John Hay at Brown
During the course of his early studies, John Hay developed a romantic passion for poetry. Admitted to Brown with advanced standing in 1855, after three years of academic preparation at the Illinois state college in Springfield (now the University of Illinois), Hay nevertheless found himself a step behind his compatriots in the first year class, a position he did not enjoy. He worked hard to catch up, suggesting to his parents that he would need a third year at Brown in order to take full advantage of the opportunities available to him here — particularly the libraries, of which he made good use.
Hay reported to his family that as Brown did not offer the array of social connections that he had enjoyed in Springfield, he could focus his efforts on his studies. Nevertheless, he soon joined the recently formed Zeta chapter of the Theta Delta Chi fraternity, of which he would remain a loyal member for the rest of his life, and the Philermenian Society, an oratorical and debating club. Perhaps as an outgrowth of the latter, he developed an interest in politics, which he explored by attending Rhode Island rallies of the nascent Republican party. In his final year at Brown, he also joined the Providence Atheneum and encountered the exalted literary circle of local poets Nora Perry and Sarah Helen Whitman, an affiliation that enlarged his own literary endeavors. Early in 1858, he was chosen as Senior Class Poet and read his poem “Erato” at Class Day that June, reportedly to great acclaim.
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Senior class photograph of John Hay, from the Brown University Class Book for 1858.
“David Augustus Leonard,” by Alexander H. Ritchie. Maternal grandfather of John Hay, Brown Class of 1792.
". . . In your opinions in regard to poetry, I fully agree. I think, with you, that it is one of the noblest faculties of our nature, and should be cultivated to its fullest extent. The true poet, will cultivate this gift. . . . "
". . . There are few, to whom this great and glorious gift is granted and the names of Milton, Byron, Moore & Burns are familiar, to every admirer of the beautiful. These I almost worship. There is nothing I so much love, as good poetry. . . . "
John Hay to his sister [Mary], March 5, 1854. Gift of the Hay Family.
". . . You know I entered the Junior Class behind the rest & consequently have several studies to make up before I can be even with them. And as the prescribed studies are about as much as I can attend to, I do not know whether I can finish the course, with justice, in two years. . . . Again, if I go through so hurriedly I will have little or no time to avail myself of the literary treasures of the libraries."
John Hay to family members, November 28, 1855. Gift of the Hay Family.
". . . Political feeling is running very high in Providence at present. Their Election for Governor comes off next week & nearly every evening are large mass-meetings of all the parties. I went to a Republican meeting a few nights ago & heard a young man speak who is just coming out into the world. . . . a man of the most fervid, fiery eloquence I ever heard . . ."
John Hay to Milton Hay, March 30, 1856. Gift of the Hay Family.
". . . The Theta Delts are more flourishing than they have ever been before. We got the best Freshmen in the class this term & have now 19 members. We are a little deficient in the Western Element. We have a Freshman from Springfield [Illinois], but where will we find a Billy Norris?. . . Truly yr. friend & brother in. . . "
John Hay to a Brown friend [Ed Morris?], February 7, 1858. Gift of the Hay Family.
Philermenian Society Record Book, 1842-1859. Brown University Archives.
Songs of the Theta Delta Chi (Cambridge: Welsh, Bigelow & Company, 1869).
Gift of W. Easton Louttit, Jr., Class of 1925.
"Erato" as published in An Oration and a Poem, Delivered in the Chapel of Brown University; on Class Day, June 10, 1858 (Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co., 1858). Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays,
Gift of Lorania Burke Rider.