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Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President (1861-1865)

Hannibal Hamlin

The emotional issue of slavery demolished the American political system during the 1850s: the Whig party disintegrated; the Democrats divided; and the Free Soil and American (or Know-Nothing) parties flourished briefly and died. Emerging from the wreckage of the old system, the Republican party, which ran its first presidential campaign in 1856, drew converts from all of these parties. Within the new party stood men who had spent years fighting each other under different political banners. In constructing a presidential ticket in 1860, therefore, Republicans needed candidates who would reflect their complex construction and reinforce their new unity. They picked a presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who was not only a westerner but a Whig who claimed Henry Clay as his political role model. To balance Lincoln, Republicans chose as their vice-presidential candidate Hannibal Hamlin, an easterner who had spent the bulk of his political career as a Democrat and who had battled Henry Clay when they served together in the United States Senate. Despite their differences, Lincoln and Hamlin shared an opposition to the expansion of slavery into the western territories, without being abolitionists.


Hannibal Hamlin owed his classical name to his grandfather Eleazer Hamlin, a man well read in history, who named his first son after the Roman general Scipio Africanus (everyone called the boy Africa) and called his twin sons Cyrus, after the great Persian conqueror, and Hannibal, after the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps on elephants in his campaigns against Rome. Cyrus became a Harvard-trained medical doctor and moved to the village of Paris Hill, Maine, where on August 27, 1809, was born his son, whom he named after his brother Hannibal. The boy grew up in a prosperous family, living in an imposing, three-story white house. A natural leader among his peers, physically fit and athletic, Hannibal was also an avid reader. He was sent to local public schools and then to Hebron Academy.

Hannibal's ambition to become a lawyer was nearly sidetracked, first when his elder brother took ill, forcing him to leave school to run the family farm, and then when his father died, requiring him, under the terms of his father's will, to stay home and take care of his mother until he turned twenty-one. When he came of age, however, Hannibal left home to read law at the offices of Fessenden and Deblois, under Samuel C. Fessenden, an outspoken abolitionist and father of Hamlin's future political rival, William Pitt Fessenden. The association made Hamlin an antislavery man and launched him into his new profession. He set up his own law practice and became the town attorney in Hampden, Maine.

Democratic Politics in Maine and Washington

Politically, from the 1830s to the 1850s, Maine was an entrenched Democratic state, and the politically ambitious Hamlin joined the Democratic party. In 1835 he was elected to the state house of representatives. Described as "tall, and gracious in figure, with black, piercing eyes, a skin almost olive-colored, hair smooth, thick and jetty, a manner always courteous and affable," he fit easily into legislative politics, became a popular member of the house, and was soon elected its speaker. His most notable legislative achievement was to lead the movement to abolish capital punishment in Maine. In 1840 he lost a race for the U.S. House of Representatives, but in 1843 (after the next election was delayed until the districts could be reapportioned) he won a seat in Congress. There he denounced Henry Clay's economic programs and voted very much as a Jacksonian Democrat. He became chairman of the Committee on Elections and won a coveted seat on the House Rules Committee. Hamlin enjoyed considerable luck in his career, particularly in February 1844, when he missed sailing on the U.S. Navy frigate Princeton, which was going to demonstrate its new guns. One of the guns exploded, killing Secretary of State Abel Upshur and several others.

The extension of slavery into the territories was the most perplexing issue to face Congress during Hamlin's long career in the House and Senate. His state of Maine had entered the Union as a result of the Missouri Compromise, which admitted one free state for every slave state. But in 1846, when the United States entered a war with Mexico, the prospects of vast new conquered territories south of the Missouri Compromise line raised the question of the parameters of slavery. Hamlin joined with other radical antislavery men in the House to devise an amendment that would prohibit the introduction of slavery into any territory taken from Mexico as a result of the war. Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot was selected to introduce the measure, which became known as the Wilmot Proviso. Hamlin introduced his own version of the proviso on an army appropriations bill, much to the anger of Democratic President James K. Polk. "Mr. Hamlin professes to be a democrat," the president wrote in his diary, "but has given indications during the present session that he is dissatisfied, and is pursuing a mischievous course . . . on the slavery question." The president attributed Hamlin's stand to a patronage quarrel with the administration, but Hamlin stood squarely on principle. "I have no doubt that the whole North will come to the position I have taken," he said. "Some damned rascals who may be desirous of disposing of myself, will mutter & growl about abolitionism but I do not care the snap of my fingers for them all."

