The Washington Post

You think this is hot? Hear what Lincoln’s secretary said about Washington summers

"All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt," by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster). “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt,” by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster).

The nation’s capital is always full of hot air, of course, but every July it grows downright unbearable. According to our Weather Gang, the past three summers here were the three hottest on record. But at least we’ve got air conditioning. Consider what sweaty politicians endured in the 19th century.

When I asked historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to set the scene, she quoted President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, who saw “men and horses dropping dead in the streets every day.”

More perspective comes from John Taliaferro, who’s just published a biography of Hay.

“The heat was bad enough,” he tells me. “The smell off the Potomac was even worse.” Hay likened it to “the ghosts of twenty thousand drowned cats.”


On Aug. 5, 1899, Hay wrote to his friend Henry Adams: “I left Washington last Monday, being just able to crawl to the station. The heat has been so steady and uncomfortable that it has nearly used us all up, and, besides that, the State Department, always impossible, has been a little Hell upon earth.”

Taliaferro notes that “Adams was wise enough to spend his summers elsewhere, usually Europe.”

As temperatures climbed to the 100-degree mark, Washington society evaporated. “Government came to a crawl during the summer months,” Taliaferro says. “Virtually every senator and foreign diplomat went home or to the more tolerable climes of the mountains, Newport, or the shores of New Jersey and New England.”

Hay retreated to his summer house in New Hampshire, a lovely estate called The Fells, which I toured several years ago with my family when I was escaping Washington’s heat.

No such luck this July.



Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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Cara Kelly · July 19, 2013

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