Home New Hampshire Seven Fun Facts About John Hay, Winner of All of Life’s Great Prizes

Seven Fun Facts About John Hay, Winner of All of Life’s Great Prizes

By chance he became Abe Lincoln's secretary


The name “John Hay” pops up frequently in American history, especially during the second half of the 19th century.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s two secretaries, or “Lincoln’s boys.” A John Hay also ran the New York Tribune, the biggest and most influential U.S. newspaper of its day. Another John Hay served as U.S. secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. And still another belonged to an elite literary circle, an author of bestselling fiction and poetry.

Actually, they were all the same person.

John Hay, by John Singer argent

John Hay during his lifetime won political influence, great wealth, literary renown and the love of his family and friends. With the exception of a tragedy that befell him in 1901, everything went his way.  Shortly before he died in 1905, he acknowledged that he had won “all of the great prizes” in life.

He may, in fact, have spent more time in the White House than any of his contemporaries, first as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary and last as Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state.

Though he grew up in the Midwest, John Hay had a foot in New England. He graduated from Brown University, where the library bears his name. He also had a summer home in Newbury, N.H., called the Fells.

John Hay

His mother’s family came from Assonet, Mass., and her father had graduated from Brown. He died while moving his family west, and Hay’s mother taught school in Salem, Ind. There she met and married Hay’s father, a country doctor. Their son John was born there on Oct 8, 1838, but they moved to Warsaw, Ill., when he was a young boy.

By sheer chance, John Hay got the job as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary. After Lincoln’s assassination, he embarked on a diplomatic career. He traveled widely, learned four languages and made influential friends.


John Hay in 1862

Hay kept his hand in politics and in writing. He and John Nicolay, Lincoln’s other secretary, wrote a 10-volume biography of the president that no one has surpassed.

In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes named him assistant secretary of State. Two decades later, President William McKinley named him U.S. secretary of state. Theodore Roosevelt kept him on in the job after McKinley’s assassination. John Hay died on July 1, 1905.

Here are seven fun facts about John Hay

  1. John Hay, A Great Wit

His contemporaries called him the best letter writer and best dining companion they knew. His letters ‘come nearer than any others to Byron’s, which are the best in English,’ wrote William Roscoe Thayer in The Life and Letters of John Hay. “He was at his best at a dinner table or in a drawing room, and in neither place have I ever seen anyone’s best that was better than his,” wrote Roosevelt.

A sampling of his letter reveals a playful and sophisticated wit.

“Of all vices I hold patriotism the worst when it meddles with matters of taste,” he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1882.

In criticizing French writer Alphonse Daudet to Henry James, Hay wrote, “The “Evangeliste” is dreary, the work of a genius smitten with locomotor ataxia; (if I had known that word was so long, I should never have begun upon it).”

”Dear Reid,” he wrote to his former editor Whitelaw Reid, “It is painful, but I must tell you. My wife says, when you come to the house, that you have got to hold the baby.”

  1. Hay-Adams Hotel

Hay’s best friend was John Quincy Adams’ grandson, historian Henry Adams. Together with their wives and geologist Clarence King (who led a double life married to an African-American woman in New York City), they socialized frequently and called themselves the Five of Hearts.

When Adams in 1880 anonymously published a best-selling novel called Democracy, people speculated that the Five of Hearts had collaborated on it.

Adams and Hay were so close they built adjoining mansions on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. Eventually, a luxury hotel known as the Hay-Adams replaced the two houses.


Henry Adams lived on the left, John Hay on the right. Image courtesy Colgate Public Library.

  1. Three Funerals

John Hay attended the vigil of three presidents, all of whom he knew well. He stood next to Lincoln on his deathbed.


John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln, John Hay

His friend James Garfield, when elected president, had asked him to serve as his private secretary. Hay chose instead to work as an editor for the New York Tribune, supporting Garfield’s policies. Then a deranged office seeker shot the president in a Washington, D.C., railroad station. Hay covered Garfield’s 79-day slide into death.

