November 1861 carte-de-visite photograph of John Hay in Washington, D. C., taken by the Bierstadt Brothers.
It was not obvious to anyone in 1838 that John Milton Hay was destined for greatness. Born in rural Indiana as the third son of a country doctor, young John lived very much in the shadow of his adored older brother Augustus. Still, John was clever and applied himself to learning with a vigor approaching thirst. His parents, well-educated themselves, encouraged John’s pursuit of knowledge. At age eleven, he went to live with an uncle in Pittsfield, Illinois so that he could study at an academy. While there, he became friendly with an older student and journalist named John George Nicolay, a Bavarian immigrant. From Pittsfield, young John progressed almost naturally to Brown, from which his grandfather David Augustus Leonard had graduated with the Class of 1792.
John Hay’s post-Brown trajectory would eventually bring him into contact with the man who would profoundly change his life and goals: Abraham Lincoln. The encounter of these two men, for which John Nicolay would serve as catalyst, would inform John Hay’s professional life in ways that he could not have imagined on the day he graduated from Brown in 1858. The witty young man with literary aspirations but no specific ambition would soon find himself increasingly drawn in by the deep sense of purpose and public service that Lincoln embodied. These would become, in turn, the founding principles for Hay’s distinguished career in politics and diplomacy. In later years, John Hay would reflect that his relationship with Lincoln had been the most profound experience of his life — an experience that he and Nicolay set out to memorialize for the American people in writing their ten volume magnum opus, Abraham Lincoln: A History.