The Free Soil Challenge

In the House, Hamlin encountered many of the men with whom he would serve and against whom he would contend for the rest of his long career. Among others, he met Representatives Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He and Davis sparred frequently in the House and Senate over slavery. Tempers between the two men rose to such a level that for the only time in his life Hamlin thought it prudent to carry a pistol for self-protection. The unexpected death of Senator John Fairfield from malpractice by an incompetent physician opened a Senate seat from Maine, which Hamlin was elected to fill in 1848. That same year, antislavery Whigs and Democrats united to form a Free Soil party that nominated Martin Van Buren for president. Although Hamlin approved of their antislavery platform and had supported Van Buren in the past, he could not bring himself to abandon his party—to which he owed his Senate seat. As a Democratic senator, Hamlin strongly opposed Henry Clay's proposed Compromise of 1850. If the bill spread slavery into the West, he declared, "it will not be with my vote."

As a temperance man, Senator Hamlin was distressed by the drinking habits of his colleagues. He observed that New York Senator Silas Wright was never sober and even sipped whiskey while he addressed the Senate. Hamlin estimated that as many as a third of the senators were drunk by the end of a daily session and that after a long executive session (held behind closed doors) two-thirds of the members left inebriated. Nor did he approve of the ruffianly tendencies and tempers of some senators. After a dispute between Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Henry S. Foote, in which Foote pulled a pistol on the Senate floor, Hamlin wrote in disgust to a friend, "Don't you think the American Senate is a dignified body!!!!!!!!"

Woolheads Versus Wildcats

The slavery issue split the Maine Democratic party into two factions. Hamlin's antislavery faction won the name "Woolheads" from its opponents. The Woolheads in turn labeled their adversaries, who opposed the Wilmot Proviso, "Wildcats." In addition to the slavery issue, temperance also divided the two factions, with Hamlin's "Woolheads" supporting prohibition laws and the "Wildcats" opposing them. In 1854, Hamlin denounced Senator Stephen Douglas' efforts to enact the Kansas-Nebraska bill and repeal the Missouri Compromise. "Shall we repeal freedom and make slavery?" he asked. "It comes to that." When the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 37 to 14, Hamlin was among only four Democrats to vote against it.

As political turmoil reigned, Hamlin's attention was distracted by the illness of his wife, Sarah Jane Hamlin. Both Hannibal and Sarah Hamlin loved Washington's social life of dances, receptions, card playing, and theater-going. The senator, she wrote home to their son, "has had about ten invitations a week to dine, and he enjoys them very much, you know how much he enjoys a good dinner." But Sarah's health declined so severely in 1855 that for a while he considered resigning his Senate seat. Sarah Jane Hamlin died from tuberculosis in April 1856. That September, Hamlin married his wife's younger half-sister, Ellen, who was the same age as one of his sons. Characterized as plain but witty and warm-hearted, she bore two more of his children and offered him companionship through the rest of his long life.

