While I love reading history and read many biographies, can I just say at the outset that one of the hard parts of reading biographies of interesting and compelling people is that at the end they die. And while I know they are long past when I begin the biography, I grieve at their loss because I have gotten to know and appreciate them during the course of this book. And this terrific work gets us into this man's mind and heart (to the extent it can) as well as his public acts and the context of the time in which he lived. I knew of John Hay before I picked up this large work, but I did not know much about him. Now I have a deeper sense of him, who he was, what he accomplished, and the impact he had on America and the world in his time and how that still resonates in our time, more than a century after his passing.
Hay began life on what was then the frontier - Warsaw, Illinois. He was the son of a doctor who seemed both curiously misplaced and right where he should be. However, John wanted more. He went to Brown University and did well, but struggled to find his way. He read law and lucked into an office next door to Lincoln's and soon became attached to Republican politics and Lincoln's political career. He was one of Lincoln's White House secretaries, which prepared him for everything he was to become and launched him into his diplomatic career. He had the talent, gained invaluable experience in the White House during the Civil War, and his connection to Lincoln lifted his status to the heavens.
After Lincoln's assassination, Hay found a mentor in William Seward and accepted various overseas assignments and career guidance from him. Hay also had considerable writing ability and gained fame and money from his writing. While all of his published works are still available electronically, some are still in print. And, of course, the ten volume biography of Lincoln he did with his fellow secretary, George Nicolay, is still in print and available here on Amazon. Their work had the advantage of being done with access to Lincoln's papers and the approval of Lincoln's son, Robert.
Hay married Clara Stone, the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland industrialist when Cleveland was one of the wealthiest cities in America. And while Hay became wealthy in his own right, his wife's fathe, Amasa Stone, was far wealthier. Stone and Hay got along very well and Hay helped the man through several important crises. The marriage to Clara was solid and produced four children who also did quite well in the world, but the oldest son, Del, died as a young man in a bizarre accident during an alumni homecoming at his alma mater, Yale. The book makes a big deal of Hay's infatuation with Elizabeth Cameron. The affairs of the heart can be difficult to document from more than a century ago. There are some surviving letters, and while there are professions of love from Hay to her, there is no evidence of an affair. Especially so since she was married to a U.S. Senator, however loveless the marriage, and she had a stronger relationship with Hay's best and closest friend, Henry Adams. I have no idea what transpired between Hay and any other woman besides his wife. But, from the book, I think the author makes more of it than there is actual evidence for. But maybe you will read it differently.
Henry Adams and Hay were so close that they built famous mansions next door to each other in the heart of Washington D.C. on Lafayette Square. Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and therefore the great grandson of John Adams, as well. He was a brilliant man, if a bit of a misanthrope and a snob. Hay enjoyed his company, but was not misanthropic and somewhat less a snob. They both appreciated their wealth, social status, power, and life was found life more enjoyable at such an elevated altitude.
The Republican Party was ascendant in America from Lincoln until Wilson and Hay was one of the grand old men of the party. He spoke, donated big money, and helped and supported the GOP candidates for President. He was valued by them and given positions because of his diplomatic skill and experience even more than for his political connections. But they certainly didn't hurt him, at least most of the time they didn't.
But the book would not have been written and we would not care about Hay very much if he had not become a very influential and successful Secretary of State during a critical time in American History, even if that time is little remembered and less understood by the public today. The chapters beginning on page 353 and following are where the book really takes off like a rocket and remains riveting through to the end. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the entire book. But when Hay is working his diplomatic magic in China, Central America, and Europe, the magic really happens.
While Hay worshipped Lincoln, he deeply admired McKinley, as well. It is shocking to realize that he was serving each when they were killed. While Teddy Roosevelt was a difficult personality for Hay, he managed to serve him well. TR and Hay accomplished much together and it was only later that TR said poor things about Hay. To my mind, TR made himself appear smaller by these self-serving statements. But maybe I am reading them incorrectly.
Hay had battled delicate healthy most of his life. Towards the end, he wanted to retire, but the demands of the country kept him in the harness. When he died in 1905, all who knew him felt it was the strain of his position that killed him too soon. Hay was so widely and deeply admired that memorial services were not only held throughout America, but in London at St. Paul's Cathedral. His death was headline news in every major capital in the world.
I think you will find many benefits from reading this book. Not only will you learn about the life of an important American you probably do not know (at least I did not know), but you will also learn about some key events in American History such as how America came to be in the Philippines and why it mattered to us and was of strategic importance in checking Germany and setting up an American role in China. You will also learn how Hay balanced the avarice of each of the Great Powers to keep China trade open to all despite Russia's attempts to get extra shares for itself until Japan checked Russian Power at great sacrifice in Manchuria. There is also the whole issue of how the Panama Canal came to be in the manner it did. This is not all ancient history. We read in the papers in recent weeks about China preparing to build a bigger and more modern canal through Nicaragua, which was part of the diplomacy more than a century ago!
So, you see, this isn't just a history book, it is also a valuable lesson on current world diplomacy.
Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, Michigan