Chess games of the rich and famous: T. Roosevelt, John Hay and Joe Cannon


Charles Davis Mitchell (1887 – 1940) penciled and penned this in 1905, showing John Milton Hay, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Joseph G. Cannon. It looks like Hay and Cannon are playing against each other, with Roosevelt just enjoying the game. National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian image.

Descriptions of the drawing from the National Portrait Gallery only identify the people portrayed above the chess board. It shows Secretary of State John Milton Hay playing against House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon, while President Theodore Roosevelt looks on smiling.

That’s it?

It may be quaint today. I have found no description of issues portrayed in the drawing. But it’s a curious collision of now mostly-overlooked history.

NPG lists the drawing by Charles Davis Mitchell as circa 1905. We might presume it to be before July 1, 1905, since that’s the day John Hay died. If 1905, it’s after Roosevelt’s election in November 1904 — whether before or after his March inauguration, we don’t know.

Mitchell was famous for his drawings later, of women, for fashion magazines. We can assume he did other illustrations of political people — but those drawings don’t come up in quick searches.

Joe Cannon is a legendary Speaker of the House, after whom the first House Office Building is named (there are three: Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn). Early in Roosevelt’s first term Cannon complained that Hay had not consulted enough with Congress on foreign policy initiatives, but by 1905 that rankle had largely died down, as I read it.

John Hay may be the most interesting figure in the drawing. Hay was personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. He had been active in statecraft and politics after Lincoln’s death, serving in diplomatic posts and supporting James Garfield’s campaign, for example — but Garfield did not offer him a cabinet position, and Hay returned to private life and writing the definitive biography of Lincoln with Lincoln’s other secretary and Hay’s colleague, John George Nicolay. After Garfield’s assassination, Hay was much in the political wilderness for a few years. Hay and Nicolay published ten volumes of the history of Abraham Lincoln in 1890.

Hay returned to government as U.S. Ambassador to Britain, and then as Secretary of State in 1898, in the first administration of William McKinley. McKinley was victim of the third assassination of a U.S. president — Hay and Lincoln’s son Robert share an uncomfortable closeness to the three assassinations. When Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency in 1901 he kept Hay at State. Hay remained there until his death.

What does the illustration attempt to illuminate? Was this meant as a barbed cartoon, or did it illustrate an article on politics of the time? Details from the National Portrait Gallery do not say.

Delicious mystery. Was this image ever published? Does it have greater historical significance on events of 1905? Was either Hay or Cannon a chess player? Mystery.

 

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