Becoming a Republican

To some degree, Sarah's illness provided political cover for Hannibal Hamlin at a time when he was under intense pressure to abandon the Democrats in favor of the newly formed Republican party. Republican leaders were anxious for the popular Hamlin to join their party to balance the radicals who threatened to gain control. "We have a great many men in our party who go off half cocked," wrote the young editor and politico, James G. Blaine. "They must be made to ride in the rear of the car instead of in the engine or else we are in constant danger of being thrown from the track." In 1856, Republicans wanted Hamlin to head their ticket as the Republican candidate for governor of Maine. Hamlin clung to his old party as long as he could, and also had no desire to leave the Senate. However, Republicans warned him that refusal to run for governor would end any chance of his being returned to the Senate. Hamlin agreed to run for governor, but only if the legislature would send him back to the Senate as soon as possible. An effective campaigner, Hamlin canvassed the state. Republicans won a smashing victory over both Whigs and Democrats, sweeping all six congressional districts and carrying the legislature. Since Maine's elections were held in September (because of the state's harsh winter weather), the early victory gave a psychological boost to the national Republican campaign that year. Hamlin won widespread credit for helping Republicans broaden their electoral base.

Inaugurated governor on January 8, 1857, Hamlin resigned on February 25 to begin his third term as senator. In Washington he provided the Republicans with a strong voice against the "doughface" policies of James Buchanan's administration. (It was a decidedly Maine "Down East" voice, with Hamlin pronouncing "now" as "ne-a-ow," for instance.) While boarding at the St. Charles Hotel in Washington, Hamlin became reacquainted and favorably impressed with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, with whom he had served in the House and who had just been elected to the Senate. As the 1860 elections approached, some Maine Republicans viewed Hamlin as a possible favorite-son candidate, in case the frontrunner, New York Senator William Seward, should falter. But James G. Blaine worked the Maine delegation to the Republican National Convention in favor of Abraham Lincoln's nomination. On the train ride to Chicago, Blaine convinced Governor Lot Morrill and other delegates to throw their support to Lincoln. When Lincoln upset Seward, the vice-presidential nomination was offered first to the Seward camp. The disappointed Seward men put no one forward for the second spot. There was strong support among the delegates for Cassius M. Clay, the Kentucky abolitionist, but Republican party leaders thought him too radical. By contrast, Hamlin seemed a more "natural" choice, more moderate, but with a spotless record against slavery, and a friend of Seward's in the Senate. Hamlin won the nomination on the second ballot.

The nomination came as a shock to Hannibal Hamlin. While playing cards in his Washington hotel room, Hamlin heard a racket in the corridor. The door burst open and the room filled with excited men, led by Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax, who read a telegram from the convention and addressed him as "Mr. Vice-President." Stunned, Hamlin said he did not want the office, but Ohio Senator Ben Wade warned him that to decline would only give ammunition to the Democrats, suggesting that he was afraid to run on a losing ticket. Hamlin agreed, whispering to Wade and Colfax: "You people have spoiled a good lone hand I held." Afterwards, writing to his wife, Hamlin explained: "I neither expected or desired it. But it has been made and as a faithful man to the cause, it leaves me no alternative but to accept it." At least, he conceded, the duties of the office would "not be hard or unpleasant." Whether in cards or in politics, Hamlin had a lucky streak. As Blaine observed: "He always turns up on the winning side."


During the campaign, both Lincoln and Hamlin considered it prudent to make no speeches. However, Hamlin assured Lincoln, "While I have been silent, I have never been so busy thro' the Press and by personal effort endeavoring to strengthen the weak points all along the line." After Maine Republicans swept the September elections, Hamlin traveled to Boston in October to march in a torchlight parade, accompanied by Maine lumberjacks, Penobscot Indians, and party stalwarts. One of the favorite signs combined the ticket into a single name: "Abra/Hamlin/coln." On a less friendly note, southerners denounced Lincoln and Hamlin as a radical abolitionists. Going even further, Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the Charleston [S.C.] Mercury, wrote that "Hamlin is what we call a mulatto. He has black blood in him." An amused New Yorker, George Templeton Strong, observed that Hamlin seemed "a vigorous specimen of the pure Yankee type. His complexion is so swarthy that I cannot wonder at the demented South for believing him a mulatto."

