Last night, Brown hosted “John Hay Night,” a celebration of the life and scholarship of one of its most famous alumni. The event showcased the impressive set of resources that the university has collected about Hay, who served as a diplomat for three U.S. presidents. Professor Michael Vorenberg introduced separate talks by John Taliaferro, author of All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, and Joshua Zeitz AM’98 PhD’02, author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. Taliaferro’s book is the first biography of Hay in over 80 years, and Zeitz’s work puts a new spin on a portion of Hay’s life that is often overlooked. As he puts it, Lincoln buffs know little about the Roosevelt-era Hay, and vice versa.
John Hay, the man for whom the beautiful, renovated library you’re too lazy to set foot in is named, has a résumé that would make our template blush. He spent almost 60 years in public life, from his time as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary—see, not everyone goes into finance or consulting—to his death while serving as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. He was instrumental in key moments in U.S. history like the forging of the Open Door policy with China and the construction of the Panama Canal. Along with John Nicolay, the second of “Lincoln’s Boys,” he wrote a truly massive biography of the late President that brought to light many of the qualities that we now take for granted when we think about Honest Abe. He even ghost-wrote the famous Bixby letter, which you might know as that voice-over that makes you cry at the end of Saving Private Ryan.
Just as impressive was Hay’s personal life: Taliaferro likened him to the Most Interesting Man in the World. He was Queen Victoria’s favorite foreign diplomat when he was Ambassador to Great Britain. Most Underratedly Evil Man Ever King Leopold II of Belgium staked out a hotel once to hang out with him. His social circle included Mark Twain, stereotypical Robber Baron Mark Hanna, and just about every President of the second half of the nineteenth century. Suffice it to say he resided in the Gilded portion of Gilded Age America.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned about John Hay last night was that he would fit in just fine on campus today. Seriously, college-age Hay was a walking, talking Brown stereotype before heteronormativity, intersectionality, and post-post-post-modernism were even words, let alone cool words. Hay, who graduated in 1858 at 19, was Class Poet (Ed. – Can we bring this back?) at graduation. Ashamed of his “Western” (read: Illinois) roots, he dressed, in Zeitz’s words, like a “dandy,” spending much of his time writing truly awful poetry. He pined after the daughter of one of his literature professors, and when he graduated, he returned to Springfield, Illinois, depressed about his future professional and romantic prospects. Late 1850’s John Hay had the mid 2010’s confused “Millennial” (the thing they think we all are, not who we really are) down a century and a half early. Get this guy a cigarette and some thick frames, and he’s good to go (he already had the mustache)!
It was only then, while working in his uncle’s law office, that he got to know a guy who worked upstairs named Abraham Lincoln. And the rest, they say, is history.