All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro

Unknown-1In my ongoing search for all things related to John Hay, George Nicolay, and Elmer Ellsworth, I read this book with positive enthusiasm and delight. I think it was written with the same feelings.

Taliaferro’s brilliant biography of John Hay is as dynamic a read as any historical fiction. Hay himself is far too little valued as a subject of historical discussion, and this volume goes a long way to rectifying that situation. It traces Hay’s early years as a student at Brown University, and always points out that, brilliant as Hay was, he never lost sight of his “prairie beginnings” in Illinois. In returning home after college, he was adrift until he began to work with his uncle, lawyer Milton Hay, in Springfield.

There he met Abraham Lincoln, George Nicolay, and cast his lot with the new Republican Party, leaving the world of poetry behind. Many primary documents are effectively used to create the aura of those exciting early times. The life of John Hay unfolds literally before the reader’s eyes.

A dapper young man in Washington, D. C.
A dapper young man in Washington, D. C.

There is a large section devoted to Hay’s relationship with Lincoln, and to his duties in the White House during the Civil War. The reader sees the daily give and take of Lincoln’s daily involvement in the war, from Bull Run to Appomattox. There are several tidbits that bring a few chuckles to a knowledgeable reader, and several others that bring a few “Ahas!” I will not go into them here, but be prepared for a great Easter egg hunt.

John Hay was at the bedside of Abraham Lincoln when he died. This event is touchingly told, and although Hay’s career from that point on involved many other presidents, the effect Lincoln had upon his development was always present–and what a career he had!

Between 1865 and 1870, he served as Secretary of Legation in Paris, and Madrid, and as Chargé d Affaires in Vienna. Upon his return to the States, he was an editor of the New York Times, owned at that time by Whitelaw Reid. He also collaborated with George Nicolay on a ten-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. To this date, Hay and Nicolay are the only authors to have had complete access to all Lincoln documents and the support of the Lincoln family.

John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of John Hay
John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of John Hay

In 1878, Hay became Assistant Secretary of State in the Hayes administration, and lived in Washington, writing and working, until ill health forced him to leave the area for an extended stay at his home in New Hampshire. Early retirement was not in his future, however.

By 1898, John Hay was serving as Secretary of State for President McKinley. During this time he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the “splendid little” Spanish-American War. Hay was also the architect and author of the U. S./China Open Door Policy.

After McKinley’s assassination, Hay continued to serve as Secretary of State to Theodore Roosevelt. Under Roosevelt, he negotiated the three treaties crucial to the construction and use of the Panama Canal. Hay served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of State until his death, in 1905.

A bust of John Hay
A bust of John Hay

All of this history is told as a stirring, readable story of the effect of one man upon his country. The text is highlighted with anecdotes and qualified by quotes from primary sources. Intense periods of political involvement are relieved by languidly romantic interludes, much like Hay’s life.

Author John Taliaferro presents John Hay as a person about whom we should all know more. This sharp, well-researched and lovingly-written biography goes a long way toward rectifying that situation. I highly recommend this book!

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