Twenty years later, an assassin killed another presidential friend.  When William McKinley ran for president, Hay gave his campaign $4,000 a month. McKinley named him his secretary of state, and trusted him implicitly in foreign affairs.

When an anarchist shot McKinley in Buffalo, John Hay visited him at his bedside. After McKinley’s funeral, Hay wrote to a friend, “what a strange and tragic fate it has been of mine—to stand by the bier of three of my dearest friends, Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, three of the gentlest of men, all risen to be head of the State, and all done to death by assassins.”

  1. The Great Chicago Fire

John Hay was working for the New York Tribune in 1871 when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly kicked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire.

His editor, Whitelaw Reid, sent him to Chicago. Two days after the fire broke out, Hay arrived after in the devastated city after a 38-hour train ride. He described the smoldering ruins, interviewed the victims and visited Mr. O’Leary as he watched the cow through the window.


The Great Chicago Fire by Currier & Ives

Hay’s versatility as critic, reporter and editor pleased Reid so much he gave him a raise to $65 a week. That made him one of the highest paid editorial writers in the country, which annoyed Mark Twain, who also wrote for the New York Tribune.

  1. Layabout

His diplomatic career began when he was in his 20s and lasted until his death at the age of 66. He negotiated 50 treaties, including the treaty that gave the United States canal rights to the Isthmus of Panama. He also gets credit for fashioning the Open Door Policy.

Despite his many accomplishments, he had a tendency to laziness and hypochondria. After he married Clara, he wrote a letter to a friend saying, “I do nothing but read and yawn.” He complained to John Bigelow, U.S. ambassador to France, that he was ‘growing more indolent and scatterbrained day by day.’ And in a letter to Henry Adams, he wrote in 1895 that ‘time goes by imperceptibly in indolence and solitude, and there’s nothing to do, or think, or write about. I have developed two or three more mortal disease…’


Hay’s best friend, Henry Adams

He also visited doctors frequently for advice about his imagined illnesses. When doctors prescribed rest, he readily followed their orders.

  1. Lucky Fellow

He had an abundance of luck throughout his life. The best stroke of good fortune that befell him was to graduate from Brown without an idea of what to do with his life. So he went to work for his Uncle Milton, a lawyer with an office next door to Abraham Lincoln’s.

Along with his good friend John George Nicolay, Hay threw himself into Lincoln’s campaign for president. Lincoln then brought them both to Washington, where they roomed together in a shabby bedroom in the White House. Lincoln visited them at all hours of the day and night. The unparalleled access to the president informed the 10-volume biography the two “Lincoln’s boys” wrote together.

Clara Stone

His luck continued in love. He courted and in 1876 married Clara Stone, daughter of a wealthy Cleveland industrialist. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, and they had four healthy children. His father-in-law gave him fabulous mansion and a job in Cleveland managing his considerable investments, which Hay, it turned out, was good at. The job gave him plenty of money and freedom to travel.

The only time his luck ran out was in 1901, when his son Adelbert died at the age of 24. The young man had just been appointed McKinley’s personal secretary when he fell 60 feet to his death from a New Haven hotel window.

  1. Grandchildren of John Hay

Two of his grandchildren achieved fame in their own right. His daughter Helen married Payne Whitney, son of another Cabinet member, William Whitney. President Eisenhower named Helen’s son John Hay Whitney ambassador to the United Kingdom, 60 years after his grandfather held the post.

Helen’s daughter Joan Whitney Payson in 1962 bought an expansion baseball team, the New York Mets, and brought Willie Mays back to New York.


Joan Whitney Payson

With thanks to All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro, Also to The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism by Mark Zwonitze and William Roscoe Thayer in The Life and Letters of J0hn Hay, Volume 2.

Images: Joan Whitney Payson By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49601215. This story was updated in 2024.


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