Two hundred years after his birth, the question of why Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine, was replaced as Lincoln’s vice president retai
By Matthew Simmons
Image Courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine
August 27 marks the two-hundredth birthday of Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president and one of America’s greatest public servants, but instead of an outpouring of honors, this bicentennial seems poised to go largely uncelebrated. Had a quirk of fate not kept the Maine native from being re-nominated to the Republican ticket in 1864, he would have become president following Lincoln’s assassination. And while we can never know for certain, it’s likely Hamlin would have followed through on his predecessor’s passionate efforts to heal the wounds of the war “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Instead, America inherited one of its worst presidents, Andrew Johnson, who set the stage for generations of difficulties during and after Reconstruction.
So who was Hamlin, and why has his name faded into near obscurity? An 1899 biography, The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin, written by his grandson Charles Eugene Hamlin, offers an alternative history of the rise and fall of this influential yet undervalued Maine politician.
The descendent of some of Maine’s first settlers, Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris Hill in 1809 and attended Hebron Academy. His years of public service began when, as a practicing attorney, he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1836. Hamlin quickly rose to the distinguished role of Speaker of the House, a position he held for three consecutive terms.
In 1848 Hamlin was elected U.S. Senator from Maine. While he was an ardent believer in abolishing slavery, he managed his passion well and was one of the relatively few senators from the north who had the ability to reason with many of his key southern counterparts, including Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hert Preston, and Daniel Webster.
Hamlin began his political career as a Democrat, but as slavery continued to spread west, he left the party and joined the newly formed Republicans in 1856 as one of its founding members. When the GOP held its convention in Chicago to select its 1860 presidential slate, Hamlin attended and was an active supporter of Abraham Lincoln, whom he did not personally know but deeply respected as having extraordinary oratorical talent and keen political instinct. Sensing the need for a strong leader on the eve of war, Hamlin delivered the key Maine delegation in favor of Lincoln.
Hamlin did not participate in the debate over who should be selected as Lincoln’s running mate. In fact, he did not even attend the voting process. Thus, he was surprised when a delegation from the convention came to his hotel room to inform him that the Republican Party’s first vice presidential candidate was none other than himself. The only other nominee to receive any votes for this post was Cassius M. Clay from Kentucky — the second cousin of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and a prominent abolitionist.
Up to this time, the role of vice president had not been deemed important, other than to stand by if the incumbent president became suddenly incapacitated. Aside from Martin Van Buren — who served as vice president under Andrew Jackson and was a strong Jackson supporter and friend — most vice presidents had fair to mediocre relations with the men under whom they served. Often, they were bitter political rivals. The vice president was not even a member of the president’s Cabinet. His only real role was to ceremoniously preside over the Senate and cast his vote in the event of a tie.
After the Republican ticket prevailed in the bitterly fought election of 1860, Lincoln sent a letter to Hamlin in Maine on November 8, 1860, suggesting a meeting in Chicago at his earliest convenience. Hamlin arrived in the city fourteen days later. Just as they began their serious discussions, news that the vice president-elect was meeting with President-elect Lincoln at the Tremont House spread and a large crowd gathered to celebrate the event.
To escape, the two men moved their meeting venue to a friend’s estate the next day and ended up spending almost the entire week together. Lincoln actively sought Hamlin’s advice on several key Cabinet choices and effectively gave Hamlin veto power on which New Englanders would be asked to join the administration. Seeking such advice from a newly elected vice president was highly unusual.
Lincoln found Hamlin pleasing to be around and quickly grew to value his quiet and often dispassionate advice. At their first meeting, Lincoln reportedly said, “Mr. Hamlin, I desire to say to you that I shall accept and always be willing to accept, in my very best spirit, any advice that you, the vice president, may give me.” Hamlin’s years of service in the Senate gave him unique personal knowledge about many of Lincoln’s candidates for the famed “Team of Rivals.” Since Hamlin was not an official member of Lincoln’s Cabinet, his name rarely appeared in any of the many controversial issues Lincoln faced during his first term, but the two men met frequently.
One of the most memorable events of their association occurred on June 19, 1862. Hamlin met with the president to inform him that he needed to travel from Washington, D.C., to Maine for a week or two. Lincoln asked his vice president to delay his trip for a few days and invited him to the old Soldiers’ Home that evening where they would dine and Hamlin would spend the night. The two men and their guards rode by horseback the five-mile route to the cottage at the old Soldiers’ Home grounds. (This cottage is now known as Lincoln’s Cottage. It was, in many ways, Lincoln’s “Camp David,” he and his family spent nearly 25 percent of his presidential term there.) After supper, Lincoln invited Hamlin into his library and, after locking the door, said, “Mr. Hamlin, you have repeatedly urged me to issue a proclamation of emancipation freeing the slaves. I have concluded to yield to your advice in the matter and that of other friends — at the same time, as I may say, following my own judgment. Now listen to me while I read this paper. We will correct it together as I go on.”
Hamlin made history in other ways during his vice presidency. Despite his lack of military training, Hamlin became one of the first to recognize the military genius of General Ulysses S. Grant and insisted that Grant could provide the strong leadership so lacking in many of Lincoln’s other leading commanders, including General George B. McClellan, whom Hamlin particularly disliked. He actively encouraged Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to push Grant into positions of greater responsibility. Hamlin remained a Grant supporter throughout the latter’s presidency, and they were lifelong friends.
