What Happened to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin?

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

Hannibal Hamlin  was an American attorney and politician from the state of Maine. In a public service career that spanned over 50 years, he served as the 15th vice president of the United States. The first Republican to hold the office, Hamlin served from 1861 to 1865. He is considered among the most influential politicians to have come from Maine.

Hamlin was born to Cyrus Hamlin and his wife Anna, née Livermore, in Paris. He was a descendant in the sixth generation of English colonist James Hamlin, who had settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. He was a grandnephew of U.S. Senator Samuel Livermore II of New Hampshire. Hamlin attended the district schools and Hebron Academy. From 1827 to 1830 he published the Oxford Jeffersonian newspaper in partnership with Horatio King. He studied law with the firm headed by Samuel Fessenden, was admitted to the bar in 1833, and began practicing in Hampden, Maine, where he lived until 1848.

Hamlin married Sarah Jane Emery of Paris Hill in 1833. Her father was Stephen Emery, who was appointed as Maine’s Attorney General in 1839–1840. Hamlin and Sarah had four children together: George, Charles, Cyrus and Sarah. His wife died in 1855. The next year, Hamlin married Sarah’s half-sister, Ellen Vesta Emery in 1856. They had two children together: Hannibal E. and Frank. Ellen Hamlin died in 1925.

A native of Paris, Maine, Hamlin managed his father’s farm before becoming a newspaper editor. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1833, and began to practice in Hampden, Maine. Originally a Democrat, Hamlin began his political career with election to the Maine House of Representatives in 1835 and an appointment to the military staff of the Governor of Maine. As an officer in the militia, he took part in the 1839 negotiations that helped end the Aroostook War. In the 1840s Hamlin was elected to and served in the United States House of Representatives. In 1848 the state house elected him to the United States Senate, where he served until January 1857. He served temporarily as governor for six weeks in the beginning of 1857, after which he returned to the Senate. Hamlin was an active opponent of slavery; he supported the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the Compromise Measures of 1850. In 1854, he strongly opposed passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Hamlin’s increasingly anti-slavery views caused him to leave the Democratic Party for the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.

In the 1860 election, Hamlin was the Republican nominee for Vice President. Selected to run with Abraham Lincoln, who was from Illinois, Hamlin was chosen in part to bring geographic balance to the ticket and in part because as a former Democrat, he could work to convince other anti-slavery Democrats that their future lay with the Republican Party. The Lincoln and Hamlin ticket was successful, and Hamlin served as Vice President from 1861 to 1865, which included all but the last month of the American Civil War. The first Republican Vice President, Hamlin held the office in an era when the office was considered more a part of the legislative branch than the executive; he was not personally close to Lincoln and did not play a major role in his administration. Even so, Hamlin supported the administration’s legislative program in his role as presiding officer of the Senate, and he looked for other ways to demonstrate his support for the Union, including a term of service in a Maine militia unit during the war.

For the 1864 election, Hamlin was replaced as Vice Presidential nominee by Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat chosen for his appeal to Southern Unionists.* After leaving the vice presidency, Hamlin served as Collector of the Port of Boston, a lucrative post to which he was appointed by Johnson after the latter succeeded to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination. However, Hamlin later resigned as Collector because of his disagreement with Johnson over Reconstruction of the former Confederacy.

Not content with private life, Hamlin returned to the U.S. Senate in 1869 to serve two more 6-year terms before declining to run for re-election in 1880 because of an ailing heart. His last duty as a public servant came in 1881 when Secretary of State James G. Blaine convinced President James A. Garfield to name Hamlin as United States Ambassador to Spain. Hamlin received the appointment on June 30, 1881, and held the post until October 17, 1882. Upon returning from Spain, Hamlin retired from public life to his home in Bangor, Maine, which he had purchased in 1851. The Hannibal Hamlin House – as it is known today – is located in central Bangor at 15 5th Street; incorporating VictorianItalianate, and Mansard-style architecture, the mansion was posted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Hamlin was elected as a Third Class Companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Third Class was the MOLLUS division created to recognize civilians who had contributed outstanding service to the Union during the war.

On Independence Day, July 4, 1891, Hamlin collapsed and fell unconscious while playing cards at the Tarratine Club he founded in downtown Bangor. He was then placed on one of the club’s couches. He died a few hours later of natural causes. He was 81. The couch is preserved at the Bangor Public Library. Hannibal Hamlin was buried in the Hamlin family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine. Hamlin survived six of his successors in the vice presidency: Andrew JohnsonSchuyler ColfaxHenry WilsonWilliam A. WheelerChester A. Arthur, and Thomas A. Hendricks.

Conclusion:

Hamlin’s demise marked an unfortunate turn of history that might well have changed the course of the critical Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. Sharing Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery as he did, one can only speculate on how as president Hamlin might have smoothed the path to reconciliation with the South in that turbulent period of the nation’s history.

In time, members of both political parties—and, a century later, a remarkable crusade for racial equality and justice—moved the nation closer to Lincoln’s dreams and aspirations. Through all this, Lincoln’s legacy was greatly enhanced, though not yet fully achieved, even 150 years after his death. Historians, however, can only ponder how the course of Union reconstruction might have been altered had “Honest” Abe Lincoln not abandoned his first vice president, an outspoken champion of slave emancipation, for a defender of the Union who was determined to preserve the social, cultural and racial ways of the Old South.

