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John Hay, America’s Lord Grantham, Brought to Life

Tired of the bickering between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the administration? Relax. It’s been worse.

The death of Secretary of State John Milton Hay in 1905 provoked this response from Henry Adams: “The Senate killed Hay.”

“Our friend Cabot helped to murder him [as] consciously as possible, precisely as though he put strychnine in his drink. … His diplomates [sic] tired him out, after his Senators poisoned him,” continued Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents and Hay’s closest friend.

Cabot — Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts — came from the same Republican Party as Hay. Against that history, today’s Democrats and Republicans should pat themselves on the back for getting along so well.

Cabot Lodge’s defense of Senate prerogatives over treaties did drive Hay to distraction in his final years. More than a century later, we can thank Cabot Lodge for taking pains to cause the pain. John Taliaferro’s biography, “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln to Roosevelt,” mostly comes to life when the villains — in this telling, Cabot Lodge and President Theodore Roosevelt — are on stage disturbing Hay’s peace of mind.

Cabot Lodge and Roosevelt aside, Hay lived an extraordinary life. He is an exemplar of the continuing practice of hitching your wagon to a political star to make a mark and escape a backwater. His fervently desired escape was from the prospect of becoming a country lawyer in Warsaw, Ill.

President Abraham Lincoln offered the brighter future of a private secretary’s job, and Hay never looked back. (Though he soon voiced perfunctory nostalgia for home, another practice still common in Washington.)

Hay’s accomplishments were professional and personal: Lincoln’s private secretary and later biographer, diplomat, novelist and poet; journalist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune; art collector; friend to Adams, Bret Harte, Henry James, William Dean Howells and Whitelaw Reid; ambassador to Britain, secretary of State. Oh, and he married the daughter of Amasa Stone, the wealthiest man in Cleveland, the city home to John D. Rockefeller.

Hay looks like an American Lord Grantham. Rich thanks to his wife’s inheritance, he was well-connected and most importantly, well-behaved. He was not one to overturn tradition. Today, he is virtually forgotten.

Washingtonians can hear an echo of his presence in the Hay-Adams Hotel, site of the lavish Lafayette Square house the two built so they could enjoy each another’s company. Mets fans can thank Hay’s granddaughter for giving New York a second baseball team.

As secretary of State, his open-door policy preserved the integrity of China and raised the stature of U.S. diplomacy, winning him plaudits and fame.

Bright, and always competent, Hay’s talent was to charm his way to success. His skills were social and his achievements were built on them, not on intellectual candlepower or political arm-twisting. The open-door policy on China was steeped in American tradition going back to George Washington’s warning to not get caught in foreign entanglements.

Taliaferro is reluctant to agree, but the evidence of this book is that Roosevelt got it right: “He was at his best at a dinner table or in a drawing room, and in neither place have I ever seen anyone’s best that was better than his.” But Hay’s “easy-loving nature” and “moral timidity” made him “shrink from all that was rough in life, and therefore from practical affairs.”

Taliaferro mines the letters of Hay, his family and his friends and the personal warmth shines through. What’s also unavoidable is how little Hay was engaged to his times. His loyalty was to Lincoln and President William McKinley, to his wife (despite at least two infatuations with other women, one of them the wife of his nemesis, Cabot Lodge), to friends like Adams and Clarence King, to the class he rose to, and to the GOP.

Like the fictional Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey” fame, Hay was oblivious or indifferent to how profoundly the world was changing around him. Less than a decade after his death, Europe erupted into a war that destroyed four empires, dragged the United States into another peace-making effort and brought another president into conflict with Cabot Lodge over a treaty.

For a man so deeply connected to the politicians, businessmen and writers of the late 19th century, Hay’s intellect was astonishingly untroubled. The gap becomes evident late in Hay’s life, on a trip to Europe.

Adams meets him in a brand new automobile. As they motor around the outskirts of Paris, the reader notices that Hay’s adult life encompassed the dawn of the automobile, aviation, the telephone and the completion of the trans-continental railroad. None of this apparently attracted Hay’s intellectual notice.

The languages and the traveling didn’t help him spot, as a young diplomat in the late 1860s, that Otto von Bismarck was remaking the European map. He loved Britain but doesn’t utter a thought about how Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone remade the place as they swapped power in election after election. European powers carved up Africa and the man on the verge of taking over U.S. foreign policy was silent. Germany was building a navy to rival Britain’s as Hay was reaching the pinnacle of his career, and it seemed to have escaped his attention.

President Roosevelt kept Hay on the job after McKinley’s assassination. Roosevelt’s boisterousness always rubbed Hay wrong, and the contrast between the two is a fitting summary of the century that was ending and the one beginning.