Hay was born in 1838 in Salem, Indiana, into an anti-slavery family. In 1849 he moved to Illinois to live with his uncle, Milton Hay - a friend of Springfield attorney Abraham Lincoln. From the age of 13, John went to live with his grandparents in Springifield, where he attended Illinois State University for a while, before moving on to study at Brown University, Rhode Island. After graduating, he went to work as a law clerk in his uncle’s firm, by then in Springfield next door to Lincoln’s firm. He was admitted to the bar early in 1861. When, a few weeks later, Lincoln took office as president in 1861, he took Hay with him to the White House, largely on the recommendation of John George Nicolay (who had served as Lincoln’s private secretary for the election campaign).
Nicolay and Hay then both acted as Lincoln’s personal assistants - Hay travelling often during the Civil War on Lincoln’s business. Biographers say that after the death of his own son in 1862, Lincoln grew very attached to Hay, and Hay, likewise, saw Lincoln as a father figure and a very great man. Following Lincoln’s re-election at the end of 1864 and shortly before his assassination, he appointed Hay and Nicolay to roles in the US delegation in Paris, which they took up in 1865. Hay’s job did not last long, but he got another, temporary, diplomatic post in Vienna, and then one in Madrid. While in Spain he wrote articles for magazine that he later published in book form - Castilian Days. Indeed, he would go on to write much in his life, including novels and poetry.
After having failed to secure a significant political posting, Hay turned to journalism, and, in 1870, he joined the staff of the New-York Tribune. In 1874, he married Clara, daughter of the multimillionaire, Amasa Stone. He and Clara eventually went to live in a newly-built mansion next door to Stone in Cleveland. Hay helped manage Stone’s investments, and even took over running his empire when a rail disaster related to his businesses led Stone to recuperate in Europe. Hay and Clara had four children.
Between 1879 and 1881, Hay served as Assistant Secretary of State. Thereafter, though, he did not return to public office till the late 1890s. Amasa Stone’s suicide in 1883, left the Hays very wealthy. They commissioned a house to be built in Washington, facing the White House; and most years they travelled in Europe for several months. Hay worked consistently (with Nicolay) on a 10-volume biography of Lincoln, published in 1890; and regularly helped campaign for the Republican party. When his friend William McKinley was elected President, Hay was named Ambassador to Great Britain. He stayed in that post two years before being appointed Secretary of State, an office he held from 1898 under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Hay’s most significant political achievement, biographers say, is the so-called Open Door Policy. Having persuaded McKinley that the US should champion equal trading rights in China, Hay sent similar diplomatic notes to six interested nations setting forth this proposition, designed to counter the trend toward divisive spheres of influence in the Orient. During the Boxer Rebellion, he proposed that all nations cooperate to preserve China’s territorial and administrative integrity. By negotiating the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty (with the UK) and treaties with other countries, Hay cleared the way for the US to build the Panama Canal; subsequently, he also assisted Roosevelt in negotiating Panama’s independence.
Hay died on 1 July 1905, still in office, not long after returning from Europe where he had gone to recuperate from heart problems. Wikipedia quotes this assessment of Hay by historian Lewis Gould in his biography of McKinley: ‘One of the most entertaining and interesting letter writers who ever ran the State Department, the witty, dapper, and bearded Hay left behind an abundance of documentary evidence on his public career. His name is indelibly linked with that verity of the nation’s Asian policy, the Open Door, and he contributed much to the resolution of the longstanding problems with the British. Patient, discreet, and judicious, Hay deserves to stand in the front rank of secretaries of state.’ Further biographical information is also available at Mr Lincoln & Friends, Mr. Lincoln’s White House, and New World Enclopedia.
As a young man in Lincoln’s White House, Hay kept a diary which has proved particularly useful to historians for the information it provides on Lincoln and his administration. Extracts were first published as early as 1908 in Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary. Although this appeared in three volumes, only the first contains any diary extracts, and this can be freely read online at Internet Archive. In 1939, New York City publishers, Dodd, Mead and Company brought out Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, as selected by Tyler Dennett. Much more recently, in 1999, Southern Illinois University Press published Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, edited by Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger.
The publisher states: [This] edition of the diary is the first to publish the complete text of all of Hay’s entries from 1861 through 1864. In 1939 Tyler Dennett published Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, which, as Civil War historian Allan Nevins observed, was “rather casually edited.” This new edition is essential in part because Dennett omitted approximately 10 percent of Hay’s 1861-64 entries. Not only did the Dennett edition omit important parts of the diaries, it also introduced some glaring errors.’ The publisher adds: ‘Justly deemed the most intimate record we will ever have of Abraham Lincoln in the White House, the Hay diary is, according to Burlingame and Ettlinger, “one of the richest deposits of high-grade ore for the smelters of Lincoln biographers and Civil War historians.” ’ See the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association for a review by Frederick J. Blue.
