U.S. President William Mckinley, left, sits with his cabinet during a meeting in the White House. Second from left, foreground, Secretary of State John Hay, third from left, Secretary of War Elihu Root. This photo is circa 1898. (AP/AP)

John Hay was a famous American dabbler. In the years from 1860 to 1905, he was a writer, ambassador, reporter, industrialist and politician. How can we make sense of such a varied life?

Born in 1838, the bright Indiana boy began his career as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary. From 1861 to 1865, Hay and his friend John Nicolay answered the president’s mail while he led a nation fighting for its existence. Hay grew to love Lincoln, who shone on Hay the affection he could not give to his own son. But worn out by his work and at odds with Mary Lincoln — he called her a she-devil — Hay in 1865 parlayed his White House connections into a State Department posting in Paris. Virtually his last White House duty was to stand at Lincoln’s deathbed.

While Americans back home struggled to hammer out what a new nation, reconstructed without slavery, would look like, Hay held government posts in England, Spain and Vienna. He returned to the United States in 1870, rocketing to fame as a poet of rollicking ballads about regular Americans, then took a job writing for the New York Tribune.

Hay turned from writing to business in 1874, when he married Clara Stone, daughter of the fabulously wealthy railroad entrepreneur Amasa Stone. Bored after a few years of working with Clara’s father, he thought of going back to England as ambassador but had been too long out of politics to get an appointment. He began to use his literary skills to spew invective for the Republican Party and won a brief stint as assistant secretary of state.

Hay’s formal employment ended in 1881. For the next 17 years, he churned out books: first “The Bread-Winners,” a pot-boiling 1883 novel; then “Abraham Lincoln: A History,” a 10-volume, ­1.5-million-word biography co-written with Nicolay. He traveled, dined, chatted, flirted. In the 1896 election, Hay poured money into the campaign of Republican William McKinley. Flush with victory, McKinley named Hay ambassador to England. There, his drawing-room skills made him popular with British leaders. When McKinley needed a new secretary of state to promote American business interests overseas, he turned to the well-connected Hay. After McKinley died, Hay stayed on and adopted Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policies, overseeing the nation’s debut on the world stage.

"All the Great Prizes: The life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt" by John Taliaferro. (Simon and Schuster Publishing/SIMON AND SCHUSTER PUBLISHING)

Hay lived through the changes that turned a crippled country into the most powerful nation on Earth, but historians have struggled to bring order to his many-faceted life. In 1915, 10 years after Hay’s death, William Roscoe Thayer published “The Life and Letters of John Hay,” which portrayed its subject as a politician first and foremost, perched on a pedestal as he guided America to world power. In 1934, Tyler Dennett won the Pulitzer Prize for a brilliant biography that painted Hay as a poet whose amiability enabled him to succeed among the politicians, industrialists, writers and diplomats of the 19th century.

Now John Taliaferro has entered the list of Hay biographers, trying to humanize the marble Hay and place him in a context that includes women. To do so, he emphasizes Hay’s apparent dalliances with two political wives of the day: Nannie Lodge and Lizzie Cameron. Allegations of these affairs are not new, although the evidence for them is inconclusive (and there is also evidence for a romantic relationship between Hay and his best friend, Henry Adams). More troublesome is that, in his focus on romance, the author ignores the power politics surrounding Nannie, the notably intelligent wife of a leading senator, and Lizzie, the wife of the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And therein lies the crucial weakness of this biography. Taliaferro has stripped politics from the life of a politician and lost the whole man in a recital of his parts. Rather than correcting Thayer and Dennett’s work, Taliaferro has abandoned their versions of Hay without offering a coherent one of his own.

Politics informed everything in late-19th-century America. Since Hay was always in the thick of party machinations, playing down his partisanship removes the meaning from his most significant actions. His marriage, for example, brought his literary talents to the service of the very rich at a time when the country was on the brink of class warfare. “The Bread-Winners,” which Taliaferro explores mainly as a prank among Hay’s literary friends, was a best-seller that popularized social Darwinism. It argued that labor organizers were violent socialists whose only goal was to destroy America by confiscating the wealth of their betters. Similarly, Hay’s support for the Republican Party reflected his conviction that government must protect big business. As secretary of state, his role was to spread American capitalism to Europe and to enlist British support against French, German and Russian expansion into Asia.

When he played down politics in his biography, Dennett interpreted Hay as a poet whose aimlessness revealed an inherent conservatism that served him well in his diplomatic career. Like Dennett, Taliaferro minimizes politics but without trying to explain Hay, who instead wanders about at the whim of fortune.

Taliaferro’s version of Hay’s life starts to shine only when the author covers his tenure as secretary of state. The Hay years were pivotal in American history as he ushered the nation onto the international stage, often in the face of great opposition. In exploring Hay’s negotiations over Japan, Cuba and especially the Panama Canal, Taliaferro tells a gripping tale of international intrigue. At last, Hay’s life is deeply imbedded in politics, and his personality makes sense.

Until that point, Taliaferro’s excellent impulse to humanize Hay and place him in a broad social context remains as unfocused as Hay himself.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the president of the Historical Society.


The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln
to Roosevelt

By John Taliaferro

Simon & Schuster. 673 pp. $35