Hay in 1862
Hay as a young man. Portrait by Mathew Brady.
Lincoln and his secretaries. Hay is on the right.
Posthumous bust of John Hay, by J. Massey Rhind
John got common school education, in Warsaw, Illinois, and academic, in Springfield, Illinois. Hay graduated from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, in 1858, then studied law with future American President Abraham Lincoln.
After his graduation from Brown University, Hay lived in Warsaw, Illinois, and began to try his hand at poetry. A collection of his letters and poems from that period in his life was published as the book Poet in Exile in 1910. These early writings revealed Hay’s sense of ambition and foreshadowed the significant gifts which he was to later develop. He became an attorney in Springfield, Illinois, in 1861. He was Lincoln’s assistant private secretary until Lincoln’s death in 1865. Hay then served as secretary of the American legation in Paris (1865–67), Vienna (1867–69), and Madrid (1869–70). Upon returning home, he became an editorial writer at the New York Herald Tribune.
Hay re-entered public service as First Assistant Secretary of State (1879–81), and upon William McKinley’s inauguration, was appointed American ambassador to Britain. In 1898, he became Secretary of State, holding that post until his death.
Hay’s expert use of the dialects of the American West led to speculation regarding whether he was the first to incorporate such dialects into his work, or whether he had been beaten to the task by his friend and fellow writer Bret Harte. Hay was long beset by concerns that the rhythmic speech he employed in his poetry was not, in fact, an appropriate subject for the medium.
Hay’s tendency to take aim at prevailing notions of morality was not always recognized for what it was at the time, but for those who understood his message, his poetry often took on intense significance. In the poem “Jim Bludso, of the Prairie Belle,” Hay depicted a man who practiced bigamy while simultaneously making sacrifices for Christianity. Hay suggested that a truly Christian God would not exact retribution against a man who, however flawed, was a devoted believer.
Hay was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Despite the popularity of his poetry, Hay was not generally considered a gifted lyricist. He was considered to have other gifts that elevated the quality of his poetry.
Only after his death was Hay acknowledged as the author of The Bread- Winners, a novel with a strongly anti-labor perspective. Hay was prompted to write the book by the violent labor strikes that rocked the country in 1877. To Hay, the strikes symbolized the threat that societal changes posed to his own position as an entrenched member of the establishment.
Quotes from others about the person
“John Hay cannot be ranked among the greatest poets. But there have been few poets whose work maintained a more consistent average of excellence. He was always the competent master of his craft, alike in the delightful Pike County Ballads and in historical verse of classic dignity.”
“Judged by exacting standards, Mr. Hay’s poems are in the main more notable for rich thought and balanced human feeling than for the lyrical quality which creates the emotion of beauty.” - a reviewer for the Springfield Republican
In 1874, Hay married Clara Louise Stone.