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A witness and an author of history

The life of John Hay

Created date

February 21st, 2014
John Milton Jay
John Milton Jay

Few characters have enjoyed such a sweeping role in American history as John Milton Hay. Starting in his early 20s, he embarked on a 40-year career at the highest levels of the U.S. government as a player in some of the most pivotal episodes of politics and war.

He was private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, an ambassador to Great Britain, and secretary of state under both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, in spite of it all, Hay has existed in the shadows of these historic monoliths—at least, until now.

In All the Great Prizes (Simon & Schuster, 2013), author and historian John Taliaferro returns Hay to his rightful place at center stage in the American story. Using an array of sources that include a vast archive of Hay’s papers—his diary, his personal and professional letters (some of them only recently discovered)—Taliaferro paints a stunning biographical portrait of this otherwise underestimated character.

Following a natural chronological progression, the book begins with Hay’s youth. Born to a country doctor in Illinois, he graduated from Brown University and studied law with his uncle, whose office just happened to be next door to a little-known railroad lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Twist of fate leads to history

In a twist of fate that was the underpinning of his professional life, Hay became friends with Lincoln’s legal assistant John Nicolay, and through him, got to know Lincoln. Inevitably, he found himself caught in the whirlwind of the Railsplitter’s rise to the presidency, which carried him to Washington and into the pages of history.

The first quarter of the book takes readers inside Lincoln’s White House, providing a fly-on-the-wall view of his handling of the Civil War, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the tragic end of his presidency. As his private secretary, Hay was with the president when he delivered his Gettysburg Address and at his bedside when he died by an assassin’s bullet.

Of course, his years with Lincoln comprised only one of the many chapters in Hay’s life. Taliaferro offers an equally detailed treatment of his diplomatic endeavors in Paris, Madrid, Vienna, and England; his plotting of the annexation of the Philippines and an Open Door policy with China; and his negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, which brought the Spanish-American War to a close.

Taliaferro handles this material with a fluid, cinematic style rarely found in biographical narratives. This book is more than an account of Hay’s role in the American saga for it captures the personality and the emotion that made its subject human.

Using John Hay the witness and John Hay the author of history, Taliaferro takes readers on a firsthand tour of our nation’s Civil War, its reconstruction, and its gilded age.