Almost President – Hannibal Hamlin

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Hannibal Hamlin, circa 1860-65. Vice President of the United States.

Hannibal Hamlin missed being President by five weeks. Most history students know that Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President was Andrew Johnson, who became President when Lincoln was assassinated. But few know that Johnson was Vice President for only five weeks. The Vice President during the four years of Lincoln’s first term was Hannibal Hamlin. One of the first members of the Republican Party, Hamlin was dropped from the ticket in 1864 in favor of Johnson who would bring more votes to the difficult re-election campaign.

Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris Hill, Maine on August 27,1809. His father, Cyrus Hamlin, was a physician who had graduated from Harvard. Hannibal grew up in prosperous surroundings, and had a good education. Always active physically, he was athletic as well as being an avid reader. After local public schools, he attended Hebron Academy.

His goal was to become a lawyer, but events conspired against him in this. His older brother, who helped their father run the farm, became ill. Hannibal had to leave school to take his older brother’s place on the farm. His father died shortly thereafter, and Hannibal was required to stay and take care of his mother until he came of age at twenty-one. When he became a legal adult, he left home and read law in the offices of Fessenden and Deblois under the guidance of the senior partner, Samuel C. Fessenden. Samuel Fessenden was the father of Hamlin’s future political rival, William Pitt Fessenden. Samuel Fessenden was an ardent abolitionist, and his influence led Hamlin to also become a strong abolitionist throughout his career. After becoming an attorney, Hamlin established his own law practice in 1833 and soon became the town attorney for Hampden, Maine.

Maine at that time was a solidly Democratic state and, accordingly, the ambitious Hamlin joined the Democratic Party. In 1835, he was elected to the state house of representatives. Hamlin quickly became a popular and respected member of the legislature. He gained a reputation for being able to maintain good relations with all members and get things done. In 1838, he was elected speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. While in the state legislature, he led the fight to abolish the death penalty. In spite of his efforts and influence, the death penalty in Maine was not eliminated until the 1880s.

In 1840, Hamlin ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and lost. He ran again in the next election (which was actually not held until 1843 due to delays in completing the re-districting of the state after the census) and won. In Congress, Hamlin quickly joined the Jacksonian forces, and denounced Henry Clay’s economic program. In the House, Hamlin served as chairman of the Committee on Elections and also won a seat on the prestigious and powerful House Rules Committee. In one piece of very good luck, Hamlin missed sailing on the frigate U.S.S. Princeton, the Presidential yacht at the time, and so was not present when a demonstration of the new naval cannon called the Peacemaker went wrong. The cannon exploded, killing a number of important government officials, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. As a leading member of Congress, Hamlin would have occupied an honored position and might well have been among the casualties.

After serving five years in the House, Hamlin won election to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy. In 1851, the Maine legislature elected Hamlin to a full term. Hamlin became a highly respected and influential member of the Senate. As he represented a small rural state, this was due mainly to his personal standing with the other senators. Hamlin continued to oppose the Democratic Party’s stand in support of slavery, but he refrained from breaking with the party, mainly because there was no other party to join in Maine. But he did not support pro-slavery Democratic measures. He was one of only four Democrats to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and his debates with Senator Jefferson Davis became so heated that for the only time in his life, Hamlin carried a pistol for self-protection. That changed with the formation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, of which Hamlin became one of the first members in Maine.

In forming the new Republican Party, its leaders invited Hamlin to join and run for governor of Maine. Hamlin joined, but declined to run for governor, feeling he could best serve the new party in Washington as a member of the Senate. He was finally convinced to lead the Republican ticket in Maine when he was promised that the Republicans would return him to the Senate at the first possibility. On June 12, 1856, Hamlin left the Democratic Party with a sharply worded resignation denouncing slavery. That fall, Hamlin led the new Maine Republican Party to victory. His term as governor was short, however. He was sworn in as governor on January 8, 1857, but resigned on February 25, 1857, to accept election to the Senate to fill a vacancy.

Hamlin’s wife had died in April 1856 from tuberculosis. In September 1856, he married his former wife’s half-sister Ellen, who supported him in his successful race for governor. Hamlin’s marriage to Ellen was a great success, and they remained closest of companions for the rest of their lives.

Hamlin’s return to the Senate, this time as a Republican, was even more successful than his first term had been. His standing was even higher with the other Senators because they respected his decision to risk his political career by leaving the well-established and powerful Democratic Party to honor his stand against slavery. Southern Democratic Senators, of course, regarded him as something of a radical.

In 1860, there had been a spirited fight for the Presidential nomination, and Abraham Lincoln had defeated a number of other candidates, including Senators Seward, Chase, Cameron and Wade. The front-runner for the nomination had been Senator Seward, but he lost the nomination to Lincoln on the third ballot. For the sake of party unity, the Vice Presidential nomination was offered to the Seward camp. When the Seward camp offered no choice for the nomination, other leading Republicans were considered.

Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky was the main Republican leader considered, but his southern state was of little help since there was no way the South was going to vote Republican, and he was considered too radical in any case. Hamlin was offered the nomination in part because he was on good terms with all of the Republican leaders, especially Seward, which would help keep the party unified during the election. Considered more moderate, he still had an outstanding anti-slavery record. He was given the nomination on the second ballot.

Hamlin had not sought the nomination, and was thoroughly surprised when he got the news that he was the new Vice Presidential nominee. The story goes that Hamlin was playing cards in his hotel room in Washington when the door burst open and the room suddenly filled with excited people. The leader of the happy throng was Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax (himself a future Vice President) who addressed Hamlin as “Mr. Vice President.”

Hamlin told the gathered Republicans that he didn’t want the office. Senator Benjamin Wade (who would later become the “Acting Vice President”) warned Hamlin that if he declined the nomination, it would give political ammunition to the Democrats who would say Hamlin was afraid to run on a loosing ticket. Hamlin realized Wade was right, and that he would have to accept the nomination.

Later, Hamlin wrote to his wife, “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.” He told her that at least the duties of the office would “not be hard or unpleasant.”

As was customary in those times, neither Lincoln nor Hamlin campaigned actively. But in a letter, Hamlin explained to Lincoln, “While I have been silent, I have never been so busy thro’ the Press and by personal effort endeavoring to strengthen weak points all along the line.” At that point in our history, Maine held its election in September due to the severe winter weather which usually set in by November. Republicans swept the Maine elections in September. In October, Hamlin went to Boston to march in a torchlight parade with Maine lumberjacks, Penobscot Indians, and Republican leaders. One of the more popular signs in these torchlight parades was one combining the names of Abraham Lincoln and Hamlin into “Abra/Hamlin/coln.”

The campaign was not all parades and parties. While southerners proclaimed Lincoln and Hamlin to be radical abolitionists, Robert Barnwell Rhett, editor of the Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury wrote that “Hamlin is what we call a mulatto. He has black blood in him.” Hamlin did have a dark complexion, but no one outside of the South took the charge seriously.

After the election, Lincoln and Hamlin met for the first time. They had both served in the House of Representatives together earlier in their careers, but neither remembered ever having met the other. They got together on November 22 in Chicago. After discussing their time in the House of Representatives, they got around to discussing the cabinet appointments. Lincoln wanted Hamlin’s help in getting Seward to accept the post of Secretary of State, which Hamlin did. Hamlin also pushed for the appointment of Gideon Welles to be Secretary of the Navy. These early dealings with Lincoln led Hamlin to believe he would play a more active role in the administration than had previous Vice Presidents. Such was not to be the case, as Hamlin soon discovered.

Hamlin was acutely aware that the Republican victory would lead to war. Shortly after the Republican victory, southern states began to secede from the Union. When asked what would happen as a result, Hamlin replied, “there’s going to be a war, and a terrible one, just a surely as the sun will rise tomorrow.”

As Vice President, Hamlin was reduced to an ineffective and powerless observer of events. What bothered him most of all was that he possessed far less power and patronage as Vice President than he had as a senator. Hamlin had always enjoyed the dispensing of patronage as the greatest joy in his political life. He was well noted for “his fidelity to political friends.” Hamlin came to regard himself as the least important man in Washington. He referred to himself as “a fifth wheel on a coach” and called the Vice President “a contingent somebody.”

Hamlin made his views on issues known to Lincoln and gave his advice when asked, which was not often. He also found presiding over the Senate extremely boring. As a senator, Hamlin had rarely missed a day when the Senate was in session. As Vice President, he was often absent, often being in Maine. As presiding officer of the Senate, Hamlin did accomplish one of his long-time goals. He banned liquor from the Senate, and it became a much more sober place.

During the war, Hamlin seemed to identify more with the radical Republicans in Congress than with President Lincoln, who took a more cautious approach than the radicals favored. Lincoln’s advisors decided that Hamlin was not in sympathy with Lincoln’s views or policies. Still, President Lincoln did not seem to hold that against Hamlin.

Hamlin had long pressed Lincoln to issue an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln feared at first that such an order freeing slaves might split the loyal border-states with slavery from the North. Eventually, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. When he had completed the draft of the document, Lincoln invited Hamlin to dinner and gave Hamlin the honor of being the first to see it. Lincoln asked Hamlin for suggestions for the final draft. Hamlin later described Lincoln as “much moved at the step he was taking.”

In 1864, Lincoln faced a tough re-election campaign. In fact, Lincoln thought it more than likely that he would lose the election, and even prepared a letter instructing his cabinet to work with the incoming administration during the lame duck period in order to win the war before the inauguration. He felt certain that the new President would have secured his election on terms that would make it impossible to continue the war after the inauguration. In order to improve their chances for re-election, the Republicans formed a new party, the National Union Party. This party was a temporary coalition between the Republicans and the pro-war Democrats.

In this difficult campaign, Hamlin brought no special strength or advantage to the ticket. Maine, and New England, would vote Democratic regardless of whether Hamlin was on the ticket or not. Lincoln needed a pro-war Democrat to honor the coalition, and preferably a southern Democrat with an eye to helping to unify the nation after the war.

