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Robert H. Ferrell

May 2024
2min read


Distinguished professor of history, Indiana University, Bloomington; author of Truman: A Centenary Reminiscence

Most overrated:

John Hay, who died in 1905, was Secretary of State from the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 until his death, and before that ambassador to Great Britain, and before that a luminary in Ohio politics and a literary figure of national, even international, reputation. He is the best possible illustration of a lazy, modestly talented individual who rose to renown. Indeed, his reputation had a way of going higher and higher the less he did. Born in Salem, Indiana, he grew to manhood in Warsaw (formerly Spunky Point), Illinois. He spent a few years at Brown University, where he considered himself a poet, which would lead his biographer of many years later, Tyler Dennett, to subtitle his book “From Poetry to Politics.” Returning after college to Illinois, Hay chose to read law at his uncle’s office in Springfield, where he met a tall, gangly frontier lawyer named Lincoln who had an Office next door. When this man, of whom Hay did not then think a great deal, went to the White House in faraway Washington, Hay followed as his private sec-1 retary. Typical of Hay’s judgment during those extraordinary years of the Civil War was his diary description of the greatest speech of the nineteenth century, which he heard in the cemetery at Gettysburg. He wrote in his diary that the bands wailed and “we all went out to the cemetery” and Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours introducing the President, gave a “great address,” and then the President said a few words, and everyone repaired to the hotel.

After the war Hay obtained a minor diplomatic post abroad and returned to settle in Cleveland, where he fulfilled the description of a wise man—which is a person who marries a rich woman; he married the daughter of Amasa Stone, the richest man in Cleveland. Something of an orator and undoubtedly wealthy, Hay came to the attention of a series of Ohio politicos. From this came his appointment by President William McKinley to the embassy in London. Eventually he replaced the senile John Sherman as Secretary of State and for almost seven years served in that high post, where he obtained a great reputation for sagacity. His only claim to policy making was the so-called Hay Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900, both of which contributed nothing positive to American foreign relations; the notes of 1899 did not allow all nations their fair share of China’s trade, and those of 1900 did not prevent China’s partition.

Most underrated:

Alvey A. Adee. In actual fact most of John Hay’s work during his Secretaryship of State was carried on by a singular character named Alvey A. Adee, who inhabited the State Department as the Assistant Secretary from the 188Os until his death in the 1920s. Hay appreciated Adee and once related a fear that he might be lost to the department some way or other. “We have,” he wrote, “only one Adee in the pantry.” This wispy little man for years read everything that came into the State Department and wrote almost everything that went out. He signed his name with initials, AAA., in red ink, and thousands of documents bear that imprimatur. Nothing if not personally organized, he used to number his pairs of socks and his changes of underwear in the order in which he purchased them, so that he could compare the workmanship. He believed that most spoons did not fit his ^ mouth and always carried several suitable spoons in his pocket. In his last years in the State Department, Adee grew very deaf and used an ear trumpet, and when dealing with an inconvenient conversation or a bore, he simply failed to get out his trumpet. Witness to thousands of secrets of state, a master compositor of state papers, indeed a one-man State Department, and the very machine of the Department of State when John Hay in all his swallow-tailed splendor was the very label, Alvey Adee arranged for his personal papers to be burned, and thereby virtually disappeared from the pages of history.

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