John Milton Hay was an American statesman, diplomat, author, journalist, and private secretary and assistant to Abraham Lincoln.
Hay was born in Salem, Indiana, of Scottish ancestry, the third son of Dr. Charles Hay and Helen Leonard from Middleboro, Massachusetts, who had come to Salem to live with her sister. He was raised in Warsaw, Illinois, and educated first at the private school of the Reverend Stephen Childs, an Episcopal clergyman. In 1851 John went to an academy at Pittsfield in Pike County, where he met an older student, John G. Nicolay, with whom he would later work as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. In 1852 John Hay went to the college at Springfield, and in 1855 was sent to Brown University, where he joined Theta Delta Chi. At Brown, he developed an interest in poetry, and Hay became a part of Providence's literary circle which included Sarah Helen Whitman and Nora Perry. When he graduated, he was named Class Poet. He left Brown in 1858 before receiving his diploma and went home to Warsaw to study law with his uncle, Milton Hay.
Abraham Lincoln's law office was next door to the law office of Milton Hay, John's uncle, and Lincoln thus became acquainted with John Hay. When Lincoln won election as president, his secretary, John G. Nicolay, recommended John Hay to Lincoln as assistant private secretary. Thus, at age 22 he began a lifelong career in government, except for a stint in journalism from 1870-78. Though technically a clerk in the Interior Department, he served as Lincoln's secretary until 1864. He lived in the northeast corner bedroom on the second floor of the White House, which he shared with his fellow secretary and Pittsfield Academy schoolmate, Nicolay.
For a few months, he served in the Union army under Generals David Hunter and Quincy Adams Gillmore. He rose to the rank of major and was later brevetted lieutenant colonel and colonel. Hay's diary and writings during the Civil War are basic historical sources. Some have credited Hay with being the real author of Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby, consoling her for the loss of her sons in the war.
Hay was present when Lincoln died after being shot at Ford's Theatre. Hay and Nicolay wrote a formal 10-volume biography of Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln: A History, 1890) and prepared an edition of his collected works.
Portions of Hay's diaries and letters from 1861–1870, published in the book Lincoln and the Civil War, show Lincoln in a far more intimate light.
John Hay as a young man
In 1861, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Illinois.
Between 1865 and 1870, he was secretary of legation at Paris (1865-7) and Madrid (1867-8), and chargé d'affaires at Vienna (1868–70). In 1878 he became assistant secretary of state in the Hayes administration. Hay was named U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1897 when William McKinley became President. Some of the recognition of the longstanding community of interests between that country and the United States was the result of Hay's stay there.
In 1870 he left government and worked for 6 years as an editor for the New York Tribune under Whitelaw Reid .
Secretary of State
In August 1898, Hay was named by President McKinley as Secretary of State and helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the Spanish–American War. Hay continued serving as Secretary of State after Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley, serving until his own death in 1905. He established the Open Door policy in China.
His contributions included the adoption of an Open Door Policy in China (announced on January 2, 1900) which may have been a contributing factor in the Boxer Rebellion, and the preparations for the Panama Canal. He negotiated the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty (1901), the Hay–Herran Treaty (1903), and the Hay–Bunau Varilla Treaty (1903), all of which were instrumental in clearing the way for the construction and use of the Canal. In all, he brought about more than 50 treaties, including the settlement of the Samoan dispute, as a result of which the United States secured Tutuila, with a harbor in the Pacific; a definitive Alaskan boundary treaty in 1903; the negotiation of reciprocity treaties with Argentina, France, Germany, Cuba, and the British West Indies; the negotiation of new treaties with Spain; and the negotiation of a treaty with Denmark for the cession of the Danish West India Islands.
In 1904, Hay was one of the first seven chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Hay is also known for his comment, written in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, describing the Spanish–American War as a "splendid little war".
Hay appears as a prominent character in Gore Vidal's historical novels Lincoln and Empire and in William Safire's historical novel Freedom. He appears, portrayed by John Huston, in the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, a fictionalization of the Perdicaris Affair in Morocco in 1904. Steven Culp portrayed John ("Johnny") Hay in the 1988 miniseries Lincoln, based on Vidal's book. He is portrayed in the 1997 miniseries Rough Riders by actor and retired United States Marine R. Lee Ermey.
After Roosevelt signed an executive order setting aside land in the Benguet region of the Philippines for a military reservation under the United States Army, Camp John Hay of Baguio City was established on October 25, 1903 and named in his honor. It was re-designated John Hay Air Base in 1955. The base was used for rest and recreation for U.S. military personnel and the dependents of U.S. military personnel in the Philippines as well as Department of Defense employees and their dependents. The 690-hectare property was finally turned over to the Philippines 1991 upon the expiration of the R.P.-U.S. Bases Agreement.
Since 1997 it has been in the hands of a private developer, on a long term lease, which has transformed the property into a world class resort.
Hay was a close friend of Henry Brooks Adams, American historian and author. In 1884, architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed adjoining townhouses for Hay and Adams on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.. The houses were demolished in 1927 and the site is now occupied by the Hay–Adams Hotel.
Brown University's John Hay Library housed the entire library collection from its construction in 1910 until the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library was built in 1964. In 1971, when physical science materials were transferred to the new Sciences Library, the John Hay Library became exclusively a repository for the library's Special Collections.
Hay's New Hampshire estate has been conserved as part of the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests' John Hay Land Studies Center, and the Garden Conservancy's Fells Reservation. The Fells, a local nonprofit organization that has maintained and managed the John Hay Estate on Lake Sunapee for over a decade, acquired the northern half of the property from the US Fish and Wildlife Service on March 25, 2008.
Hay and Abraham Lincoln are depicted in a larger-than-life bronze sculpture by Mark Martino, entitled A Learning Moment, in the Sesquicentennial Plaza at Carthage College. Hay was an alumnus of the Illinois State University in Springfield (previously Hillsboro College), which later became Carthage College when it moved to Carthage, IL in 1870.
Hay was a correspondent member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters from 1900 until his death.
Hay married Clara Stone, a daughter of Amassa Stone of Cleveland, Ohio. They are buried together in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. Their daughter Helen Julia Hay, a writer and poet, married Payne Whitney of the influential Whitney family; their children were U.S. ambassador John Hay Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson.
Hay and Hillary Rodham Clinton are the only persons to have resided in the White House prior to becoming Secretary of State.