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June 2012
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John Hay was intriguing Kentuckian


John Hay is one of the most interesting men in U.S. history. John Taliaferro's new biography of him, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, is a splendid portrait of him.

Hay's grandfather found prosperity in Fayette County, Ky. An "ardent Whig" like his neighbor Henry Clay, he moved to Illinois because it was a free state, and got there the same year as Abraham Lincoln's family did.

One son, John Hay's father, stayed in Lexington, which "had a reputation as the Athens of the West" and was "a prosperous hub of aristocratic refinement." He got a medical degree from Transylvania University before opening practice in Salem, Ind., and later Springfield, Ill.

As a young man of 22 recently graduated from Brown University, Hay became one of Lincoln's two private secretaries almost by accident. Hay shared a White House bedroom across the hall from the president's office with the other secretary, John G. Nicolay. They served and observed the man they called "the Tycoon" at closer range than anyone else during the Civil War.

Hay loved and revered Lincoln. He accompanied him to Gettysburg and was his companion at the Soldiers' Home where the first family often summered. Hay and the president's son, Robert, rushed to the scene upon learning of the assassination at Ford's Theater and were there when Lincoln died.

The two secretaries would later write a majestic 10-volume biography of Lincoln, but only after Hay began his distinguished diplomatic career. After missions in Paris, Vienna, and Spain, he returned to America to report and write editorials for the great Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.

Hay also wrote poems in various styles, including the romantic. His vernacular verses "Little Breeches" and "Jim Bludso" won him great literary acclaim, including from the Louisville Courier-Journal, which "saw 'a dash of Browning's marrow and backbone' in Hay's verse and said 'it has been many a day since our literature produced anything nearly so good.'"

His wife, Clara, the "daughter of a Cleveland railroad, steel, and banking baron," was no beauty, but brought him a great fortune. They built mansions in Cleveland and on Washington's Lafayette Square, had a summer retreat in New Hampshire, traveled extensively in Europe, and amassed a magnificent art collection.

"Except for Lincoln," Taliaferro notes, "no other person â ¦ played so important a role in Hay's life as did Henry Adams." As the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, the brilliant but cynical Adams shared with Hay an "extraordinary insight into the American presidency."

The Hays, Adams and his wife, Clover, and the adventurous Clarence King called their group The Five of Clubs. The Hays and the Adams even built adjoining Washington homes designed by H.H. Richardson, but Clover's suicide and King's eccentricity eventually reduced the famous friendship to the two remarkable men.

Both fancied the same woman, Lizzie Sherman Cameron, niece of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. She married a dull, older senator, and the Hay-Adams duo pursued her for decades with various degrees of ardor and discretion. Upon Hay's death, his widow would "neglect" to provide biographers with copies of his correspondence with Lizzie.

After the assassination of President James Garfield, with whom Hay was also close, he anonymously authored a novel, The Bread-Winners, drawing on the life of his industrialist father-in-law (who also committed suicide) and the labor disputes of the day. It caused some controversy, but won critical acclaim and commercial success.

Hay helped rescue Ohio senator William McKinley from financial straits and contributed liberally to his presidential campaign. He harshly described McKinley's Democratic rival, William Jennings Bryan, as "a half-baked glib little briefless jack-leg lawyer" who believed "there is no goodness and wisdom except among the illiterate and criminal classes."

McKinley rewarded Hay with the coveted ambassadorship to England. The aging Queen Victoria was quite taken with him, and he made excellent relations between American and Great Britain his highest professional priority.

Hay famously referred to the Spanish-American War as "a splendid little war," but upon becoming secretary of state he was rarely, if ever, bellicose. Theodore Roosevelt, who became president after yet another assassination felled McKinley, was.

Together they achieved triumphs. The Open Door policy saved China from mutilation by the great powers, the Panama Canal was finally begun, and the Monroe Doctrine and the Golden Rule made the guide of American conduct.

John Singer Sargent painted his portrait. Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpted his bust. William James and Mark Twain were among his friends.

Shortly before his death in 1905, Hay, only 66, wrote that he clung "instinctively to life and the things of life, as eagerly as if I had not had my chance at happiness and gained nearly all the great prizes." Taliaferro provides a balanced, elegant, and well-researched account of this estimable American.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.

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