Hay, John Milton

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Hay, John Milton

John Milton Hay, 1838–1905, American author and statesman who was an important political figure from the mid-19th cent. into the early 20th cent.; b. Salem, Ind., grad. Brown. He practiced law at Springfield, Ill., where he met Abraham Lincoln. Hay accompanied Lincoln to Washington and was the president's assistant private secretary, writing some of his more grandiloquent correspondence until Lincoln's death. The next five years were spent in minor posts in the U.S. legations at Paris, Vienna, and Madrid. Then followed four years of journalism in New York City, a period during which he published Pike County Ballads (1871). Marriage to the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland banker enabled him to pursue the profession of man of letters, to travel, and to fill political posts of distinction.

He was appointed assistant secretary of state in 1878 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he became the intimate of Henry Adams and Clarence King. In this period he published with John G. Nicolay, the monumental Abraham Lincoln: A History (10 vol., 1890), a work for which the young secretaries, while serving under Lincoln, had gathered material with his knowledge and permission. In Mar., 1897, McKinley appointed Hay ambassador to Great Britain, and there he served his country well during the trying time of the Spanish-American War.

From Sept. 20, 1898, until his death, July 1, 1905, he was secretary of state under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. In the McKinley administration he was a maker of policies, and he was also a prominent figure in the Roosevelt administration, despite his chief's posthumous description of him as a "fine figurehead." Hay was responsible for the Open Door policy (1899) with regard to China, which stressed freedom of commercial enterprise for American merchants; for U.S. involvement in the Boxer Uprising; and for the Hay-Pauncefote Treaties.

See W. R. Thayer, Life and Letters of John Hay (1915, repr. 1972); biographies by T. Dennett (1933, repr. 1961) and J. Taliaferro (2013); J. Zeitz, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln's Image (2014).

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