By: Andy Crawford
When you think of Abraham Lincoln, what probably comes to mind is the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a country still struggling to find its identity. When you think of Teddy Roosevelt (other than his badass escapades), we think of an emerging world power with colonies in the Philippines and Cuba, which was carving a canal between two oceans in Panama, and establishing national parks to preserve the frontier it had conquered.
The eras of Lincoln and Roosevelt, two of the greatest presidents in American history, seem light-years apart. If they could witness the country each led, neither would recognize it. In fact, their presidencies really only have one thing in common.
His name is John Hay.
Hay was raised in the backwater town of Warsaw, Illinois. He was an extremely bright youth, and managed to escape the obscurity of pioneer life and moved to Providence, where he attended Brown University. Upon graduation in 1858, he moved back to Illinois to study law with a law firm in Springfield. It was there that he met a local attorney, Abraham Lincoln.
Hay became a passionate supporter for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential campaign, and helped handle Lincoln’s correspondence with his other secretary, John Nicolay.
Upon Lincoln’s election, Hay and Nicolay moved into the White House with Lincoln’s family. They shared a bedroom across the hall from the executive office (this was before the White House had the West Wing and Oval Office), where they worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, throughout the war. He hardly ever left Lincolon’s side. He was even present for the Gettysburg Address, which Hay misjudged at the time as “inadequate” for the occasion.
There was no one’s counsel Lincoln trusted more than Hay and Nicolay, as he shared some of his greatest anxieties and hardest decisions with them. It was generally remarked Lincoln loved the young man as a son. Hay recorded how one evening Lincoln “read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry V and the beginning of Richard III, till my heavy eyelids caught his considerate notice, and he sent me to bed.”
Another time, Hay recorded how after midnight Lincoln burst into the office wearing only his pajamas to share a joke in a book he was reading. However, Lincoln was “seemingly utterly unconscious that he, with his short shirt hanging about his long legs, and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich, was infinitely funnier than anything in the book he was laughing at.”
John Hay was with Lincoln’s only biological son to reach adulthood, Robert, when news came that the President had been shot at Ford’s Theatre. The two rushed from the White House, and were present at the Petersen House when Lincoln died hours later.
Unfortunately, this would not be the last President that Hay would see die from an assassin’s bullet. After decades of serving as an American diplomat and ambassador to Great Britain, he was appointed Secretary of State by President McKinley in 1899. Hay had been with McKinley after he was shot, and informed the young Vice President Teddy Roosevelt that McKinley had died and that he was now President.
By the time Roosevelt was President, Hay was an elder statesman and the last relic of the Lincoln administration. As such, Roosevelt treated him with a great deal of respect and relied on him heavily in foreign affairs.
Hay’s most monumental achievement was the Panama Canal. For years, Hay negotiated with the French, Colombians, and Panamanians to obtain the rights for America to build the canal. While this is often cited as the greatest achievement of Roosevelt’s presidency, it was Hay’s expert diplomacy that led to the signing of the treaty creating the canal in 1903. (It was called the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty.)
By 1905, Hay was in poor health and, at the advice of his best friend Charles Adams, he tendered his resignation. Only a few months later, the man who was with Lincoln in Gettysburg and Roosevelt in Panama, who counseled the former during the throes of the Civil War and the latter through the tumultuous days following the assassination of his predecessor, died.
He served his country for almost fifty years, and was a giant of the late 19th century. A little boy from southern Illinois grew up to be the trusted counselor of arguably America’s two greatest Presidents.
That’s pretty cool. And that’s why John Hay is worth remembering.
Andy probably finds John Hay more interesting than most people. Maybe it is because they share the same birthday, October 8th.