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Veeps: Hannibal Hamlin

Hannibal Hamlin was Vice-President for Abraham Lincoln's first term in office. Were it not for political expediency, it may have been Hamlin who succeeded to the Presidency upon Lincoln's assassination, giving reconstruction a whole different face.


Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris, Maine on August 27, 1809, the son of Cyrus and Anna Hamlin, a sixth generation descendant of English colonist James Hamlin, who had settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1833, practicing in Hampden, a suburb of Bangor, where he lived until 1848. Hamlin married Sarah Jane Emery of Paris Hill in 1833. After Sarah died in 1855, he married her half-sister, Ellen Vesta Emery in 1856. He had four children with Sarah: George, Charles, Cyrus and Sarah, and had two children, Hannibal E. and Frank, with Ellen. Ellen Hamlin died in 1925.

At the age of 27, Hamlin's political career began in 1836, when he began his term in the Maine House of Representatives. He ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives in 1840 and left the State House in 1841. He was elected to serve two terms in the United States House of Representatives, from 1843–1847 and was elected to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1848, and to a full term in 1851. Hamlin was originally a Democrat and a supporter of fellow New Englander Franklin Pierce. But his political beliefs ran afoul of his moral ones. From the very beginning of his service in Congress, Hamlin was a prominent opponent of the extension of slavery. He was a strong supporter of the Wilmot Proviso (which, if passed, would have forbid allowing slavery in any of the territories obtained from Mexico in the Mexican War) and he spoke against the Compromise of 1850. In 1854, he strongly opposed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise. After the Democratic Party endorsed that repeal at the 1856 Democratic National Convention, on June 12, 1856, he quit the Democratic Party and joined the newly organized Republican Party.

The Republicans nominated him for Governor of Maine in the same year. He carried the election by a large majority and was inaugurated on January 8, 1857. That didn't last very long because in the latter part of February 1857 he resigned the governorship, preferring to have a voice on the national stage. He once again became a member of the United States Senate from 1857 to January 1861.

In 1861, the Republican Party nominated Hamlin to be Vice President on a ticket with Abraham Lincoln at the top. The two men did not meet until after the election. Maine was the first state in the Northeast to embrace the Republican Party, and the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket provided the party with a strong regional balance. Hamlin had a reputation as a strong orator, and as a known opponent of slavery.

While serving as Vice President, Hamlin demonstated little authority in the Lincoln Administration. He was a strong advocate for both the Emancipation Proclamation and the arming of African-American soldiers. He strongly supported Joseph Hooker's appointment as commander of the Army of the Potomac, which turned out to be a dismal failure.

Hamlin and Lincoln were not close personally, though this is nt to suggest that the two men were adverse to one another. At the time, the Vice President to regularly attend cabinet meetings and Hamlin recognized that he had little influence in the administration. He once said "I am only a fifth wheel of a coach and can do little for my friends." It was said that Mary Todd Lincoln and Hamlin disliked each other.

In June 1864, the Republicans and War Democrats joined to form the National Union Party. Although Lincoln was renominated, and War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was named to replace Hamlin as Lincoln's running mate. Lincoln was seeking to broaden his base of support and was also looking ahead to Southern Reconstruction, at which Johnson had proven himself to support as war governor of occupied Tennessee. Hamlin, by contrast, was an ally of Northern radicals (who would later impeach Johnson). Lincoln saw Johnson as providing him with a broader base for re-election in what looked to be a close election. Lincoln and Johnson were elected in November 1864, and Hamlin's term as Vice-President expired on March 4, 1865.

Hamlin was influential in elevating the profile of Maine Republicans. From 1861–1911, Maine Republicans occupied the offices of Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury (twice), Secretary of State, President pro tempore of the United States Senate, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (twice), and would field a national presidential candidate in James G. Blaine.

After a term as a civilian, Hamlin returned to the U.S. Senate in 1868 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 James Garfield named Hamlin as United States Ambassador to Spain. He held the post until October 17, 1882. Upon returning from Spain in the fall of 1882, Hamlin retired from public life to his home in Bangor, Maine. Today his home is known as the Hannibal Hamlin House. It is located at 15 5th Street in Bangor and is on the National Register of Historic Places.


On July 4, 1891, Hamlin collapsed and fell unconscious while playing cards at the Tarratine Club (which he founded) in downtown Bangor. He was placed on one of the club's couches and died in the evening a few hours later. He was 81 years of age. Hannibal Hamlin was buried in the Hamlin Family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine. He outlived 6 subsequent vice-president (Andrew Johnson, Schuyler Colfax, Henry Wilson, William A. Wheeler, Chester Arthur, and Thomas A. Hendricks) and from 1887-1889 was the only living Vice-President. There are statues of Hamlin in the United States Capitol and in a public park (Norumbega Mall) in Bangor.


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