Addendum:

*Just a recap on the 1864 election, what actually did happen? For the sake of his own political survival, at a time when the war was going badly for the Union, Lincoln opted for Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee and a War Democrat, ostensibly to save his presidency as he faced reelection in 1864. After Lincoln’s death, however, Johnson would discard much of his predecessor’s plans for conciliation between North and South in favor of policies that proved to be too lenient and deferential toward the South, Johnson’s native region. How did Lincoln pick a running mate so primed to undermine some of his most hard-fought objectives when the opportunity arose? The simple answer is politics. Without advising his first vice president, Lincoln just prior to the 1864 National Union Convention passed the word to party leaders that he wanted Johnson, a pro-Union Southerner, and they generally accepted the political rationale for abandoning Hamlin, who was from a safe Republican state. From the start, Johnson vowed that his prime concern was opposing the secession of the Southern states, including his own. Indeed, in 1860, when Southern Democrats had broken away and had chosen John Breckinridge of Kentucky as their presidential nominee, Johnson had declared: “The blood of secession … is not on my head.” Predicting Lincoln’s election that year, he proclaimed, “When the crisis comes, I will be found standing by the Union.”

But Johnson had a political dark side, one Lincoln knew well: The senator did not share Hamlin’s zeal for an end to slavery. For political purposes, Johnson sometimes spoke in conciliatory terms of treatment toward indentured blacks, but he was far from an abolitionist. Explaining how a son of the South could accept emancipation of the slaves, he argued that more whites than blacks were being freed, because blacks were being given the opportunity to find their way in what he vowed was still “a white man’s government.” As it turned out, the divide between Johnson and Hamlin could not have been starker. In 1854, when popular sovereignty champion Stephen A. Douglas had proposed splitting the Missouri Territory into the states of free Nebraska and slave Kansas, Hamlin was one of only four Democrats voting against it. “Where will this end?” he asked. “Shall we repel freedom and make slavery? It comes to that.” As a New Englander and Republican convert in 1860, Hamlin brought geographical balance to the Lincoln ticket. Almost at once, some southern Democrats alleged that the swarthy-complexioned Hamlin was actually a black man. “Hamlin is what we call a mulatto,” a South Carolina editor wrote. “He has black blood in him.” A Tennessean at a rally observed that Hamlin looked, acted and thought so much like a black man that if he dressed as a field hand, he could be sold in the South.

By 1864, a year before the Civil War would end, the Republicans were dead set on reunifying the country. Lincoln had even picked a new name for the party, the National Union Party, and its members approached their convention in Baltimore with the expectation that the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket would be re-nominated. But on the convention floor, leaders of two state delegations put two other men forward for the nomination, Senator Daniel D. Dickinson of New York and the Tennessean Johnson.

To Hamlin’s surprise, Connecticut cast all 12 of its votes for Johnson. Then, Massachusetts gave only three to Hamlin, and the rest of the Yankee state votes scattered among the three candidates. The first ballot count was Johnson 220, Hamlin only 150 and Dickinson 108.

Just before the second round of votes began, Kentucky switched its 21 votes from Hamlin to Johnson; Oregon and Kansas joined in, and then Pennsylvania shifted its 52 away from Hamlin as well. After New York switched, too, even Maine caved, and Johnson was nominated with 494 votes, with 27 for Dickinson and an embarrassing nine for the hapless incumbent vice president.

For years, Hamlin’s removal from the second-term ticket remained a political afterthought without much explanation. But history indicates the source of Hamlin’s dramatic political demise was none other than the man to whom he swore his loyalty. Lincoln, as the war dragged on badly, had considered dropping Hamlin from the ticket, but said nothing publicly so as not to alienate his own New England support.

Alexander McClure, a Pennsylvania editor, would later write that the president had first considered the arrogant Union Gen. Benjamin E. Butler, who disparagingly declined when approached by a Lincoln emissary, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania. According to Cameron, Butler said he would consider leaving the battlefield for the powerless vice presidency only on the condition that Lincoln would vow “that within three months after his inauguration he would die unresigned.”

One Pennsylvania delegate, Judge S. Newton Pettis, said later that he had called on Lincoln at the White House on the morning of the convention and asked him about his preference. Pettis reported that the president had replied softly, “Governor Johnson of Tennessee.” (Hamlin’s grandson Charles later disputed the story, saying that Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, insisted the president had adopted a hands-off policy on the choice.) Pettis apparently kept Lincoln’s answer to himself, but as Lincoln was a wartime president, his desire—spread by trusted emissaries to party leaders at the convention—easily carried the day.

Lincoln, noting to associates later that “Hamlin has the Senate on his brain and nothing more or less will cure him,” failed to help return him there. Somewhat disingenuously, he expressed sympathy to him after the convention, according to biographer H. Draper Hunt: “You have not been treated right. It is too bad, too bad. But what can I do? I am tied hand and foot.” Hamlin, for his part, showing uncommon party loyalty, agreed to campaign for the Lincoln-ticket, and when it won the general election by a landslide, at a Bangor rally he even called for three cheers for Johnson. But after events had taken a downturn for Hamlin, he privately told his wife he would not “ask favor of the Administration to prevent from going to the poor house. So you see I have some pride.”

Nevertheless, at the Lincoln-Johnson inaugural, Hamlin as the retiring Senate president was obliged to accompany his successor to the ceremony. Beforehand, the vice president-elect urgently requested a stiff drink and took two, apparently resulting in rambling and embarrassing remarks that startled the crowd and humiliated him. Lincoln told a Cabinet member, “I have known Andy for years; he made a bad slip. … But you needn’t be scared. Andy ain’t no drunkard.” Republican Senator Charles Sumner called for Johnson’s resignation, but the storm blew over, just as the final battles of the war were fought and Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

Resources:

en.wikipedia.org,”Hannibal Hamlin,” By Wikipedia Editors; politico.com,”Lincoln Successor Problem,: By Jules Witcover; chicagotribune.com, “Lincoln’s vice-presidential switch changed history,” By Jules Witcover;

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