John Hay

“Even the White House is turned into a barracks! Everyone seems to be expecting a son or brother to arrive with the coming regiments.”

John Hay

John Hay
Young John Hay from Illinois, freshly graduated from the Ivy League’s Brown University, got his job inside the Lincoln White House thanks to his uncle Milton’s years running a law office next to Lincoln’s in Springfield and his own friendship with the President’s secretary. He spent most of Lincoln’s presidency as his assistant secretary, living in the White House, listening to Lincoln’s jokes, anecdotes and late-night worries, riding at the Soldiers’ Home, writing letters for the President, and enjoying his position as an eligible man about town in wartime Washington, DC. But his responsibility for the White House accounts brought him into constant tension with Mary Lincoln and her ongoing quest for funds to improve the White House and its furnishings.
John Singer Sargent portrait of older John Hay

Secretary of State John Hay painted by John Singer Sargent

Fortunately for later generations, Hay was a sharp observer and gifted writer who left invaluable diaries of his Civil War years. He and fellow secretary John Nicolay collaborated on a 10-volume biography of Lincoln, considered the most important of its time. He was a close friend of Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, and went on to enjoy a life of wealth and privilege in Washington during the Gilded Age. An important statesman, he served McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as Secretary of State until his own death in 1905, crafting the Open Door Policy that opened China’s markets to western trade and doing important work to advance the Panama Canal. Eager to serve in the army before the war’s closing, Hay left the White House in 1864 and rose to the rank of major. However, he had returned to Washington a few weeks before the surrender and was at Lincoln’s bedside when he died. John Hay is one of the prime sources for The Secretary in Reunion, through whose eyes we get our closest look at Lincoln.

On First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln

“The Hell-cat gets more hell-cattical every day.”

On Lincoln’s Eccentricities

“Last night at midnight, he burst into my room in his slippers, as he wanted to read me a funny poem. The Tycoon seemed utterly unconscious that with his nightshirt hanging above his long legs and setting out behind like the tail feathers of an enormous ostrich, he was infinitely funnier than anything in the book.”

On General McClellan

“[The President and I] went over to General McClellan’s house. After an hour, McClellan came in, and the servant told him the President was waiting to see him. We waited another half-an-hour and sent the servant once more to tell the General we were there. The answer coolly came that the General had gone to bed.”

On The Emancipation Proclamation

“The Tycoon has stunned us all. He says God has decided the question–in favor of the slaves!”

On Lincoln’s Re-Election

“The Tycoon sent over the first fruits of victory to the Hell-Cat and went to work shoveling out fried oysters.”

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