Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

John M. Hay (1901–1905): Secretary of State

John Milton Hay was born in 1838 in Salem, Indiana. He attended local schools and a private academy in Pittsfield before going to college in Springfield, Illinois, and finally graduating from Brown University in 1858.

Hay actively campaigned for presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, and when Lincoln won, the new President appointed Hay his assistant private secretary. Because of his access to Lincoln, Hay, together with Lincoln's private secretary, John G. Nicolay, ultimately published a ten-volume biography of Lincoln and a two-volume collection of the President's speeches, papers, and writings.

During the Civil War, Hay served as a major in the United States Army but spent most of his time running special errands for the President. Following Lincoln's assassination, Hay served as first secretary for the American Legation in Paris and then as the charge d'affaires in the U.S. embassy in Vienna. In 1869, Hay headed to Madrid, where he became the secretary to the American Legation.

When he returned to the United States in 1870, Hay turned to journalism and worked as an editor and editorial writer for the New York Tribune. He left the newspaper in 1879 when President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him assistant secretary of state, a post Hay held until 1881. He then returned to the Tribune as an editor.

In 1896, Hay supported friend William McKinley's bid for the presidency and, following McKinley's successful election, found himself as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Hay left this post in 1898 to become McKinley's secretary of state, a position he would hold for six years under both McKinley and his successor, President Theodore Roosevelt. During his tenure as secretary of state, Hay is credited with devising the American Open Door policy in China as well as a treaty that confirmed America's right to build a canal in Central America. John Milton Hay died in 1905.