Hay, John Milton

John Milton Hay served Abraham Lincoln in the White House through four years of war. He was the third son of physician and Whig editor Charles Hay and his wife Helen Leonard Hay in Salem, Indiana. He grew up in Warsaw, Illinois, attended nearby Pittsfield Academy and went on to Brown University. He returned to Illinois, however, and somewhat unhappily entered his uncle's law firm at Springfield in 1858. Abraham Lincoln’s own law office was next door and when Lincoln became president Hay joined him as assistant to his secretary, John Nicolay. Young, handsome, with brown hair and arresting hazel eyes he brought a cheerful and cosmopolitan wit to his task and became a firm favorite of the beleaguered president. He was not the favorite of all, however; his elders often saw him as arrogant and self-important and he clashed with Mrs. Lincoln, who he came to call the "hellcat." He was at Lincoln's deathbed in 1865. Hay served as diplomat in Europe for the next five years. On his return he continued to write poetry and fiction and also began to put together, with Nicolay, their famous ten volume life of Abraham Lincoln, published in 1890. He married Cleveland heiress Clara Stone in 1874 and they had four children. In 1897, he was named Ambassador to Great Britain and in 1898 became the 37th U.S. Secretary of State. He negotiated the Paris Treaty to end the war with Spain, which he famously termed “that splendid little war." He died at his summer home in New Hampshire on July 1, 1905 and is buried in Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery. (By John Osborne)
Life Span
Full name
John Milton Hay
Place of Birth
Birth Date Certainty
Death Date Certainty
Sectional choice
Free State
Charles Hay (father), Helen Leonard Hay (mother), Clara L. Stone (wife)
Other Education
Illinois State University; Brown University
Attorney or Judge
Writer or Artist
Relation to Slavery
White non-slaveholder
Union Army

John Milton Hay (American National Biography)

Hay did not find academic life at Brown stimulating but was attracted to the literary circles of Providence and found it difficult to return to the Illinois prairie, where he read law with an uncle in Springfield and was admitted to the bar in 1860. He took a small part in the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln and went to Washington as one of Lincoln's personal secretaries. Technically he was a Pension Office clerk. In 1864 he was commissioned as a major and assistant adjutant general in the volunteers. In 1865 he was promoted to colonel, although he never served actively in the military, being deputed to the Executive Mansion. He left Washington in May 1865 following Lincoln's assassination but retained his military commission until 1867. Initially unimpressed with Lincoln, by 1863 Hay had come to consider him the indispensable leader. Lincoln influenced Hay's social and political thought significantly.

Following the Civil War, Hay secured minor diplomatic posts in Europe, serving as secretary of the American legation at Paris (1865-1866), secretary and chargé d'affaires ad interim at Vienna (1867-1868), and secretary at Madrid (1869-1870). He conducted no serious diplomatic work and devoted his time to becoming acquainted with European culture. His democratic beliefs also matured in these years, and he developed a loathing for European autocracy.
Kenton J. Clymer, "Hay, John Milton," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/05/05-00888.html.
Chicago Style Entry Link
Dennett, Tyler, ed. Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1939.
view record
Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. view record
Donald, David Herbert. "We Are Lincoln Men:" Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. view record
Hendrick, Burton. Lincoln's War Cabinet. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1946. view record
Nicolay, John G., and John Hay. Abraham Lincoln: A History. New York: Century Co., 1890. view record
How to Cite This Page: "Hay, John Milton," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/5859.