John Hay, Love of Country, and Our Vagabond Age

On July 1, 1905, in his summer house a few miles from where I write, John Hay died of a heart ailment of long duration. He was physically spent from seven years as Secretary of State; and next to John Quincy Adams, he was the most accomplished secretary in American history. He was also emotionally spent, from the accidental death of his oldest son Adelbert in 1901.

Hay had lived through many a national tumult. He was with Lincoln at Gettysburg, as one of his two secretaries, in charge of correspondence. He was at the bedside when Lincoln died of Booth’s bullet in 1865. He was a pallbearer for a second assassinated president in 1881, when the victim was his old friend from Ohio, James Garfield. From the death of vice president Garrett Hobart in 1899 to the day of William McKinley’s second inauguration in 1901, Hay was next in line for the presidency. So was he again when McKinley died in September of that year, our third president to fall to the assassin; and again he helped to carry a coffin to its grave.

Hay did not just happen to be in the vicinity of these events. We owe to his doggedness and his farsightedness the construction of the Panama Canal. His diplomacy kept the emerging market of China open to free trade, even through the chaos of the Boxer Rebellion. He arranged for closer relations between the United States and her old kinsman and rival, Great Britain, settling the boundary between Alaska and Canada. He was, as the editors of The Century (January, 1906) write, “the most distinguished and successful of American diplomats of our time.”

But Hay was no mere creature of government. When he was not employed in the nation’s interests, he worked alongside Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, where his skills as a writer, his amiable temper, and his exceptional intelligence won over the hearts of his young colleagues. As soon as the boys got to the office, writes his friend Jeffrey Bishop (The Century, March, 1906), the first thing they asked was whether everybody had read Hay’s latest, whereupon “that article was the object of boundless admiration and the cause of equally boundless discussion.” 

But Hay was no snob. He befriended the younger writers and praised them for work well done. One night, when Bishop was still in the office past one in the morning, Hay urged him to come away and have supper with the rest, and then go home. But Bishop said he could not leave before he finished his work.

“Bishop,” said Hay, “I am sorry for you. You are a son of the Puritans, and a victim of that curious disease called conscientiousness.” But, said Bishop, “you had to know John Hay in order not to misunderstand that remark. A more conscientious man never lived, but his saving sense of humor forbade that his conscientiousness should ever become a disease.”

In 1904, John Hay was going to give a lecture in Chicago on the diplomat without whom there may never have been a United States, Benjamin Franklin. The occasion was the bicentennial of Franklin’s birth. But his poor health prevented it. The Century printed the lecture posthumously, in January, 1906. I doubt it could be understood by more than a few college students now; it presumes too much knowledge of French history and letters, of Montesquieu, Rousseau, kings Louis XI, XIV, XV, and the gentle and hapless XVI, La Rochefoucauld, Mirabeau, Danton, Lafayette, Voltaire, and more. But the contents of the lecture, as to the French court and Franklin’s astute work in bringing Louis XVI to the American side, are perhaps more comprehensible to us than the warm love it evinces. Hay no more needs to justify loving America than a dutiful son would need to justify loving his father. In neither case do we require perfection. How can we demand from our fathers that which we can never hope to possess in ourselves?

Something of this love, along with a profound grasp of human events in their glory and shame, comes across when Hay describes the time when Franklin and Voltaire appeared together before the French Academy:

They were both old men. But Voltaire belonged to a world that was passing away, and Franklin to a world just coming into being. . . . Born in the foulest days of the monarchy, [Voltaire’s] alert and vivid intelligence had gone forth like the raven from the ark and had flown over the whole wide waste of earth and had found no green or healthful thing in church, or state, or society . . . Whatever was, was wrong, and he armed his spirit for indiscriminate war. The work of his marvelously laborious life was therefore almost purely destructive. . . To what better destinies was Franklin born!

I confess that I detest Voltaire, whose cry, écrasez L’infâme! was directed at the Church that had taught him, and that has brought untold spiritual, intellectual, and material blessings to the poor throughout the world. But Hay’s appreciation moves me.

What was bad in Voltaire, Hay suggests, had its root in the sickness of France. But Franklin was nourished by the best in our land:

He grew up in a society whose virtues, say what you will, are as yet unequaled in history, and whose faults were those of earnest men. In dewy freshness and freedom as of the primeval morning, he and his great coadjutors began their beneficent work. They had nothing to destroy. Their godlike mission was to create. . . . Each effort of Franklin’s life for the advancement of freedom and science had been founded on faith in God, from which springs belief in the innate goodness of man, and perfection of nature. God is good. His works are good. Doing good is doing his will, and is best.

Hay does not dwell long enough here on the fallenness of man whose royalty lies in ruin, though in the bloody fields of the Civil War, in the slavery he opposed from his youth, in the riots of anarchists and the predations of industrialists and the folly of demagogues, he had had plenty of opportunity to see it in action. But it is better to err on the side of forbearance. Hay seems to have thought so:

This is the lesson we draw from this strange greeting of Franklin and Voltaire: to teach is better than to deny, to love and trust is better than to hate and doubt, to create is nobler than to destroy.

John Adams once said that there had to be a Hell, because otherwise Dr. Franklin would have nowhere to go. Yet Adams admired the old sinner nonetheless. Hay gives us a rather more hopeful view of Franklin’s destination. “His last Public act,” he reminds us, “was to indite from his death-bed, as President of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, a noble and touching appeal ‘for those unhappy men who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in servile subjection,’ in which the warm heart of the aged philanthropist seems united to the unerring conscience of the saint.” We hear, says Hay, that when Franklin died, “his last glance fell upon a picture of Christ on the cross.”

Hay was not a visibly devout man. Nor was he a sentimentalist; no diplomat can afford it. We do not write as Hay wrote, because we do not think as he and his contemporaries thought or feel what he and his contemporaries felt. Who can imagine writing a poetic tribute for a deceased Secretary of State? I will conclude with two poems, published together in January, 1906. The first, reprinted from two years before, is by Hay himself, who won some acclaim as a poet. The second is a response to it, by a grateful American citizen:


Thanatos Athanatos


At eve when the brief wintry day is sped,

   I muse beside my fire’s faint-flickering glare –

   Conscious of wrinkling face and whitening hair –

   Of those who, dying young, inherited

The immortal youthfulness of the early dead.

   I think of Raphael’s grand-seigneurial air;

   Of Shelley and Keats, with laurels fresh and fair

   Shining unwithered on each sacred head;

And soldier boys who snatched death’s starry prize,

   With sweet life radiant in their fearless eyes,

   The dreams of love upon their beardless lips,

Bartering dull age for immortality;

   Their memories hold in death’s unyielding fee

   The youth that thrilled them to the fingertips.


John Hay


He whom we mourn late hymned the youthful dead;

   His deed crowned length of days he left unsung.

Our heritage, those years so nobly sped;

   And life is richer that he died not young.


That is a glimpse of what love of country looks like. If we cannot understand it, we truly are aliens and vagabonds upon the earth.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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