Hamlin, for all his complaints about the powerlessness of the Vice Presidency, intended to stand for re-election. He thought Lincoln supported him in this and was surprised when he was dumped from the ticket in favor of southern Democrat Andrew Johnson.

During the summer, the lame duck Vice President Hamlin found something more useful to do. He joined the army. In 1861, Hamlin had joined a Coast Guard unit in Maine. The Coast Guard was not a naval unit as it is today. It was a militia type army unit whose job it was to guard the coastline. In 1864, Hamlin’s unit was called up for service, and he responded. He served for two months, starting as a private and earning a promotion to corporal. He worked in the kitchen preparing meals for his unit, and served guard duty. (As Vice President, however, he was assigned to officers’ quarters.) Hamlin could have avoided duty, but chose to serve as an example to other citizens. “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. I aspire only to be a high private in the rear ranks, and keep in step with the boys in blue.” After his tour of duty ended in early September, he campaigned for the Republican ticket in Maine, New England, New York and Pennsylvania.

At the inauguration in March 1865, incoming Vice President Andrew Johnson got drunk and made an embarrassing inauguration speech. Hamlin, in what some wags said was a bit of just revenge, was the person who provided Andrew Johnson with the whiskey on which he got drunk. Although it was in no way revenge or intentional sabotage on Hamlin’s part, he did provide Johnson with the whiskey.

Johnson was suffering from typhoid fever and from a toothache. The common remedy for a toothache was to take a gulp of whiskey and hold it on the tooth as long as possible, and then swallow it. Between the fever and the oppressive heat in the Capitol room where they waited, along with Johnson’s low tolerance to alcohol, Johnson did indeed get very drunk. What is even more ironic is that it was Hamlin who had banned liquor from the Senate, and he had to send someone out to find the whiskey.

Five weeks after the inauguration, Hamlin was in Maine when he learned that Lincoln had been assassinated. He immediately returned to Washington to attend the President’s funeral. At the White House, he stood beside his successor Andrew Johnson at the side of Lincoln’s casket. Many there noted the irony of the two men standing there and that Hamlin had missed the Presidency by a matter of mere weeks. How different history would have been had Lincoln been succeeded by Hamlin who favored the Radical Reconstruction instead of the conservative Johnson who opposed it.

After Hamlin lost his re-nomination for the Vice Presidency, Lincoln had briefly considered naming him Secretary of the Treasury (Chase had vacated the post to become Chief Justice of the United States) but Hamlin wanted to return to the Senate. Hamlin was defeated in his bid for the Senate, however, by his rival in the Maine Republican Party, William Pitt Fessenden. Again, how different history would have been. Fessenden broke with his party and voted against the removal of President Johnson during the impeachment trial in 1868. Hamlin would have almost certainly voted with the Radicals and against Johnson. Johnson won and remained in office by a margin of only one vote. Had Hamlin won instead of Fessenden, Johnson would have been removed and Senator Ben Wade would have been President.

After his defeat for the Senate, Senator Charles Sumner suggested that Hamlin be named Port Collector for the port of Boston. President Johnson made the appointment. Hamlin came to disagree more and more with Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and his lack of support and protection for the newly freed black men. As many Republican office holders resigned in protest, Hamlin, probably recognizing his political future depended on it, also resigned in protest.

In 1868, Hamlin’s name was placed in contention for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination. The nomination finally went to Schulyer Colfax (who had greeted Hamlin as “Mr. Vice President” in that hotel room in 1860). Grant and Colfax went on to win the election in 1868, and Hamlin later that year was re-elected to the Senate (replacing William Pitt Fessenden who had broken with the party by voting for Johnson in the impeachment proceedings thus ending his political career). Hamlin returned to the Senate in triumph and served two terms as a respected elder statesman.

In 1877, Hamlin collapsed in the Senate cloakroom. This was the first sign of heart disease that eventually claimed his life. He declined to run for re-election in 1880, and retired. That year, Republican James Garfield was elected President, and he in turn appointed Maine’s James G. Blaine as Secretary of State. Blaine appointed Hamlin as Minister to Spain. The position carried few duties, and Hamlin spent most of his time touring Spain at the taxpayer’s expense. He was greeted by the various foreign ministers as a man of great importance because of his tenure as Vice President. In 1882, he returned home and retired from public service.

His last public appearance was made in February 1891 at a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday at Delmonico’s in Boston. He was hailed as “The Surviving Standard-Bearer of 1860.” On July 4, 1891, Hamlin, just short of his 82nd birthday, walked to the Tarratine Club of Bangor. He had founded the club and went there every day (except Sundays) to play cards. While playing cards, he collapsed and died later that night.

Largely forgotten by popular history, Hannibal Hamlin was a highly respected and popular leader. He came very close to becoming President, and later came very close to changing history (had he been elected to the Senate instead of William Pitt Fessenden). He was quietly but largely influential in the drafting and issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and gave great service in campaigning for Lincoln’s re-election (again possibly influencing history by helping Lincoln gain re-election and preventing Southern victory in the Civil War). But the chance timing of just a few weeks left him in the shadows of popular history.