John Hay (1838-1905) was important for shaping America's open-door policy toward the Far East. He set guidelines for much of America's diplomacy in the 20th century, involving the United States in maintaining China's territorial integrity.
Rapid change characterized the United States during the years of John Hay's public service. Retarded briefly by the Civil War, dynamic forces of urbanization and industrialization began to transform both the landscape and the mood of America. Though the railroad tie and the sweatshop were as foreign to the aristocratic world of John Hay as the reaper and the grain elevator, they combined to support a new economic system that knew few boundaries, wrenching America out of its quiet isolation and into the highly competitive arena of international politics, where Hay's contribution would be made.
Hay was born on Oct. 8, 1838, in Salem, Ind. He attended Brown University (1855-1858), where he reluctantly prepared for a career in law. In 1859 he entered a Springfield, Ill., law firm, next door to the office of Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was elected U.S. president, Hay became his assistant private secretary. After Lincoln's death, Hay took minor diplomatic posts in Paris, Vienna, and Madrid. Socially successful, he had no serious influence on foreign policy. In 1870 he returned to the United States. Between 1870 and 1896 he moved in and out of Republican politics, journalism, and business, surrounding himself with a patrician set of friends, including Boston aristocrats, intellectuals, and prominent politicians. His widely acclaimed poems and novels were overshadowed in 1890 by his Abraham Lincoln: A History, a ten volume work completed with John Nicolay.
Hay became close to presidential candidate William McKinley during his 1896 campaign. As president, McKinley appointed Hay ambassador to Great Britain, where Hay smoothed out issues concerning the Spanish-American War and subsequent annexations. He returned to become McKinley's secretary of state in 1898.
Secretary of State
As secretary of state, Hay was concerned with policy in four major areas: conducting peace negotiations after the Spanish-American War, setting policy toward the Far East, improving the United States position in Latin America, and settling the dispute with Great Britain over the Alaskan boundary.
Whereas McKinley had shaped the Spanish-American War settlement (and, later, President Theodore Roosevelt was the force behind policies in Latin America), Hay exerted considerable influence in making American policy toward the Far East and in the Canadian boundary dispute. Regarding England, Hay was considered a good friend to Britain by both the English and the Americans. Though committed to United States interests, he sought solutions in the Canadian dispute that would not endanger Anglo-American understanding.
Regarding the Far East, America watched the establishment of spheres of influence in China by European powers, Russia, and Japan with apprehension, fearing that United States trade rights might be limited by new political arrangements. In 1899 Hay asked the six governments directly involved to approve a formula guaranteeing that in their spheres of influence the rights and privileges of other nations would be respected and discriminatory port dues and railroad rates would not be levied and that Chinese officials would continue to collect tariffs. Although the six nations responded coolly, Hay announced that the open-door principle had been accepted, and the American press described the policy as a tremendous success. When an antiforeign uprising broke out in China in 1900, Hay sent a second set of notes, urging the open-door policy for all of the Chinese Empire and maintenance of the territorial integrity of China. Traditional protection of American economic interests thus was tied to the overly ambitious task of preserving the territory of China; under the guise of America's historic mission to support the cause of freedom, this would lead the United States to ever stronger commitments in the Far East.
When the assassination of McKinley made Roosevelt president, Hay increasingly gave way to presidential leadership in foreign policy. Following Roosevelt's lead concerning the building of an Isthmian canal, Hay obtained British consent to a United States canal under the Hay-Pauncefote treaties of 1900 and 1901. Though he supported Roosevelt's policy toward the new Panamanian Republic and the acquisition of the Canal Zone in 1903, Hay did little to actually shape Latin American policy.
The 1903 Alaskan-Canadian boundary dispute with Great Britain was settled amiably by commissioners, as Hay had suggested. Soon after, serious illness forced Hay to assume a virtually inactive role as secretary of state. He retained the office until his death on July 1, 1905, in Newbury, N. H.
Further Reading on John Hay
Hay's correspondence is gathered in William R. Thayer, The Life and Letters of John Hay (2 vols., 1915). Tyler Dennett's biography, John Hay: From Poetry to Politics (1933), treats Hay's career colorfully and sympathetically. Scholars have generally focused their attention on Hay's role as secretary of state. An able assessment by Foster R. Dulles is in Norman A. Graebner, ed., An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century (1961), and a general description of the diplomacy of the period is in Thomas McCormick, A Fair Field and No Favor (1967). For contrasting interpretations of the origins of the open-door policy see George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (1951), and William A. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959; rev. ed. 1962).