If I were ever to make a list of the 100 most interesting Americans never to be President, John Hay will be in the top third. Fascinating career and history. Have you read anything about his relationship with Robert Todd Lincoln?
I definitely agree. John Hay was like the Forrest Gump of last half of the 19th Century and the first few years of the 20th Century. Hay was a very fascinating figure in our history, and underrated as a diplomat, as a Presidential adviser, as a writer, and as an influence on the events of his times.
There are some really good books that have been released within the past couple of years on Hay, the Hay-Adams circle of friends, and Robert Todd Lincoln. First and foremost is John Taliaferro’s All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (BOOK | KINDLE), which was published in 2013 and is the definitive biography of Hay. I think I had listed it in the top three or top five books that I read in 2013.
I’d also recommend Joshua Zeitz’s 2014 book, Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image (BOOK | KINDLE), which focuses more on the influential roles that Hay and Nicolay played as President Lincoln’s private secretary during his Administration, and their efforts (along with Robert Todd Lincoln) to shape and secure Abraham Lincoln’s legacy following the assassination, particularly through their exhaustive, 10-volume biography of the 16th President. They also played an important part in Lincoln’s literary legacy by editing his complete works. Both collections are available online for free through Archive.org.
Two other recent books on John Hay that are worth your time are Philip McFarland’s John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt (BOOK | KINDLE), and The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism (BOOK | KINDLE) by Mark Zwonitzer. McFarland’s book covers the entire career of Hay and makes it clear why I said he was like the Forrest Gump of the 19th Century. Zwonitzer narrows his focus to the last act of Hay’s lengthy public service, particularly Hay’s time as Secretary of State under President McKinley and President Roosevelt.
And for more on Robert Todd Lincoln, the best choice is Jason Emerson’s 2012 book, Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln (BOOK | KINDLE). Robert Todd Lincoln’s life is just as fascinating and full of quite a few Forrest Gump moments of his own: like being in proximity of three Presidents – his father, James Garfield, and William McKinley – at the time of their assassinations; like the fact that his life was once unknowingly saved, coincidentally, by Edwin Booth, the famous older brother of the man who later assassinated his father; like being present at Appomattox when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant; like accompanying President Arthur on a lengthy, cross-country vacation to Yellowstone while serving as Secretary of War; and much, much more.
You can’t go wrong with any of those books. That’s a really fascinating era often overlooked because it took place after the Civil War and after Reconstruction but before the turn of the century and the beginning of the 1900s, and John Hay is one of the more interesting overall figures in American history.