John Hay

U.S. Secretary of State John Hay began his career as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, and was later known for promoting an “Open Door” policy in China.


Born on October 8, 1838, in Salem, Indiana, John Hay began his political career as President Abraham Lincoln's private secretary. He went on to serve as the U.S. secretary of state for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Arguably his greatest influences were negotiating the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty and promoting an "Open Door" policy in China. Hay died on July 1, 1905, in Newbury, New Hampshire.

Early Life

John Hay was born on October 8, 1838, in Salem, Indiana, but spent most of his youth in Warsaw, Illinois. The third son of Dr. Charles Hay and Helen Leonard, Hay moved to Illinois when he was 13 years old to study at an academy in Pittsfield. There, he met John Nicolay, with whom he would later work as a private secretary for President Abraham Lincoln. A year later, in 1852, Hay left for Springfield College. After completing his early education, he was accepted into Brown University, his grandfather's alma mater.

While studying at Brown, Hay developed a strong interest in literature, particularly poetry. He became actively involved in Providence’s literary community, which included Nora Perry and Sarah Helen Whitman, who had been engaged to Edgar Allan Poe. Upon graduating from Brown, Hay was named "class poet," but he left school before receiving his diploma at the university's official commencement ceremony. After graduation, he returned home to Warsaw, Illinois, where he studied law and worked for his uncle, Milton Hay's law office.

Political Career

The law office where Hay worked was next door to Abraham Lincoln's law office and, as a result of their close proximity, Hay and the future president became acquaintances. Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1861 and he chose John Nicolay, Hay's childhood classmate, as his secretary. Nicolay subsequently recommended Hay for the position of private secretary to the president. Hay was offered the position, and served in the Lincoln White House from 1861 to 1865.

At the end of Lincoln’s presidency, Hay was named assistant adjutant-general in the Army and detailed to the White House. He worked under the succeeding Republican administration, holding various diplomatic posts in Europe throughout the remainder of the decade.

When Hay returned to the United States in 1870, he took a break from politics to explore journalism. He worked for the New York Tribune for five years—continuously writing for the paper and briefly serving as a night editor—before eventually returning to government service as an assistant secretary of state.

Hay became a national figure during William McKinley's presidency. Under McKinley, he served as ambassador to Great Britain and, later, as secretary of state. He took part in the peace negotiations to end the Spanish-American War, contributed to the Boxer Rebellion and negotiated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty with Great Britain, giving the United States the rights to build a canal across Panama's isthmus.

However, Hay is arguably best remembered for his promotion of the "Open Door" policy in China, which allowed multiple powers access to trade with China and gave no singular nation control of the region. Hay issued the statement in the form of circular notes to Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia. The "Open Door" policy was extremely well-received in the United States and became a cornerstone of American foreign policy for decades to come.

Hay continued to work as secretary of state for the Theodore Roosevelt Administration until his death—the cause of which was possibly pulmonary embolism, but never officially determined—on July 1, 1905, at his summer home in Newbury, New Hampshire.

Personal Life

Hay married Clara L. Stone in 1874.

Hay continued to write throughout his life. His literary work includes Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces, a book of poems; the novel The Bread-Winners; and Abraham Lincoln: A History, a historical non-fiction book co-written by John Nicolay.

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