Hannibal Hamlin is best remembered today as serving as vice president under President Abraham Lincoln. He almost made it to become president.
Hannibal Hamlin was born in the Paris Hill Province of Maine on Aug. 27, 1809. His father, Cyrus Hamlin, was a physician. His mother was Anna Livermore. Dr. Hamlin supplemented his practice by working on his farm and serving as sheriff of Oxford County.
Young Hannibal grew up surrounded by forests, streams, and mountains. He was tall and muscular, with black hair and eyes and an extremely swarthy completion. He was educated locally, but spent one year at Hebron Academy (1826-27). My information on the Hamlins comes from “A Biographical Dictionary, Vice Presidents,” edited by L. Edward Purcell.
Hannibal’s formal education ended when his older brother, also Cyrus, became ill and Hannibal had to run the family farm. He worked for a clerking in a Boston fruit store. He also was briefly a teacher in Paris, a surveyor, and he studied law. His father died, unexpectedly, in 1829 and he kept up with his legal studies while caring for his mother and sisters.
In 1832 he studied law in Portland under the celebrated firm of Fessenden and Deblois He returned to Paris Hill and was easily admitted to the Maine bar. On Dec. 10, 1833 he married Sarah Jane Emery and moved to Hampden, south of Bangor, where he hung out his shingle and served as town attorney. He and Sarah had four children: George, Charles, Cyrus, and Sarah Jane.
His law practice was gratifying and he developed a deep interest in politics. A Jacksonian Democrat, he joined the Maine legislature in 1836 and was elected speaker of the house in 1837. He favored sound currency, fought to abolish capital punishment in Maine, and loathed slavery.
In 1843 Hamlin went to Washington as a House member and then was elected by the Maine Legislature to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy in 1848. He was elected to a full term in 1851. For some 30 years he would make Washington. D.C. his second home.
This was a violent time in our history. Hamlin was in the midst of it all: the Mexican War, Wilmot Proviso, Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the Missouri Compromise, the Civil War etc.
After Sarah died in 1855, Hannibal married her half sister, Ellen Vesta Emery. They had two sons, Hannibal Emery and Frank.
This was also the time of Abraham Lincoln’s ascendancy into power and the new Republican Party. Hamlin liked Lincoln and joined with him. Hamlin was surprised to learn he was being nominated as Lincoln’s vice president. This was not to his liking. He wanted to be active and he claimed being vice president was a one-way to political oblivion.
Purcell writes that, “The nomination of a prominent former Democrat from New England to balance former Whig Lincoln from Illinois made excellent sense politically, but Lincoln played no role whatever in the choice of this running mate. The two men had never even met.”
After their November victory, the president-elect summoned Hamlin to Chicago to discuss Cabinet appointments. Lincoln impressed him favorably.
The new vice-president fulfilled his sole constitutional function of presiding over the Senate for two and half weeks. That was his sole job and he wanted more action. The president did not seem to sense Hamlin’s unhappiness and gave him no significant role to play during the war. However, Hamlin became adjusted to his new high office.
When Lincoln was renominated for a second term in 1864, Andrew Johnson was selected to replace Hamlin as Lincoln’s vice president.
What caused the change over Hamlin’s role as vice president is unclear. It may have been the feeling by some that the party would get more votes from a vice president from Tennessee than from Maine, or it may have been that Lincoln preferred Andrew Johnson. Some said Lincoln did not interfere with the vice presidential nomination. Others swore he favored Johnson.
Purcell writes, “Hamlin clearly anticipated a second term to validate his wartime fidelity to Union and party years. The substitution of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee for the doughty Mainer had momentous consequences and has been a source of considerable historical controversy.”
If Hamlin had been nominated that day he would have become the 17th president. Hamlin put on a brave front, but felt anger and pain in his elimination.
Hamlin never saw Lincoln alive again. A few days after March 4, 1865, Inauguration Day, the former vice president said goodbye to Washington, D.C. and headed for Maine. About a month later, on April 14, 1865 Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next morning making Andrew Johnson the president.
In 1869, Hamlin would be elected to the Senate again and serve until 1881. He was appointed ambassador to Spain and was fascinated with Europe. According to Joseph Owen in his “This Day in Maine,” Hamlin was the first of a series on Maine Republicans to hold the federal offices of secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, House of Representatives speaker and president-pro tem of the Senate. He died on July 4, 1891.
Hannibal Hamlin is remembered by few people, even in his native Maine, but a student dormitory at UMO is named for him. Except for a quirk of fate he would have been our 17th president.