By John Taliaferro
If you were anyone in the United States during the last half of the 19th Century, you most likely knew John Hay. His list of personal friends and acquaintances is a who’s who of America from the Civil War to the Gilded Age. He was Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and served as Secretary of State in the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations. He was a lawyer, journalist, author and historian.
John Taliaferro has written an extensively researched biography of Hay, “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt.” It is a richly detailed narrative of the life and loves of John Hay, and the times in which he lived. Hay was both a witness to and the author of much history from the Civil War until his death in 1905. Unfortunately, unlike his first benefactor, Abraham Lincoln, I found the more I read about Hay, the more I disliked him. This of course is not the author’s fault, but rather the fault of his subject.
“All the Great Prizes” is a cradle to grave biography, its linear narrative covers the entirety of Hay’s life chronologically. From his early years in Illinois and his schooling, to living in the White House during the Civil War; from London and Paris and back to Washington D. C. Its author’s meticulous research has culled a treasure trove of Hay related correspondence which illuminates many personal and intimate details of his life that should Hay find himself alive today I am sure he would be mortified to find had become public knowledge. His marriage to Clara Stone to Taliaferro’s readers takes a back seat to his infatuation with Elizabeth Sherman Cameron, niece of General William T. Sherman, wife of J. Donald Cameron and daughter-in-law of Simon Cameron. Hay may or may not have been guilty of adultery, but his relationship with “Lizzie” was definitely an affair of the heart, be it an unconsummated one.
Taliaferro makes short work of the Lincoln years, this is well covered ground, volumes have already and will continue to be written about those four tumultuous years of Hay’s life. The author spends a fair amount of pages on Hay’s literary and journalistic career, as well as his friendships with the literary giants of his age Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Henry Adams, Henry James to name but just a few.
Politically speaking Hay rubbed elbows with nearly every president, sovereign, power broker, and robber baron of the Gilded Age. And through these connections Hay’s political career soared. Taliaferro aptly and adroitly shows many of Hay’s fingerprints on much of the United States’ foreign policy during the late 19th Century most notably the Open Door with China, the Boxer Rebellion, and the building of the Panama Canal.
John Hay was a deeply flawed man, but John Taliaferro’s “All the Great Prizes” is a tour de force biography which brings the full breadth and depth of the life of John Hay from out of the shadows of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt of and into the light of history.
ISBN 978-1416597308, Simon & Schuster, © 2013, Hardcover, 688 pages, Photographs, Illustrations, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $35.00. To purchase this book click HERE.