Biography of John Hay, Author and Influential American Diplomat

Experienced Politician Pushed for Open Door Policy and Panama Canal

photograph of John Hay
John Hay. Library of Congress

John Hay was an American diplomat who, as a young man, came to prominence serving as a private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. Besides his work in government, Hay also made his mark as a writer, co-authoring an extensive biography of Lincoln and also writing fiction and poetry.

As a respected figure in late 19th century Republican politics, he became close with William McKinley during his 1896 presidential campaign. He served as McKinley’s ambassador to Great Britain and later as the secretary of state in the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations. In foreign affairs, Hay is best remembered for his advocacy of the Open Door policy regarding China.

Fast Facts: John Hay

  • Full Name: John Milton Hay
  • Born: October 8, 1838 in Salem, Indiana
  • Died: July 1, 1905 in Newbury, New Hampshire
  • Parents: Dr. Charles Hay and Helen (Leonard) Hay
  • Spouse: Clara Stone
  • Children: Helen, Adelbert Barnes, Alice Evelyn, and Clarence Leonard Hay
  • Education: Brown University
  • Interesting Fact: As a young man, Hay worked as President Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and close confidante.

Early Life

John Hay was born October 8, 1838, in Salem, Indiana. He was well educated and attended Brown University. In 1859 he settled in Springfield, Illinois, where he was to study in a law office that happened to be next door to a local lawyer with political ambitions, Abraham Lincoln.

After Lincoln won the election of 1860, Hay took a job as one of Lincoln’s secretaries (along with John Nicolay). The team of Hay and Nicolay spent countless hours with Lincoln during his presidency. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay moved on to diplomatic posts in Paris, Vienna, and Madrid.

President Lincoln, John G. Nicolay and John Hay
A studio portrait of President Abraham Lincoln with his two personal secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay (standing). Historical / Getty Images

In 1870 Hay returned to the United States and settled in Boston, where he became active in a circle of intellectual and political figures associated with the Republican Party. He took on a job writing editorials for the New York Tribune, whose editor, Horace Greeley, had been a supporter (though occasionally a critic) of Lincoln.

Along with John Nicolay, Hay wrote a comprehensive biography of Lincoln, which eventually ran to ten volumes. The Lincoln biography, completed in 1890, was the standard biography of Lincoln for decades (before Carl Sandburg’s version was published).

McKinley Administration

Hay became friendly with Ohio politician William McKinley in the 1880s, and supported his run for the presidency in 1896. After McKinley’s victory, Hay was nominated to be the American ambassador to Great Britain. While serving in London, he supported America’s entry into the Spanish-American War. He also supported American annexation of the Philippines. Hay believed American possession of the Philippines would balance the political power in the Pacific exerted by Russia and Japan.

Following the end of the Spanish-American War, McKinley appointed Hay secretary of state. Hay remained in the post following McKinley’s assassination in 1901, and became secretary of state under the new president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Working for Roosevelt, Hay presided over two major accomplishments: the Open Door policy and the treaty that enabled the United States to build the Panama Canal.

The Open Door Policy

Hay had become alarmed over events in China. The Asian nation was being partitioned by foreign powers, and it appeared the United States would be excluded from conducting any trade with the Chinese.

Hay wanted to take action. In consultation with Asian experts, he drafted a diplomatic letter which became known as The Open Door Note.

Hay sent the letter to the imperial nations—Britain, France, Italy, Russia, Germany, and Japan. The letter proposed that all nations would have equal trading rights with China. Japan opposed the policy, but the other nations went along with it, and the United States was thus able to trade freely with China.

Secretary of State John Hay
Government officials gathered around the desk of Secretary of State John Hay as he signs a document. Library of Congress / Getty Images

The policy was considered a brilliant move by Hay, as it ensured American trading rights in China even though the U.S. government had no way to enforce the policy. The triumph was soon seen to be limited, as the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China in early 1900. In the aftermath of the rebellion, after American troops joined with other nations to march on Beijing, Hay sent a second Open Door Note. In that message, he again encouraged free trade and open markets. The other nations went along with Hay’s proposal for a second time.

Hay's initiative effectively transformed American foreign policy in general, putting the focus on open markets and free trade as the world entered the 20th century.

The Panama Canal

Hay was an advocate for building a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the isthmus of Panama. In 1903 he tried to strike a deal with Colombia (which controlled Panama) for a 99-year lease on property through which the canal could be built.

Colombia rejected Hay’s deal, but in November 1903, urged on by Hay and Roosevelt, Panama revolted and declared itself a sovereign nation. Hay then signed the treaty with the new nation of Panama, and work on the canal began in 1904.

Hay began to suffer ill health, and while on vacation in New Hampshire he died of a heart ailment on July 1, 1905. His funeral in Cleveland, Ohio, was attended by President Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, and President Theodore Roosevelt.


  • "John Hay." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2004, pp. 215-216. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Hay, John 1838–1905." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Amanda D. Sams, vol. 158, Gale, 2007, pp. 172-175. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Hay, John Milton." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk, vol. 1, Gale, 1999, pp. 425-426. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of John Hay, Author and Influential American Diplomat." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 28). Biography of John Hay, Author and Influential American Diplomat. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of John Hay, Author and Influential American Diplomat." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).