BOOK REVIEW: ‘All the Great Prizes’: Splendid, Comprehensive Biography of Our Most Literary Secretary of State

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'All the Great Prizes': Splendid, Comprehensive Biography of Our Most Literary Secretary of State

John M. Hay, the man who coined the phrase “It has been a splendid little war” in an 1898 letter to Theodore Roosevelt summing up  the just concluded Spanish-American War, has  been granted a splendid big biography by John Taliaferro. “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt” (Simon & Schuster, 688 pages, photos, notes, bibliography, index,  $35.00).

The “Splendid little war” turned out to be a Vietnam-like bog in the Philippines, but Hay was untouched by the irony. Taliaferro crafts  a very readable examination of Hay (1838-1905), the product of rural Indiana and Illinois like his mentor Lincoln, who became a polished man of letters, undoubtedly the most literary of American secretaries of state. A graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, Hay and John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s official private secretary, served the 16th president, sharing a room in the White House. They went on to write a popular 10-volume biography of Lincoln.

From unofficial secretary to Abraham Lincoln to secretary of state for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay remained a major figure in American history for more than half a century. He married into great wealth when he wed Clara Stone, daughter of Amasa Stone of Cleveland, one of the richest men in the country, owner of steel mills, with investments in many other industries. It was a love match, Taliaferro writes, but in his heart Hay lusted after Elizabeth Sherman  “Lizzie” Cameron, his neighbor in the Lafayette Square area of Washington. Hay and his next door neighbor and best friend Henry Adams both had a thing for the beauteous Lizzie, the “Madame X” of D.C. The sumptuous houses designed by celebrity architect H.H. Richardson for Hay and Adams are long gone, demolished to make way for the Hay-Adams Hotel at 16th and H streets.

Hay’s peers dubbed him  “a perfectly cut stone” and “the greatest prime minister this republic has ever known.” But for all his poise and polish, he had his secrets. His marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the country did not prevent him from his pursuit — apparently unconsumated — of Lizzie Cameron.

“All the Great Prizes” is first full-scale biography of Hay since 1934  and reminds us that  much of what we know about Lincoln’s years in the White House is drawn from the writings of the young John Hay,  who was with Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address and at his bedside when he died. Taliaferro writes that the famous “Bixby Letter” written in November 1864 to console Lydia Bixby of Boston, who lost five sons in the Civil War, was written by Hay not Lincoln. Taliaferro discusses the Bixby letter exhaustively on Pages 94-96: it turns out the real Lydia Bixby was a Southern  sympathizer who lost two sons, not five!

A power broker who worked quietly, garnering little or no publicity, Hay successfully worked to elect fellow Ohioans James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley for president. As McKinley’s Secretary of State, he plotted the nation’s emergence as a world power after the Spanish-American War. Hay arranged the annexation of the Philippines, the treaty for a canal across Panama, the Open Door policy for China.

After McKinley’s assassination, his vice president and successor Theodore Roosevelt persuaded the aging and increasingly ill Hay to stay on. Taliaferro shines in his examination of the relationship between Hay and Roosevelt: If Lincoln was a second father to Hay, Hay was a second father to  Roosevelt the bully wielder of the big stick. Hay the polished, urbane diplomat who walked softly, carried out TR’s policies, and helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize. At a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, Hay spoke out against murderous pogroms of Jews in Russia.

John Hay was both witness and author of many of the most significant chapters in American history — from the birth of the Republican Party, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, to the prelude to the First World War. Much of what we know about Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt comes to us through the observations Hay made while private secretary to one and secretary of state to the other. With All the Great Prizes, the first authoritative biography of Hay in eighty years, Taliaferro has turned the lens around, rendering a rich and fascinating portrait of this brilliant American and his many worlds.

Hay’s friends are a Who’s Who of the era: Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Henry Adams, Henry James, and virtually every president, sovereign, author, artist, power broker, and robber baron of the Gilded Age. As an ambassador and statesman, he guided many of the country’s major diplomatic initiatives at the turn of the twentieth century: the Open Door with China, the creation of the Panama Canal, the establishment of America as a world leader. It’s obvious that we’ll never again see the like of men like John Milton Hay in office in the U.S. His poetic side wouldn’t fit our drably prosaic world.

I did spot one error by the author. In 1904, a year before his death, Hay delivered a speech at the Louisiana Purchase World’s Fair in St. Louis. Taliaferro says that the Olympic Games held in conjunction with the fair were the first of the modern era. This is incorrect: The Athens games of 1896 were the first.

About the Author

John Taliaferro is the author of four books, most recently In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, A Marriage, A Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898. He is a former senior editor atNewsweek and a graduate of Harvard University. He lives in Austin, Texas, and Pray, Montana.

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