Once the election had been won, Lincoln summoned Hamlin to meet him in Chicago on November 22. After some casual initial conversation—Hamlin noted that Lincoln had started to grow a beard, and both men reminisced about hearing each other's speeches during their term together in the House of Representatives—they got down to work. Lincoln wanted to discuss the composition of his cabinet and knew that Hamlin, as a senator, had worked with and taken the measure of many of the men he was considering for appointment. Lincoln was especially concerned about attracting his former rival, William Seward, into the cabinet as secretary of state. When the Senate convened in December, Senator Hamlin carried notes from Lincoln to Seward and pressed his colleague to accept the offer, which he did. Hamlin also successfully promoted Gideon Welles of Connecticut as a New England candidate for the cabinet as secretary of the navy. These early dealings hinted that Hamlin might play a more active role in the administration than had previous vice presidents. It soon turned out, however, that Hamlin's usefulness to Lincoln was tied mostly to his role as a senior senator and subsided almost as soon as he vacated his Senate seat for the vice-presidency.

The Lincoln-Hamlin victory triggered the secession of the southern states. When asked by a friend from Maine what the future would hold, the new vice president replied, "there's going to be a war, and a terrible one, just as surely as the sun will rise to-morrow." Congress was out of session and Hamlin was in Maine when word came that Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. The vice president devoted himself to raising a Maine regiment to fight for the Union. On his way back to Washington, Hamlin stopped in New York City, where he complied with President Lincoln's request to keep him advised daily on what troops were leaving New York to protect the capital.

"A Contingent Somebody"

When the Senate convened on the Fourth of July in 1861 to take the legislative actions necessary for raising and funding an army for the Union, Vice President Hamlin discovered that he had far less power and patronage as vice president than he had as a senator. The loss of patronage particularly galled Hamlin, who was "noted for his fidelity to political friends." He also felt unhappy over being relegated to serving as an inactive observer of events. Hamlin considered himself the most unimportant man in Washington, ignored equally by the administration and the senators. He called his job "a fifth wheel on a coach" and identified the vice president as "a contingent somebody." When Jessie Benton Frémont asked Hamlin to intervene in favor of a new military command for her husband, the vice president replied: "What can I do? The slow and unsatisfactory movements of the Government do not meet with my approbation, and that is known, and of course I am not consulted at all, nor do I think there is much disposition in any quarter to regard any counsel I may give much if at all."

Reflecting later on his office, Hamlin told an interviewer:

There is a popular impression that the Vice President is in reality the second officer of the government not only in rank but in power and influence. This is a mistake. In the early days of the republic he was in some sort an heir apparent to the Presidency. But that is changed. He presides over the Senate--he has a casting vote in case of a tie--and he appoints his own private secretary. But this gives him no power to wield and no influence to exert. Every member who has a constituency, and every Senator who represents a state, counts for more in his own locality, and with the Executive who must needs, in wielding the functions of his office, gather around him, and retain by his favors, those who can vote in Congress and operate directly upon public sentiment in their houses."

Hamlin explained that he soon saw that his office was a "nullity" in Washington. He tried not to intrude upon the president, but always gave Lincoln his views, and when asked, his advice.

Moreover, Hamlin found presiding over the Senate so boring that he was frequently absent. In contrast to his service as a senator, when he rarely missed a day of a session, as vice president he would leave for Maine well before the end of a session, turning his duties over to the president pro tempore. Hamlin's inattentiveness to Senate proceedings became an embarrassment when the Delaware Democrat Willard Saulsbury launched into a savage attack on President Lincoln as "a weak and imbecile man." Republican senators objected that the remarks were not in order, but Vice President Hamlin had to admit that "[t]he Chair was not listening to what the Senator from Delaware was saying, and did not hear the words." To this Saulsbury replied, "That is the fault of the Chair, and not of the Senator who was addressing the Chair." Hamlin finally ordered Saulsbury to be seated for questioning the motives of the senators who had raised the objection, and when Saulsbury refused to comply, the vice president ordered the sergeant at arms to place the senator in custody. After a brief conversation, Saulsbury accompanied the assistant sergeant at arms out of the chamber.

