinois which led to different conclusions.  Though his childhood on the frontier had been rough, it was happy, and had encouraged traits that led to his presidency.

Ida’s investigative reporting turned into a Lincoln biography serialized in McClure’s.  It raised the magazine’s circulation substantially and was published in book form.  Then she began a five-year project on something else she could never forget: the business practices of Standard Oil.

Ida interviewed lawyers and employees of the company, including a senior executive.  Methodically, she read public records.  She took a lot of time studying court documents.  “One of Mr. Rockefeller’s most impressive characteristics is patience,” she wrote.  There was “no one who could dare more while he waited…”  She used the same patience while compiling her her massive notes.

When “The History of Standard Oil,” was published in installments in 1902 and 1903, it caused an uproar.  She also published a character sketch of him in 1904, describing him as “the oldest man in the world.”  Rockefeller refused to comment, saying she was misguided.  Ida Tarbell’s writings led to a lawsuit against Standard Oil via the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the eventual breaking up of the company in 1911.  “They had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me,” she said.

She had a talent for finding information and presenting it to the public.  “A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it,” was another of her frank observations.

President Roosevelt had coined the term of muckraker with his 1906 speech, “The Man With the Muck Rake.”  It was derived from a character in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, someone who was always looking down and stirring up what the animals had left behind.  The individual he was referring to at the time was David Graham Philips, who wrote for the Hearst magazine Cosmopolitan.

Correspondence survives from 1911 and 1912 between Theodore, a contributor to the Outlook magazine; and Ida, who had become the part owner, editor and writer for the American.  On April 28, 1911, he asked her to share his disappointment with colleagues whose article appeared alongside hers.  Soon after, on May 6, he dispensed with a formal salutation and began with: “Oh!  Miss Tarbell, Miss Tarbell!  How can you take the view you do of the Herald!  You compare it with the Tribune…”  She had criticized his magazine for printing an advertisement that looked like a regular news piece.  But friendly letters from the next year show that the two met occasionally for a business lunch.

She did not agree she had been one of the muckrakers, and wrote in her autobiography (not long before her death at age 86 in 1944), referring to

this classification…which I did not like. All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.

I need to take more time with some primary sources to find out why many books and articles still lump her into the same category with them.

Sources: Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,,,,,  The University of Michigan site offers a fascinating article from a 1998 issue of the Journal of Abraham Lincoln.  For an excellent, well-rounded account of early 20th Century journalists and politicians, see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Humor in Rough Rider’s Uniform

“Nobody ever had as good a time as I did as president,” Theodore Roosevelt reflected in 1909.  His serious side, which included negotiating peace between Russia and Japan, breaking apart trusts, and preserving the wilderness for generations of Americans, was balanced with pillow fights and outdoor adventures with his children — and boxing matches and Japanese wrestling with friends in the White House.  He often drew funny cartoons in letters he wrote to his family.

TR loved to tell stories and laugh at them.  He said, “When they call roll in the Senate, the senators don’t know whether to answer, ‘Present,’ or ‘Not guilty.'”  His eldest child was notorious for living it up, to which he responded, “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.”

Those who served as chief of the executive branch before and after him could let their sense of humor show, too.

George Washington: When a junior officer boasted he could break a spirited horse and was thrown off head over heels, Washington was so “convulsed with laughter tears ran down his cheeks.”  He also wrote in a letter about a duel:  “They say Jones fired at his opponent and cut off a piece of his nose.  How could he miss it?  You know Mr. Livingstone’s nose and what a capitol target it is.”

John Adams: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”  Lincoln’s stories were legendary — it was not always what he said but how he said it.  He was an expert mimic.  During the horrible days of the Civil War he often got relief by listening his two secretaries with knee-slapping laughter.  “Tell it again, John!” he said to young John Hay.

Calvin Coolidge: After a hostess said she’d made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, he replied, “You lose.”  He said in 1929 he didn’t want to run for president again.  There was no chance for advancement.

Franklin Roosevelt: “Twenty-two minutes,” he said, when asked what the next Fireside Chat was to be about.

 Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Lyndon Johnson made some famous analogies but that doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

Jimmy Carter: “It’s nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”

Ronald Reagan, a natural storyteller, was the only president with a prior career in entertainment.  He poked fun at himself: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states.”   When horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth, her mount passed a substantial amount of gas.  She apologized: “I’m sorry.”  Reagan shot back, “Why, Your Majesty,  I thought it was the horse.”

George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin.  For awhile, I even thought my staff believed it.  There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, “Intelligence Briefing.”

Barack Obama: At an observance of International Woman’s Day he said, “I salute heroic women from those on the Mayflower to the one I’m blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table and thought, ‘I’m smarter than that guy.'”

Some information in this post came from,,, and

Ten Terms Apart

A six year-old boy and his small brother looked out from an open window of their grandparents’ home onto a somber scene: lamp posts and citizens dressed in black, as a hearse leading a long funeral procession passed by.  There had been three children at the window, but the little girl cried, so the boys made her retreat to another room.  It was the last week of April 1865, and the city of New York was paying final respects to Abraham Lincoln.

New York Historical Society photo

The boys with the second story view were Theodore and Elliott Roosevelt.  The little neighbor girl, Edie Carow, who grew up to marry Theodore, confirmed the story to biographer Stephan Lorant in an interview late in life.

