Associated with the U.S. Senate for much of his career, Hannibal Hamlin was vice president of the United States during Abraham Lincoln's first term, and was a senator and a representative from Maine. Hamlin began his political career in the state legislature, where he served three terms as speaker. He moved to the U.S. Congress in 1843, and after two terms was elected as a Democrat to the Senate. In the Senate, Hamlin influenced legislation pertaining to steamboat inspection and shipowners' liability. An opponent of slavery as a Republican, Hamlin broke with his party over the issue in 1856. He then resigned from the Senate to become governor of Maine, but soon returned to the U.S. Senate. Hamlin was a successful vice presidential candidate with Lincoln in 1860. He failed to win renomination four years later, but in 1868 was reelected to the Senate where he remained for the next thirteen years. From 1881 to 1882 Hamlin was U.S. minister to Spain.
Hamlin was one of three living former vice presidents when the U.S. Senate, by resolution in 1886, established a collection of busts of the vice presidents for display in the Senate chamber. The Senate Committee on the Library began the program with those vice presidents still living; each was asked to designate a sculptor. Hamlin selected Maine artist Franklin Simmons. Simmons's studio was in Rome at the time, but the artist agreed to model Hamlin from life once he returned to Maine. However, his return was delayed, due to several other commissions he was working on. The Hamlin bust was finally completed in May 1889 and placed in the Senate chamber gallery later that year.
A member of the so-called "second generation" of expatriate American sculptors, Simmons was awarded many commissions during a long and active career. Initially known for his portraiture, he later turned to the neoclassical subjects of his contemporaries. Simmons sculpted two other portrait busts for the vice presidential collection, Adali Ewing Stevenson and Charles Warren Fairbanks. The artist is also represented in the U.S. Capitol with statues of Ulysses S. Grant, William King, Francis Pierpont, and Roger Williams.