March 4, 1861, was a sad day for Hannibal Hamlin. On that day, he gave up the Senate seat he had held for 12 years to become vice president of the United States.
At high noon, Hamlin called the Senate to order and swore in newly elected senators. Shortly after 1 pm, he welcomed into the chamber outgoing President James Buchanan and President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Then the entire assemblage rose and proceeded to the Capitol’s east front for Lincoln’s inaugural.
Hannibal Hamlin owed his classical name to the influence of his grandfather, who loved the great military figures of ancient history. Tall, with piercing black eyes and olive-colored skin, the courteous and affable Hamlin proved to be a natural politician.
In 1860, as Republican Party leaders worked to arrange a successful presidential ticket, they decided that Hamlin, a former Democrat from Maine, would politically and geographically balance Lincoln, a former Whig from Illinois. When an excited ally interrupted Hamlin at a card game in Washington to give him news of his nomination in Chicago, the irritated senator complained the interruption ruined the only good hand he had had all evening. With great reluctance, he accepted the offer.
After his election, Lincoln tapped Hamlin's experience as an influential senator for leads about suitable cabinet choices. Based on this early collaboration, some speculated that Lincoln might actually make effective use of his vice president. They were wrong. Hamlin's value to Lincoln was as a senior senator. Once Hamlin took up his vice-presidential duties, his usefulness ended. Although he hated being vice president, he again sought the nomination in 1864. Party leaders, however, dumped him—Maine was by then safely Republican—in favor of Andrew Johnson, from the politically crucial border state of Tennessee.
With little to do as vice president, Hamlin had enlisted as a private in the Maine state coast guard at the start of the Civil War. In 1864, his unit was called to active duty. Promoted to corporal, the vice president drilled troops, guarded buildings, and peeled potatoes. When his three-month tour ended in September, he rejoined the political ranks to campaign for the ticket of Lincoln and Johnson.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Hamlin has the Senate on the brain and nothing more or less will cure him.” On March 4, 1869, Hamlin happily resumed his old seat in the Senate and pronounced himself cured.