The Roosevelt family had reason to grieve a personal friend.  During the long years of the Civil War, Theodore Sr. worked closely with Lincoln to form the Allotment Commission, which routed soldier pay to their families rather than sutlers in the field.  The Lincolns welcomed him into their social circle.  Mary Lincoln invited him to dinners and asked his opinions on bonnets.  When Roosevelt attended St. John’s Church with John Hay, the president’s secretary, many mistook the tall bearded man with the top hat for the chief executive.

This photo was signed and presented to Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.

Lincoln was the sixteenth president; Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. would be the twenty-sixth, with much transpiring in the country during the forty years between.  The Industrial Revolution, automobiles, telephones, electricity.  In Manhattan, the stately mansion of C.V.S. Roosevelt, pictured above, torn down to make way for a sewing machine factory as residential areas shifted closer to Central Park.  Two more American presidents assassinated.  Economic recession.  A brief war in Cuba that made the go-get-em Roosevelt so popular he was easily elected governor of New York and assigned to the William McKinley presidential ticket in 1900.

When McKinley was assassinated only a few months into his second term, Roosevelt became president.  In 1904 he was elected in his own right.  John Hay, now Secretary of State, wrote a note with a gift the night before the inauguration, saying, “Please wear it tomorrow; you are one of the men who most thoroughly understands and appreciates (him).”  Enclosed was a gold ring containing several strands of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.

“I am mighty glad you like what I have been doing…I do not have to tell you that my great hero is Abraham Lincoln, and I have wanted while President to be the representative of the “plain people” in the sense that he was…according to my lights…” Theodore wrote friend Bill Sewall in 1906.

A Lincoln portrait hung in his office in the White House; after his presidency was over, he said this in a speech at The Great Emancipator’s birthplace: “His great and tender heart shrank from giving pain, and the task allotted him was to pour out like water the life-blood of the young men, and to feel in his every fibre the sorrow of the women…unbroken by hatred, unshaken by sorrow, he worked and suffered for the people.”

Theodore Roosevelt did not have the crisis of America at war during his administration, as Lincoln did.  Perhaps his “Big Stick” diplomacy held off the Great War.  But he did fight poverty, big business, and the depletion of our natural resources.

Lifelong friend, hunting guide, and Dakota ranch foreman William Sewall.

The same William Sewall, to whom Theodore wrote the letter, later said of him, “Wherever he went, he got right in with the people.  He was quick to find the real man in a very simple man….He valued me for what I was worth.”

Also true of his predecessor, ten terms before.

1861 Day

Today was 1861 Day at my favorite school, Lincoln Elementary.  It’s a yearly chance to go back to the “old days and old ways” of the Civil War, and study how Abraham Lincoln showed leadership and compassion toward others.

In previous years I had appeared as Elizabeth Grimsley, cousin of Mary Lincoln; and Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E.  This time I concentrated on Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother.  Rather than strictly impersonating her, I tried to tell the story through her eyes and experience.  She was a Pennsylvanian, a Quaker, married into a Dutch family.  Her husband was an importer of plate glass in New York City, and her sons worked in the business too.  They were all grown by 1861, with families of their own.  I taught the children the nursery song in Dutch that she’d sung them: “Trippe Trippe Tronjes, Kippen en da Bootjes.”  We sang it together, and then the English translation: “Peep, peep, peep, chickens in the beans.”  I had to wing it on the melody, though.


In the 1600s the Dutch, they learned, bought Manhattan Island from the Lenapi people for sixty guilders.  What was a guilder?  I showed them some silver cardboard replicas I’d printed from the Internet.  The Dutch called their settlement “New Amsterdam.”  About forty years later, the English renamed it “New York.”

Then I served them little pieces of pound cake, which Grandmother would always have ready in her cupboard for guests.  She sat next to the fireplace in their large home on Broadway Street, smiling, so I did that too.  I had some of the children help me wind the ball of yarn from my workbasket.  I brought in roses the gardener had cut from our large backyard garden, and told how the yellow ones were my son Theodore’s favorite.  I talked about him, and his brothers, and how we had told them that with wealth comes responsibility to others.  The children listened intently as I described the thousands of poor immigrants in the city, and the Newsboys’ Lodging House and Children’s Orthopedic Hospital which helped make their lives better.


Oh!  They didn’t think it was right for the Bulloch family in Georgia to own slaves, even though they treated them well.  They thought it was OK for the New York Roosevelts to employ servants, though, as long as they paid them and they could find another job if they wanted.  Then they thought about the dilemma my son Thee was having.  Should he do his duty and fight with the Union?  Some said no, and some said yes, even though his wife’s brothers were fighting on the other side and might meet him in battle.

We talked about the marvels of the 1860s, the telegraph and the steam locomotive.  I showed them photographs of my family from a studio, which wouldn’t have been around thirty years before.  I had pictures of one of my grandchildren, Teedie, an ornery boy who suffered with asthma.  We were worried about his health.  “I hope he turns out well.  He’s always getting into mischief.”

Students in Grades K-5 also went to sessions about cooking, spinning, farming, and soldier life, in indoor and outdoor areas of the school.  It came to a close with a “base ball” game played by the rules of 1860.  Many thanks to my friends who organized the event, and gave young citizens a chance to experience a bit of their country’s history.