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All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln to Roosevelt

John Taliaferro, Simon & Shuster, 2013, $35

Less than a month before he died on July 1, 1905, John Hay dreamed of Abraham Lincoln. In the dream, Hay was not feeling well, but the president told him not to worry, that there was little work to do except to answer two letters. Hay recorded that the “dream was one of overpowering melancholy.”

Hay was only 22 years old in 1861 when he left Springfield, Ill., for Washington, D.C., to serve as one of Lincoln’s private secretaries along with John George Nicolay.

In this exhaustive biography, John Taliaferro shows that Lincoln and Hay shared a brooding, melancholic temperament and suggests that the president treated his secretary more like a son than a staff member. Hay not only helped manage the hundreds of letters that arrived weekly, he also composed and signed responses in Lincoln’s name and took on various political missions.

When Lincoln died, Hay had already decided not to remain for his second term. Two months later, he sailed for Europe to assume his first diplomatic post in Paris. For the next 40 years, Hay served in a variety of diplomatic capacities, most notably secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, where he helped fashion the “Open Door” policy with China and sign treaties leading to the creation of the Panama Canal.

Taliaferro’s account of the diplomatic intricacies is unparalleled, but the biographer seems a bit too enamored of his subject. Hay was a wealthy man, something of a dandy with a silver tongue and the habits of a poet, journalist and novelist, though he could not compete in this arena with his friends Henry Adams and Henry James. His most important literary work was the 10- volume authorized biography of Lincoln that he and Nicolay completed in 1890.


Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.