John (Milton) Hay (1838-1905), secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State of the United States, was born on October 8, 1838 in a small brick house in Salem, Indiana. He was the third son of Dr. Charles Hay, who was born in Kentucky, and Helen Leonard from Middleboro, Massachusetts, who had come to Salem to live with her sister. The oldest son died in 1840. The second, Augustus Leonard Hay, became a hero to young John. When Augustus died in 1904, John Hay wrote to Theodore Roosevelt, “My brother was my first friend and my best. I owe him everything. ... He was the chief of my tribe, in birth as well as in mind and in character. We were not a handsome family, the rest of us – but he was unusually good-looking, tall and straight and brave.” The Hay boys studied at the private school of the Reverend Stephen Childs, an Episcopal clergyman, and in 1851 John went to an academy at Pittsfield in Pike County, where he met an older student, John G. Nicolay, who would influence his later career. In 1852 John Hay went to the college at Springfield, and in 1855 was sent to Brown, where his grandfather David Augustus Leonard had graduated in 1792. He was admitted to advanced standing and could have finished college in 1857, but finding himself behind the juniors in some studies, he wrote home, “I do not know whether I can finish the course, with justice, in two years. I think I can graduate in that time, but will not stand high, or know as much about the studies as if I had been more leisurely about it. Again, if I go through so hurriedly, I will have little or no time to avail myself of the literary treasures of the libraries. This is one of the greatest advantages of an Eastern College over a Western one.” He was to come under the influence of other “literary treasures” of Providence, Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, who had been engaged to Edgar Allan Poe, and Nora Perry, whose poems had been printed in the Atlantic Monthly, and was received into their literary set. As Class Poet, he read his poem, “Erato,” at Class Day on June 10, 1858, and captivated his audience. He then went reluctantly back to the West, without waiting to receive his diploma at the September Commencement. Back home in Warsaw, Illinois, he wrote a revealing letter to Nora Perry:
"If you loved Providence as I do, you would congratulate yourself hourly upon your lot. I turn my eyes Eastward, like an Islamite, when I feel prayerful. The city of Wayland and Williams, that smiles upon its beauty glassed in the still mirror of the Narragansett waves, is shrined in my memory as a far-off mystical Eden, where the women were lovely and spirituelle, and the men were jolly and brave; where I used to haunt the rooms of the Athenaeum, made holy by the presence of the royal dead; where I used to pay furtive visits to Forbes’ forbidden mysteries (peace to its ashes!); where I used to eat Hasheesh and dream dreams. My life will not be utterly desolate while memory is left me, and while I may recall the free pleasures of the student-time ..."
Hay would have liked the life of a poet, but he found himself studying law in the office of his uncle Milton Hay next door to the office of Abraham Lincoln. Later Lincoln was persuaded by his secretary and school friend of Hay, John Nicolay, to take on Hay as an assistant private secretary, and Hay became a member of the White House household. Early in 1864 Hay was named Assistant Adjutant-general in the army and detailed to the White House with the successive ranks of major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel. In March 1865 he was appointed secretary to the American legation in Paris, where he remained until 1867. In 1867 he went to Vienna as chargé d’affaires, and in 1869 he became secretary of legation in Madrid. Returning to the United States in 1870, he went to work for Whitelaw Reid as editorial writer and night editor for the New York Tribune. His marriage in 1874 to Clara L. Stone, daughter of wealthy Amasa Stone of Cleveland, changed his life as he moved to Cleveland and conducted the financial affairs of his father-in-law and was able to resume his writing. In 1878 he became Assistant Secretary of State and moved back to Washington. There he and Henry Adams had adjoining houses designed by H. H. Richardson built at 800 Sixteenth Street, N.W., across from the White House. Hay served as editor of the Tribune in 1881 while Whitelaw Reid was in Europe; then, having decided to give up politics, he began his own travels. After his friend William McKinley was elected president, he was appointed ambassador to Great Britain in 1897. In September 1898 he was back in Washington to become Secretary of State. The events of the next few years – the end of the Spanish-American War, the “Open Door” policy in China, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, the Alaska boundary treaty, and the Panama Canal treaty – all took their toll, and Hay, who had been in ill health for most of this time, died at his summer home on the shore of Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire on July 1, 1905.
The new library at Brown built in 1910 was at the request of Andrew Carnegie named the John Hay Library. In the lobby stands a bust of John Hay executed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and presented by Mrs. Clara Hay, its shiny nose the result of a custom of students’ rubbing it for good luck in their exams. On the wall in back of the bust is an inscription in the memory John Hay, “Poet, Historian, Diplomatist, Statesman, who maintained the Open Door and the Golden Rule."