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.)

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.

Henry Adams’ Salon

The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt ends with Theodore’s entrance to college.  The ten years previous to that event had been, for the most part, an tranquil period of growth in his theatre of family and friends.

Henry Adams was teaching medieval history at Harvard when the teenager landed on campus in 1876.  Adams had experimented with the seminar system, having a half-dozen students read for themselves and discuss/debate rather than giving a straight lecture to them himself.  He reportedly said to a student with a question, “How should I know?  Look it up!”  The Brahmin professor invited the Knickerbocker Roosevelt to dine at his home on at least one occasion during his freshman year.

If there was such a thing as American blue blood, it ran in the Adams family.  Henry’s great-grandfather and grandfather were presidents, and his father was ambassador to England during the Civil War.  Henry worked as his secretary.

Adams in 1858, when Theodore Roosevelt was born.  Photo: Massachusetts Historical Society.
With practical experience abroad observing matters of state, Henry moved on to political writing in Washington, D.C.  An intellectual (“You shoot over the heads of most people,” his father admonished), Henry said that Ulysses S. Grant would have seemed archaic even to cave men.  His wit and word orchestrations served him well as editor of the National Review.  By 1889 when Theodore Roosevelt came to Washington as a civil service commissioner, Henry had been to Boston and back.  His wife died in a tragic manner, but he eventually resumed having friends over for food and conversation.

The mansions of Henry Adams and John Hay on H Street.  An elegant hotel, the Hay-Adams, now occupies the site.  Washington Life Magazine photo.

Henry’s neighbor was best friend and equally short-in-stature John Hay.  Hay had been secretary to Lincoln during the Civil War and co-authored his biography.  He would later serve as Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  The Hays, Henry Cabot Lodges, Donald Camerons, and Roosevelts, all political insiders, were regular company.  At a time when women were constrained by more than corsets and floor-sweeping skirts, the ladies took as much part in the talk as the men.  Other close friends were geologist Clarence King, British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, and artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge.

Across the decades the gang that John Hay found so happy knew more than a few others: Henry Hobson Richardson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, Horace Greeley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, and the royal family of Tahiti.  Henry said that his circle’s alliance “was undisturbed by power or patronage,” for neither first family Harrison nor Cleveland shared the same interests.

Adams and Hay were condescending to the brash young Roosevelt behind his back.  In ten years when Theodore became president, he invited Henry across Lafayette Square to his mansion for dinner.  Henry complained the occasion was like a boys’ school out of control, and later assigned two words to the chief executive: “pure act.”  With his wealth Henry could pursue whatever he wanted, and continued to write and travel.  His nine-volume history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations is a classic, as are his novels and autobiography.  The latter, written in third person, won a Pullitzer Prize the year after he died.

Massachusetts Historical Society photo.

One of the places I’d like to go back in history to is a Sunday morning breakfast at Henry Adams’ house in the early 1890s.  Providing a forum for pliable minds is a wonderful gift.  Isn’t that what teachers do?  Adams was irreplaceable as a patron of the age, and even though he wouldn’t say so, as a teacher.

Now if I could just find his menus.

A blog of this length about a man with so many insights into history has limits. For more reading, and more tangents, try Henry Adams, a Biography by Elizabeth Stevenson; The Five of Hearts, An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918 by Patricia O’Toole (a near-miss for a Pullitzer); and especially his self-summary, The Education of Henry Adams.