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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 139


This is the grave of John Hay.

Hay was born in 1838 in Salem, Indiana and grew up in Illinois. He entered Brown University in 1855 and graduated with a Master’s degree in 1858 after starring there and entering Providence’s literary scene. He moved back to Illinois though so he could study law. It was then the young man met Abraham Lincoln. John Nicolay, a local journalist tapped by Lincoln to be his private secretary, was already a mentor to Hay before the latter left for Providence. Hay was then brought into Lincoln’s inner circle. Hay became Lincoln’s second private secretary. He worked very hard, writing propaganda pieces on top of his duties directly for Lincoln. When Willie Lincoln died, Lincoln sort of took on Hay as a son. He was still only 24 at the time and by all accounts looked much younger. Lincoln sent his young assistant on a number of key missions during the next four years, including to Charleston to check on the progress of iron-clad vessels and to the Confederates claiming they would negotiate from Canada, with Hay delivering Lincoln’s Niagara Manifesto.

After Lincoln’s death, Hay briefly served in the French embassy and William Seward tried to secure him the job of Minister to Sweden but Andrew Johnson rejected this. Hay returned home to Illinois briefly but how are you going to keep them on the farm once they’ve seen Civil War Washington? Restless, Hay sort of floated around Europe, briefly working for the State Department in Vienna, for the rest of the Johnson administration. With a more sympathetic boss in Ulysses Grant, Hay was appointed the secretary of legation for the Spanish embassy. He stayed there for a couple of years but then returned to the U.S. when he the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley brought Hay on as assistant editor. He wasn’t thrilled about Greeley’s run against Grant in 1872 but dutifully supported it, even though this threatened his future as a Republican figure, which has kind of stalled out anyway.

Yet Hay married the daughter of the Cleveland railroad monopolist Amasa Stone and was now financially independent. He moved to Cleveland and became involved in business, being so disgusted by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that seemed to portend revolution that he wrote what is supposed to be a really awful 1883 novel titled The Bread-Winners about the evils of these foreign agitators. I’ve been meaning to find a copy of this. He spent the rest of the 1870s reingratiating himself in Republican politics, which finally paid off for him in 1879 when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State by Rutherford Hayes. That lasted until James Garfield’s death in 1881. After that, Hay spent the next 15 years as a rich guy doing rich guy things. He and his wife traveled in Europe most years for several months. He had a giant Gilded Age mansion built. He still wanted to be in politics, but he tended to follow losing candidates such as John Sherman and James Blaine so he remained without an appointment. But he gave Republicans a lot of money and had to be listened to at least.

This finally changed when William McKinley became president in 1897. Hay got on board with McKinley very early and was repaid by being named ambassador to Great Britain, where he was well-known due to his traveling. When John Sherman resigned as Secretary of State in 1898, McKinley called Hay back from London for the job. This was basically Hay’s dream position. The Spanish-American War was basically over by this time, although the massacres of Filipinos by American troops providing the freedom only American troops can provide were to continue for some time. Hay’s big foreign policy play, the Open Door, is always something I’ve found a bit laughable. “Hey France, Britain, Japan, Russia. We want some of your China action too. You should totally open up your concessions to us. We’ll all exploit China together and competition will win out!” It’s not surprising he was sort of blown off on this, although the European nations more or less agreed to some American involvement, but the Open Door was an important transition out of America’s brief colonization phase into a more 20th-century vision of imperial domination through trade without any of the ugliness of governance and direct occupation. Plus the Marines could be sent in if necessary. Hay’s second Open Door note also helped smooth things over in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, which was still terrible for China, but did not lead to any actual land concessions to foreign powers, which was very much on the table.

Roosevelt kept Hay on and although the vainglorious president largely dismissed Hay privately as a tired old coot, Hay played an important role in the newly aggressive American foreign policy regime. Hay had been interested in acquiring Panama from Colombia for a long time and he negotiated the treaty cleaving it from that nation after Roosevelt effectively forced them into it. He also took an openly pro-British foreign policy, which was far from given at the time. Roosevelt thought Hay too much of an Anglophile to be effective as Secretary of State on British matters, but Hay helped smooth over some of the rough patches between the two nations that would become far more important during World War I. Hay’s health weakened severely by 1904 and he died in 1905.

John Hay is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

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