Here are several extracts from Hay’s diary, taken from the Burlingame and Ettlinger edition. (The 1908 edition, as well as being incomplete, suffers from a surfeit of initials followed by dashes instead of actual names, and much added-in punctuation.)
18 April 1861.
‘The White House is turned into barracks. Jim Lane marshalled his Kansas warriors to-day at Willard’s and placed them at the disposal of Maj. Hunter, who turned them tonight into the East Room. It is a splendid company - worthy of such an armory. Besides the western Jayhawkers it comprises some of the best materiel of the East. Senator Pomeroy and old Anthony Bleecker stood shoulder to shoulder in the ranks. Jim Lane walked proudly up and down the ranks with a new sword that the Major had given him. The Major has made me his aid, and I labored under some uncertainty as to whether I should speak to privates or not. [. . .]
All day the notes of preparation have been heard at the public buildings and the Armories. Everybody seems to be expecting a Son or brother or “young man” in the coming regiments.
To-night Edward brought me a card from Mrs. Ann S. Stephens expressing a wish to see the President on matters concerning his personal safety. As the Ancient was in bed, I volunteered to receive the harrowing communication. Edward took me to the little room adjoining the hall and I waited. Mrs. Stephens, who is neither young nor yet fair to any miraculous extent came in leading a lady, who was a little of both whom she introduced as Mrs. Col. Lander. I was delighted at this chance interview with the Medea, the Julia the Mona Lisa of my stage-struck days. After many hesitating and bashful trials, Mrs. Lander told the impulse that brought them. Some young Virginian long-haired swaggering chivalrous of course and indiscreet friend had come into town in great anxiety for a new saddle, and meeting her had said that he and half a dozen others including a daredevil guerilla from Richmond named Ficklin would do a thing within forty-eight hours that would ring through the world. Connecting this central fact with a multiplicity of attendant details she concluded that the President was either to be assassinated or captured. She ended by renewing her protestations of earnest solicitude mingled with fears of the impropriety of the step. Lander has made her very womanly since he married her. Imagine Jean M. Davenport a blushing hesitating wife!
They went away and I went to the bedside of the Chief couché. I told him the yarn; he quietly grinned.
Going to my room, I met the Captain. He was a little boozy and very eloquent. He dilated on the troubles of the time and bewailed the existence of a garrison in the White House, “to give éclat to Jim Lane.”
Hill Lamon came in about midnight saying that Cash. Clay was drilling a splendid company at Willard’s Hall and that the town was in a general tempest of enthusiastic excitement. which not being very new, I went to sleep.’
7 November 1861
‘I talked tonight with the President about opening of the cotton trade by our sea-side excursionists. I represented the interest felt by Northern spinners who want it still blockaded. He doubted their statement that they had a large supply on hand whose price would be reduced by opening the trade and seemed to think that we equally with France and England would gain by it. He said it was an object to show the world we were fair in this matter favouring outsiders as much as ourselves. That it was by no means sure that they would bring their cotton to the port after we opened it. But it would be well to show Europe that it was secession that distressed them and not we. That the chief difficulty was in discovering how far the planters who bring us their cotton can be trusted with the money they receive for it.
I went in strong for the opening of the ports, I don’t know why, using all the arguments I could think of, and rather gained the idea that he also slanted in that direction.’
23 September 1862.
‘The President wrote the Proclamation on Sunday morning carefully. He called the Cabinet together on Monday made a little talk to them and read the momentous document. Mr. Blair and Mr. Bates made objections, otherwise the Cabinet was unanimous. The next day Mr. Blair who had promised to file his objections, sent a note stating that as his objections were only to the time of the act he would not file them, lest they should be subject to misconstruction.
I told the President of the Serenade that was coming and asked if he would make any remarks. He said, no, but he did say half a dozen words, & said them with great grace and dignity. I spoke to him about the editorials in the leading papers. He said he had studied the matter so long that he knew more about it than they did.
At Governor Chase’s there was some talking after the Serenade. Chase and Clay made speeches and the crowd was in a glorious humor. After the crowd went away, to force Mr. Bates to say something, a few old fogies staid at the Governor’s and drank wine. Chase spoke earnestly of the Proclamation. He said “this was a most wonderful history of an insanity of a class that the world had ever seen. If the Slaveholders had staid in the Union they might have kept the life in their institution for many years to come. That what no party and no public feeling in the North could ever have hoped to touch they had madly placed in the very path of destruction.” They all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life; they breathed freer; the Prest. Procn had freed them as well as the slaves. They gleefully and merrily called each other and themselves abolitionists, and seemed to enjoy the novel accusation of appropriating that horrible name.’
26 September 1862
‘Last night September 25 the President and I were riding to Soldiers Home; he said he had heard of an officer who had said they did not mean to gain any decisive victory but to keep things running on so that they the army might manage things to suit themselves. He said he should have the matter examined and if any such language had been used, his head should go off.
I talked a great deal about the McClellan conspiracy but he would make no answer to anything. He merely said that McC. was doing nothing to make himself either respected or feared.’