All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt. By John Taliaferro. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. 673 pp.
It is not clear whether or not the young John Hay, an office secretary busy with envelopes and ink working for Abraham Lincoln, longed for any greater political future. Fortune, though, would open a way for his unique brand of quiet ambition. His career in the White House would span a stunning 66 years and 10 presidents; he was a witness to great transformations of American life, from the Civil War to the Gilded Age to the United States' emergence as a superpower. He was acquainted with such luminaries as Mark Twain and Henry Adams, and contributed his own insights on the times as the author of several novels and hundreds of poems. Yet he was also instrumental in shaping those times with two monumental foreign policy achievements: the treaty ending the Spanish-American War and the Open Door Policy on China, both major contributions to the United States' role in geopolitics. His various roles in civil service were perhaps more critical to American foreign policy than any president of his day.
John Taliaferro's new book, All the Great Prizes, is a lengthy but engaging record of the life and times of America's most illustrious civil servant. It is a beautifully researched account of the man, both professionally and personally, his formative experiences, and how his decisions shaped so much of modern America. Taliaferro describes the book as an attempt to "allow [Hay] to speak for himself, in order that the brilliance of his life, the example of his life, and, what is more, the sheer poignancy of his life might at last be considered in full" (13).
Hay might have lived out his life in obscurity working at his uncle's law firm in Illinois were it not for his early acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. The newly elected president invited Hay into his "small nucleus" of secretaries, "living in close quarters baring every seam of their natures, as war and the affairs of the nation enveloped them, and they in turn endeavored to steer the nation's course" (p. 40). It was no doubt that closeness to Lincoln and a familiarity with his rhetorical power that enabled Hay to respond to the president's mail during the most intense days of the Civil War. Hay became a keen observer of the president's character--his dark melancholy, his poetic sense, and his devastating humor. But above all, Hay was a student of Lincoln's greatness. In...