Tired of the bickering between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the administration? Relax. It’s been worse.
The death of Secretary of State John Milton Hay in 1905 provoked this response from Henry Adams: “The Senate killed Hay.”
“Our friend Cabot helped to murder him [as] consciously as possible, precisely as though he put strychnine in his drink. ... His diplomates [sic] tired him out, after his Senators poisoned him,” continued Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents and Hay’s closest friend.
Cabot — Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts — came from the same Republican Party as Hay. Against that history, today’s Democrats and Republicans should pat themselves on the back for getting along so well.
Cabot Lodge’s defense of Senate prerogatives over treaties did drive Hay to distraction in his final years. More than a century later, we can thank Cabot Lodge for taking pains to cause the pain. John Taliaferro’s biography, “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln to Roosevelt,” mostly comes to life when the villains — in this telling, Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt — are on stage disturbing Hay’s peace of mind.
Cabot Lodge and Roosevelt aside, Hay lived an extraordinary life. He is an exemplar of the continuing practice of hitching your wagon to a political star to make a mark and escape a backwater. His fervently desired escape was from the prospect of becoming a country lawyer in Warsaw, Ill.
President Abraham Lincoln offered the brighter future of a private secretary’s job, and Hay never looked back. (Though he soon voiced perfunctory nostalgia for home, another practice still common in Washington.)
Hay’s accomplishments were professional and personal: Lincoln’s private secretary and later biographer, diplomat, novelist and poet; journalist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune; art collector; friend to Adams, Bret Harte, Henry James, William Dean Howells and Whitelaw Reid; ambassador to Britain, secretary of State. Oh, and he married the daughter of Amasa Stone, the wealthiest man in Cleveland, the city home to John D. Rockefeller.
Hay looks like an American Lord Grantham. Rich thanks to his wife’s inheritance, he was well-connected and most importantly, well-behaved. He was not one to overturn tradition. Today, he is virtually forgotten.
Washingtonians can hear an echo of his presence in the Hay-Adams Hotel, site of the lavish Lafayette Square house the two built so they could enjoy each another’s company. Mets fans can thank Hay’s granddaughter for giving New York a second baseball team.
As secretary of State, his open-door policy preserved the integrity of China and raised the stature of U.S. diplomacy, winning him plaudits and fame.
Bright, and always competent, Hay’s talent was to charm his way to success. His skills were social and his achievements were built on them, not on intellectual candlepower or political arm-twisting. The open-door policy on China was steeped in American tradition going back to George Washington’s warning to not get caught in foreign entanglements.