Hamlin attributed Saulsbury's belligerence to his drinking. "He was very drunk--beastly so on the night of the transaction," the vice president wrote. "It was a most disgraceful scene." As a temperance man, Hamlin determined to banish liquor from the Senate chamber and committee rooms. The combination of his rule outlawing the sale of liquor in the Senate restaurant and the departure of the hard-drinking southern senators after secession sobered the institution. One visitor to the Capitol noted, "A few Senators were seen walking with unsteady gait from the cloak room to their desks, but thanks to the firmness of Hannibal Hamlin, the Senate became a pleasant place to the sober people who had to live there."

Throughout the war, Hamlin identified more with the frustrated congressional radicals than with the more cautious President Lincoln. Those around Lincoln concluded that the vice president was not in close sympathy with the president but "was known as one who passively rather than actively strengthened a powerful cabal of Republican leaders in their aggressive hostility to Lincoln and his general policy." Lincoln did not appear to hold this against Hamlin. As one newspaper correspondent of the era observed: "Lincoln measured the men about him at their value. He knew their worth, their fidelity, and in no sense distrusted them." He did not require absolute loyalty in order to use a person. Hamlin, for instance, was among those who pressed Lincoln hard to issue an emancipation proclamation. Fearing at first that such a measure would divide the North, Lincoln resisted until he believed he could use the issue as a military advantage, to give a nobler purpose to the war. When Lincoln first drafted a proclamation, he invited Hamlin to dinner and let him be the first to see the document, asking for his suggestions. Hamlin later described Lincoln as "much moved at the step he was taking."

Dumped from the Ticket

Despite Hamlin's grumbling about the powerlessness of the vice-presidency, he was willing to stand for reelection in 1864. Hamlin assumed that Lincoln supported his nomination, but the president—an entirely pragmatic politician—doubted that Hamlin would add much strength to the ticket in what was sure to be a difficult reelection campaign, with the survival of the nation at stake. Maine would vote Republican whether or not Hamlin was on the ticket, and he carried little weight in any other state. Lincoln sent emissaries to sound out several prominent War Democrats, among them Tennessee's war governor, Andrew Johnson. As the thinking went, to nominate a southerner like Johnson would be a way to "nationalize the Republican party." At the convention, to the surprise of Hamlin's supporters, the Tennessee governor outpolled the vice president on the first ballot and went on to win the nomination on the second. "To be Vice President is clearly not to be anything more than a reflected greatness," Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney wrote to console Hamlin. "You know how it is with the Prince of Wales or the Heir Apparent. He is waiting for somebody to die, and that is all of it." Hamlin maintained a dignified silence but was vexed by his defeat. Years later he wrote: "I was dragged out of the Senate, against my wishes—tried to do my whole duty, and was then unceremoniously `whistled down the wind.' While I have never complained to any one, I did not fail to feel and know how I was treated."

During the summer of 1864, the lame-duck vice president briefly served in the Union army. When the war began in 1861, Hamlin had enlisted as a private in the Maine Coast Guard. His unit was called to active duty in 1864 and ordered to report to Fort McClary, at Kittery, Maine. Although Hamlin could have accepted a purely honorary place on the roll, he insisted upon active service. "I am the Vice-President of the United States, but I am also a private citizen, and as an enlisted member of your company, I am bound to do my duty." He added, "I aspire only to be a high private in the rear ranks, and keep step with the boys in blue." Promoted to corporal, Hamlin reported on July 7, drilled, and did guard duty and kitchen patrol along with the rest of the enlisted men. As vice president, however, he was assigned to officers' quarters. When his tour of duty ended in September, he left the company to campaign for the Republican ticket, first in Maine, and then down through New England to New York and Pennsylvania, doing what he could to aid Lincoln's reelection.

