John Milton Hay's Literary Influence

By Stevenson, James D., Jr.; Stevenson, Randehl K. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

John Milton Hay's Literary Influence


Stevenson, James D., Jr., Stevenson, Randehl K., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


America's burgeoning growth following the Civil War changed people's lives in countless ways as the nation embraced a new and promising future. Telegraphs speeded communications, railroads improved transportation across the continent, and river traffic increased tremendously. Immigrants added another ingredient to the cultural mix that characterized American life, and discoveries of natural resources and new technologies to exploit them expanded America's wealth exponentially. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Jeffersonian ideal of America as a rural republic gave way to a more dynamic urban outlook at the same time as America's horizons expanded in the international arena.

Post-bellum authors paralleled the pragmatic spirit of the times by portraying realistic characters with temperaments, motives, social attitudes and modes of behavior that brought into sharp focus the Nation's changing mores. Certain notable writers were especially effective in drawing on their own personal experience to address age-old questions about human relationships and the human condition. This personal experience included a playful sense of the drama inherent in human foibles and was framed in the context of colorful and uniquely American local dialects and regional customs. John Milton Hay was one of these notable American authors.

Born in 1838, Hay was just three years old when his father moved the family from Indiana to Warsaw, Illinois. Warsaw was a typical river boom town. Land speculators had it surveyed in 1834 in the hope that it would quickly grow into an important manufacturing and shipping center. By 1849 Hay's father had decided that Warsaw's academic opportunities were too limited for his son. Hay was sent to live with his attorney uncle, Milton Hay, in Pittsfield, Pike Country, Illinois, where he enrolled at the John D. Thomson Academy in Pittsfield. It was there that he met John Nicolay, who became his friend and then his collaborator in serving Abraham Lincoln and later writing Lincoln's history.

Upon graduation from the Academy, Hay moved to Springfield to attend the newly founded Illinois State University. He lived with his grandfather, John Hay, a businessman. There Hay befriended Lincoln's eldest son, the young eleven year old, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was enrolled in the University's Preparatory Department. Hay mastered the curriculum, studying the classics and foreign languages, and graduated in 1855 to attend Brown University at Providence, Rhode Island, as a sophomore. He proved an adept scholar, was named Class Poet, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1858.

In the spring of 1859 Hay returned to Springfield where he decided to enter the law profession and began working at the law practice of his uncle, Milton Hay. His uncle's close connection with Lincoln stemmed from the training he received from the firm Stuart and Lincoln when he was studying to pass the bar under the preceptor method then in use. Hay's friendship with John Nicolay, who was also familiar to Lincoln, served as another entrée to Lincoln's acquaintance. After Lincoln's election as President, these connections worked in Hay's favor and Lincoln asked Hay to share with Nicolay the yet undefined duties of Presidential secretary. Hay acquiesced to his uncle's wish that he be a qualified attorney before leaving for the nation's capital-perhaps with the help or influence of the President-elect. He passed the bar on 4 February 1861, one week before leaving with Lincoln's entourage for Washington.

After serving as Lincoln's secretary throughout the Civil War, and then serving in U.S. Legations to Paris, Madrid, and Vienna, Hay became an editor and writer for the New York Tribune. This involvement in the world of the New York literati not only heightened his appreciation of the deep cultural changes sweeping the country, but also enabled him to reach a wider audience as an active agent of this change. His exciting new poetry, Pike County Ballads, was published in 1871 before he returned to government service.

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