John Hay, Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, Died 110 Years Ago Today

By Ingrid Wuerth
Wednesday, July 1, 2015, 3:29 PM

John Hay had a fascinating tenure as Secretary of State from 1898 – 1905. This was a period known for the increase in the power of the President, especially at the hands of Teddy Roosevelt. Not coincidentally, U.S. power abroad also increased during the time, often through policies designed or implemented by John Hay.

At the outset of his term as Secretary of State Hay oversaw the peace negotiations with Spain which concluded the Spanish-American war, and pursuant to which the U.S. acquired the Philippines. Hay, writing in 1898 when he was still the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, famously described that conflict as a “splendid little war” in a letter to Teddy Roosevelt. If you are looking for something to put on your summer reading list, I recommend John Taliaferro’s All the Great Prizes, a biography of John Hay written in 2013 and reviewed here. In Taliaferro’s telling, Hay is not the “cavalier imperiali[st]” (page 330) that his splendid-war language suggests, a view not quite shared by Foster Rhea Dulles writing in a 1961 edited volume entitled An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century (ed. by Norman A. Graebner), which I also recommend. In Taliaferro’s work you can learn more about the Cleveland oligarchy in the late 19th Century, the details of Hay’s personal life, and the incredible span of Hay’s life from President Lincoln’s personal Secretary to Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, but Dulles offers much more succinct account of Hay’s role in U.S. foreign policy at the turn of the 20th Century.

Hay dispatched the notes that formed the basis of the famous “Open Door” policy with respect to China, generating favorable trade terms for the United States in the “spheres of interest” of Britain, Germany, Russia and other countries. During the Boxer Rebellion, the Open Door Policy came to include the preservation of China’s territorial integrity, a policy that both served U.S. trade interests and appeared anti-imperialist. And, of course, Hay executed some of Roosevelt’s foreign policy in Latin America, including the negotiation of the agreement with the new state of Panama (formed after a U.S.-aided revolution and the gunboat Nashville helped separate it from Colombia) for the Panama Canal.

Hay was an extremely skilled diplomat but his relations with U.S. Senate were prickly at best, especially when it came to treaties. Expressing what seems to be a timeless executive branch sentiment, Hay wrote colorfully that “[a] treaty entering the Senate is like a bull going into the arena; no one can say just how or when the final blow will fall—but one thing is certain—it will never leave the arena alive.”