It's always been fascinating to me how many important men in their day became mere footnotes in the annals of history. For example, can you name Abraham Lincoln's vice president from 1864 until his death? Of course you can, because it was Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who became our country's 17th president and the first to be impeached by Congress. But did you know that Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln's vice president for his first term? He was, along with being Speaker of the House, a Senator, a lawyer, and one of the anti-slavery movement's most ardent supporters.
Hannibal Hamlin was born in Oxford County, Maine, on August 27, 1809, just six months after Honest Abe. His family owned several forests which were "harvested" for lumber, and which Hannibal helped out with for many years in his youth. At 17 he, like Lincoln, began working for a newspaper company, setting type and doing basic copy editing. And to draw even more parallels with Mr. Lincoln, they both worked as assistant surveyors before joining the bar. He married Sarah Emery in 1833, the same year he became an attorney.
Hamlin's politics closely matched The Great Orator's: they both opposed slavery as a moral ill, but recognized the importance of slavery as an industry for others and tried to compromise these values whenever possible. Hamlin was also vehemently against the death penalty, and fought his entire legislative career to have it banned in the United States. While Hamlin's eloquence and education earned him high praise in the largely Democratic state of Maine, Lincoln fought against his own party (the Whigs) on slavery in the new states and the railroads that ran through Illinois, transporting slaves to the western territories.
Hannibal In Office
Hamlin was named speaker of the state legislature in 1837 and served at the post for 5 years, when he moved up to the U.S. House of Representatives and became a junior member on the Committee on Elections. In 1846, his virulent abolitionism proved a liability and he lost his office, but he won re-election in 1848 and became chairman of the Commerce Committee.
By then Hamlin was all but fed up with the wishy-washy attitude towards slavery held by the Democratic party. The Kansas-Nebraska Act's essentially hands off attitude was the final straw, and Hamlin defected to the newly formed Republican party, along with the lanky gentleman from Illinois. Both moved back to their home states, with Lincoln becoming a party chairman and Hamlin serving as governor of Maine from 1854 to 1856.
In 1856, the two men's lives crossed fates again as both began campaigning for spots in the United States Senate. Both men were also struck by tragedy in their families: Hamlin's wife Sarah succumbed to tuberculosis in April 1856. (Interestingly, Hannibal simply married Sarah's half-sister Ellen in September. Keeping it in the family, I guess.) Hamlin's bid proved victorious; Lincoln was defeated by Stephen A. Douglas. Hamlin worked hard in the Senate to keep the peace between the increasingly belligerent North and the increasingly defensive South. He was a notoriously bombastic orator, but he was also a savvy behind closed doors dealmaker.
In 1860, the Republican Party felt it had enough power in the nation to carry a Presidential candidate to the White House. A close nomination process gave Lincoln the nomination, but Hamlin was a unanimous vote for Vice President. Hamlin himself did not even know of the nomination until he was interrupted in the middle of a card game with the news. He accepted somewhat reluctantly, offering his services to "the cause" of ending slavery. The two idealists carried virtually every Northern state and secured the Presidency, but their election sped up the process that eventually culminated in the battle of Fort Sumter and the Civil War.
Hamlin served his President faithfully during the entire campaign, providing moral support and appearances at battlefields and whistle stops all across America. Hamlin was also an early supporter of an emancipation procalamation, and helped Lincoln with revisions for the famous document issued in 1863. But, ironically, his similarity to Lincoln proved to be his political downfall. Party leaders felt they needed a running mate that would complement Lincoln's Radical Republican stance with a candidate who was sympathetic to the Southern cause and Democrats in general. That person was Andrew Johnson, a former slaveowner and Tennesseean; many members of the party complained bitterly about this hypocrisy, most of all Hamlin, who felt betrayed by Lincoln and the party for not representing their views in their candidates.
One interesting side note is that in 1864, Hamlin's volunteer Coast Guard unit was called into duty for a short period of time. Hamlin, 55 years old, felt it was his duty to report for service, and thus became the only Vice President in American history to also actively serve in the armed forces during a war.
Hannibal returned home to Maine, where he sat out of politics until 1868, when he was cajoled into returning to the Senate. He served on numerous committees and was a major developer of industry and the post office system in the rapidly expanding postbellum West. He retired in 1881 to become the minister to Spain, but by then Hamlin was 73 years old and travel did not do him well, and he quit the following year.
Hannibal Hamlin, Maine senator and Vice President of the United States, passed away at his home in Bangor on Independence Day, 1891.