When I think of individuals who have had a major impact on American history after the Civil War, but about whom little known is known, two names come to mind, Henry L. Stimson and John Milton Hay. Stimson served as Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in addition to being Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover. Luckily we have excellent biographies that cover Stimson’s career; Geoffrey Hodgson’s THE COLONEL: THE LIFE AND WARS OF HENRY L. STIMSON, David Schwitz’s HENRY L. STIMSON: THE FIRST WISE MAN, and the classic portrayal by Elting Morrison, TURMOIL AND TROUBLE. In the case of John Hay, until now, there has not been a major biography since 1934. The book I am referring to is ALL THE GREAT PRIZES by John Taliaferro who has presented an extraordinary narrative that bookends Hay’s career as one of Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretaries, his service under Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, William McKinley, and ending as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. Taliaferro’s work encompasses all aspects of Hay’s private life and career and is an exceptional book.
Hay’s intellectual development is explored in a very insightful manner through his relationship with Abraham Lincoln. The author notes that “through his own experience Hay came to know Lincoln. Through Lincoln he began to know himself.” (37) Taliaferro provides the usual storyline and explanations in describing the course of the Civil War. We see the issues with General George McClellan, through Hay’s eyes ; the rationale and passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as Lincoln’s travails with John C. Fremont, Salmon P. Chase and others. In exploring Hay’s relationship with Lincoln the author reaches the same conclusion as others that Hay became “if not a surrogate son, then a younger man who stirred a higher form of paternal nurturing that Lincoln, despite his best intentions, did not successfully bestow on either of his surviving children.” (54) Hay had observed Lincoln at his best and worst and developed into a sounding board to be trusted, employed in a number of sensitive missions throughout the Civil War. Lincoln became a role model for Hay that would last a lifetime and following Lincoln’s assassination, he would mourn him for the rest of his life.
Taliaferro does a nice job integrating Hay’s own personal descriptive prose employing his diaries, written works, and diplomatic papers throughout the book. In pursuing biography as a tool writers must be careful not to engage in hagiography. At times Taliaferro does present an overblown portrayal of his subject as he states that when Hay returned to the United States in September, 1870 there were few men in America “who could match his understanding of foreign affairs or for that matter, politics of any provenance.” (129) In discussing Hay’s relationships with Nannie Lodge, the wife of Henry Cabot Lodge, and Lizzie Cameron who was married to a senator from Pennsylvania, Taliaferro is very careful in presenting what appears to be at least one extra-marital affair and possibly two. There are other examples that some would find to be overly subjective, but to the author’s credit they are kept to minimum.
The author’s rendering of the relationship with Henry Adams, the famous historian, is one of the highlights of the book. In describing their relationship Taliaferro states “For reasons that no one but they fully understood, and not even they articulated, Adams was the person in whose company Hay felt most himself. And Adams, the more irascible and phlegmatic of the two, recognized in Hay an admirable peer who consented to put up with him just as he was.” (177) Since Hay was a rather conservative individual politically and socially, and Adams leaned toward a much more of liberal bent in an number of areas, viewing the history of this period through their relationship and writings is certainly a treat for the reader. Hay’s friendship with Adams and his wife Clover, his relationship with Clarence King, a noted geologist, and Hay’s wife Clara was encapsulated in their own “club” entitled the “Five of Hearts,” which is described in detail. Hay’s summer retreat at Lake Sunapee, named the Fells was built and developed as a place they could sojourn to and as a place to escape the heat and humidity of Washington, DC. I was surprised to learn as close as they were and how much they supported each other emotionally and financially in the case of King, they hardly met as a group, perhaps a half a dozen times. Since Patricia O’Toole has written a fascinating book entitled THE FIVE OF HEARTS I would have expected greater contact amongst the five.
Hay was truly a “Renaissance” individual. Apart from his diplomatic career Hay was a poet and a novelist whose works include THE BREAD-WINNERS, a book that lends insight into the author’s political views as it is a tract against socialism and labor unions. Other works written by Hay include PIKE COUNTY BALLADS, CASTILIAN DAYS, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A BIOGRAPHY (10 Vols) co authored with John G. Nicolay, and a number of books of poetry. Hay also had a career as a newspaper editor at the New York Tribune as well as a writer who chronicled events from Europe. The one aspect of Hay’s life that Taliaferro could have explored further was Hay’s acquisition of wealth. Obviously a very rich man with homes on millionaires row in Cleveland, Lafayette Square in Washington, in addition to the Fells I felt that Hay’s marriage to Clara Stone, the daughter of Amasa Stone, a very wealthy industrialist should have been dealt with in greater detail. The reader is told that Hay was given certain gifts, was employed by his father-in-law, but then pursued a diplomatic career in the Hayes and Garfield administrations. Hay was a plutocrat in addition to being a man of letters and that could have been detailed further.
Taliaferro’s discussion of Hay’s tenure as Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt is well conceived. We see the supposed “soft hand of diplomacy” as practiced by Hay as opposed the more overt imperialist approach as employed by the likes of Henry Cabot Lodge and his good friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Negotiations dealing with the British are framed nicely, first from the perspective of Hay’s tenure as Ambassador to the Court of St. James and then at the State Department. Issues dealing with the Alaskan Boundary dispute, the Venezuelan Crisis, and early developments in building the Panama Canal are presented based on all the relevant primary and secondary sources. It shows a competent diplomat who knows how to achieve his goals. Once Theodore Roosevelt assumes the presidency following the assassination of McKinley Hay adapts well to a more “boisterous” executive who liked to “carry the big stick.” Surprisingly Hay worked well with the former Rough Rider and is able to guide American diplomacy resulting in the Open Door Policy, setting the building of the Panama Canal in motion, and navigating the minefield that was the Russo-Japanese War. It is interesting to note that the “egoistic” Roosevelt gave Hay a tremendous amount of credit while he lived, but once his Secretary of State passed away he pursued a revisionist approach to events that gave himself what seems to be 99% of the credit for all diplomatic accomplishments.
If I had two major suggestions I would ask the author to edit more carefully and avoid the practice of overstatement. There are a number of editing issues, i.e. stating that Roosevelt’s running mate in 1904 was Albert Beveridge, in fact it was Charles W. Fairbanks, which is repeated a few times. In his introduction the Taliaferro states that America’s China policy preserved the integrity of the “Middle Kingdom”. He goes on to restate this proposition later in the book by arguing that the Open Door Policy was responsible for maintaining China as a whole. Geographically that is true but economically the spheres of influence and unequal treaties between the European powers and China dating back to the First Opium War and the 1842 Treaty of Nanking did not end, in fact the Chinese economy was still under the thumb of foreign nations for decades after Hay’s policy was announced. This policy preserved American trade which it was designed to do, but territorial, political, and economic integrity is a myth. Another example of over statement was the author’s discussion of the Franco-Prussian War which he seems to blame totally on Louis Napoleon III. Though I agree that the French Emperor deserves some of the credit for the plight of his empire due to his own incompetence, the machinations of the future German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck is mostly responsible for the events of 1870-1.
Overall the book is a fine work of narrative history. Dealing with a subject who had such an important political and diplomatic career, was also friends with the likes of Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Rudyard Kipling, and William Dean Howells among so many others cannot be other than a fascinating read. The author spent years researching and writing ALL THE GREAT PRIZES and it is reflected in the final product. It is easy to forgive any blemishes one might find and I recommend to all who would like to explore a previously unknown historical character, as following the publication of this biography John Milton Hay’s reputation will soar, to do so.