In the Vice President's Room in the Capitol on inauguration day, Hamlin's successor, Andrew Johnson, approached him with a request. "Mr. Hamlin, I am not well, and need a stimulant," he said. "Have you any whiskey?" Hamlin explained that he had prohibited the sale of liquor in the Capitol, but when Johnson pressed his request, a messenger was sent to procure a bottle. Johnson poured a tumbler and downed it straight, then had two more drinks before going onto the Senate floor to give an embarrassingly drunken inaugural address. Recounting the scene later, Hamlin privately commented that if Johnson ordinarily drank that way, "he must be able to stand a great deal."

A few weeks after Hamlin returned to Maine, on the morning of April 15, 1865, he encountered a group of sorrowful men on the street in Bangor, who informed him that Lincoln had been assassinated. Hamlin boarded a steamer for Washington to attend the president's funeral. At the White House, he stood side by side with Andrew Johnson at Lincoln's casket, causing those who saw them to note the irony that Hamlin had within a matter of weeks missed the presidency. None could have realized how differently the nation's history might have developed if Lincoln had been succeeded by Hamlin, who favored a Radical Reconstruction of the South, rather than by Johnson, who opposed it.

A Post-Vice-Presidential Political Career

After Hamlin's defeat for renomination as vice president, Lincoln had considered appointing him secretary of the treasury but concluded that "Hamlin has the Senate on the brain and nothing more or less will cure him." However, Hamlin was outmaneuvered for the Senate seat by his Maine Republican rival, William Pitt Fessenden. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner instead recommended that Hamlin be appointed collector of the port of Boston, and President Johnson made the nomination. In time, Hamlin became dismayed over Johnson's policies on Reconstruction and his abandonment of the rights of the freedmen. As other Republican officeholders resigned in protest, many looked to Hamlin to join them, but he held onto his collectorship. Finally, the governor of Maine wrote to Hamlin that his resignation would "strike a lofty note" and set a "high example" of sacrifice for principles. Realizing that his political future depended upon distancing himself from Johnson, Hamlin abandoned the office with a blast at the president.

In 1868, against his wishes, Hamlin's name was put forward as a vice-presidential candidate on the ticket headed by U.S. Grant, but the nomination went to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax. At last in 1869 Hamlin was elected to another term in the Senate. He returned as a respected elder statesman and served two terms. One journalist who met Senator Hamlin in 1871 described him as attired in an antique blue swallow-tailed coat with big brass buttons, the type worn by antebellum statesmen. Hamlin mistook the journalist for a resident of Maine "and with the amiable humbug habit of many years wrung my hand warmly and affectionately inquired for the folks at the farm." The journalist took no offense, recognizing that "this trick of pretending remembrance is a venial sin with politicians and head waiters, great and small." Still, the incident gave an indication of how Hamlin had survived in politics for so long.

In 1877, Hamlin fainted in the Senate Republican cloakroom, the first signs of his heart disease. He chose not to stand for reelection in 1880. The election that year of James Garfield as president made Maine's James G. Blaine, secretary of state. Garfield and Blaine appointed Hamlin minister to Spain, a post that carried few duties and allowed him to make an extended tour of the European continent. The most amusing part of his brief diplomatic tenure was that the various foreign ministers he met "seemed to regard as of great importance" the fact that he had served as vice president. Hamlin retired from public service in 1882. He made his last public appearance at a Republican Club dinner at Delmonico's in honor of Lincoln's birthday in February 1891. There he was toasted as "The Surviving Standard-Bearer of 1860," to thunderous applause. A few months later, on the Fourth of July in 1891, thirty years to the day after he convened the Senate at the start of the Civil War, Hannibal Hamlin walked from his home to the Tarratine Club of Bangor, Maine. He had founded the social club, served as its president, and went there every afternoon (except Sunday) to play cards. While seated at the card table, Hamlin collapsed and fell unconscious, dying that night at the age of eighty-one.