John Milton Hay

Inducted: 2008
Born: 1838
Died: 1905

Hay, John, 1838-1905

John Milton Hay was an Illinois native with deep Rhode Island roots that prompted him to select Brown as his college. Providence was the early home of his mother, Helen Leonard, whose father, Rev. David Leonard was in the Brown Class of 1792. At Brown, Hay was described as having “a retentive memory, a vivid imagination, and an ability to get along with the ladies.” He graduated in 1858 with the distinction of class poet.

Upon his return to Illinois, Hay reluctantly but fortuitously joined his uncle’s law office in Springfield. Next door was the office of Abraham Lincoln. The bright and affable Hay soon become Lincoln’s protege, and when “Honest Abe” was elected president in 1860, Hay and a friend, John Nicolay, accompanied Lincoln to Washington, D.C. as private secretaries.

During the post-war years Hay held several minor diplomatic posts in Europe, had a brief fling with journalism, and launched his literary career with Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces, Castilian Days, and his collected Poems. Then Hay and Nicolay capitalized on their close personal relationship with Lincoln by writing a biography of the martyred president that they published in ten volumes from 1875 to 1890.

Using his Republican connections and his extensive travel experience, Hay returned to public life in 1878 as assistant secretary of state under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Later in life he became a campaign adviser to President William McKinley who made Hay ambassador to Great Britain where he helped to generate an Anglo-American diplomatic rapprochement. His success earned him appointment as Secretary of State in 1898. McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, reappointed Hay and both men worked to enlarge America’s role in world affairs. Secretary Hay’s health declined during his seven-year state department tenure, and he died in office on July 1, 1905.

Hay left a record of solid diplomatic achievement. He forged closer Anglo-American ties, he presided over American imperialist ventures in the Carribean and the Pacific including the acquisition of Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone, and he issued the Open Door notes to preserve the territorial integrity of China while protecting American economic interests in the Far East.

After Hay’s death, a substantial collection of his valuable personal papers were deposited at Brown University in the research library of his alma mater–a facility that is named in his honor.

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