Up until this point, the 1899 biography of Hannibal Hamlin matches more recent accounts of the time in American history. But it is the recasting of the events surrounding Lincoln’s reelection (without Hamlin) that paints a largely alternative picture. As the 1864 election neared, it was unclear whether Lincoln would even be re-nominated, let alone be able to win another term in the general election. A host of Democrats eagerly sought the job of unseating Lincoln with the intent of making peace with the South to end the awful and seemingly unwinnable war. Several key politicians within the Republican Party also jockeyed to secure the GOP nomination. At one point, according to Hamlin’s grandson, the vice president was informed that some of his supporters were beginning a movement to have him replace Lincoln as the top of the ticket. Hamlin adamantly rejected the suggestion.
But the tides of war were beginning to turn as Grant proved as effective in his military leadership as Hamlin had predicted. Thus, a move to replace Lincoln never developed into a serious effort, and when the party convened at the National Union Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, to pick its 1864 ticket, Lincoln was unanimously selected to run for a second term.
“The general belief was, until the day before the convention, that the old ticket would be re-nominated without much opposition,” says Charles Hamlin. But then, without warning, Hamlin was unceremoniously and somewhat mysteriously dropped from the ticket in favor of a little-known senator from Tennessee, Andrew Johnson.
The mystery of why Hamlin was kept off the re-election ticket, says the biographer, continued for years. Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, General Cyrus Hamlin, Hannibal’s son, urged his own son, Charles, to write a detailed biography of his grandfather to set history straight on what really happened in the summer of 1864. Far more importantly, they also hoped to document the accomplishments of a great public servant and preserve them in the nation’s memory. The two-volume, 627-page book was finally published by the Riverside Press in 1899. It is still highly readable and the source of many of the details of this story.
The biography paints an enormously flattering picture of Hannibal Hamlin, and one could easily assume his grandson simply wrote a puff piece of history, but the research is extensive and the documentation is well-cited. A review in the New York Times on April 21, 1900, praises the work: “The author’s presentation of his facts shows that the material collected from many sources, through many years of study, was well digested. It is no drawback to the interest or value of the work that it has been done by the appreciative hand of a descendant.” The story of the Lincoln-Hamlin relationship was corroborated in the book by the two men who knew the details and intricacies of Lincoln’s presidency the best, his private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, along with Noah Brooks, Albert E.H. Johnson, Josiah Drummond, and other key figures of the era. In researching the details of the controversy of how Hamlin was dropped from the ticket, Charles Hamlin personally consulted and corresponded with many surviving delegates from the Union Convention of 1864. (He also had access to his grand-father’s private correspondence, which included more than ten thousand letters.)
The theories about why Hamlin was dropped from the ticket were many, as the biography notes. Perhaps the oddest was a widespread whisper campaign in some political circles that Hamlin, who had a “swarthy dark” complexion, was, in fact, a mulatto. Another more widely believed rumor was that Hamlin’s strong “free the slaves” views would not win many border state votes and Lincoln needed a running mate from a border state. A third account was that Lincoln simply had several other men he favored above Hamlin.
In reality, while political etiquette at the time prevented a presidential candidate from actively trying to sway delegates from picking a running-mate the majority wanted, Charles Hamlin presents evidence that Lincoln quietly made it known to several of his close confidantes that he was pleased with the prospect of keeping a winning team together. B.C. Cook, part of the Illinois delegation at the time of the election, offered this recounting of the incident to the Associated Press on July 9, 1891: “I went to see Mr. Lincoln personally. Mr. Lincoln was particularly anxious not to make known his preferences on the question of his associate on the ticket. But that he had a preference I positively know. After my interview with him, I was as positive that Hannibal Hamlin was his favorite as I am that I am alive to-day.” When the convention suddenly chose someone Lincoln knew almost nothing about, the president was deeply disappointed, according to Charles Hamlin.
The theory, put forth in the biography, is as follows: The culprit was Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts. The biography maintains that Sumner created an elaborate plot to keep one of his political enemies, then-Secretary of State William H. Seward, out of Lincoln’s post-election Cabinet by promoting former New York Senator Daniel S. Dickinson to replace Hamlin as vice president. In actuality, Sumner had great respect for Hamlin and presumed he would soon be re-elected by Maine to rejoin the Senate, and hopefully end the term of another Sumner rival, Senator William Pitt Fessenden. All this scheming took place behind closed doors. It seems that neither Hamlin nor Lincoln had any idea such a plot was afoot.
Sadly, Sumner’s plan backfired. While Hamlin actually led in delegate counts through several early ballots, a push to promote Andrew Johnson arose to keep several other less-popular nominees, including Sumner’s favorite, Dickinson, from getting a majority vote. Suddenly delegates began switching their votes to Johnson. “Mr. Hamlin was cheated out of the vice presidency, and the presidency also,” says Charles Hamlin, “by the unscrupulous action of William M. Stone, then governor of Iowa. He falsified the vote of his state and turned the tide to Johnson.” And so Andrew Johnson emerged as the GOP’s 1864 vice presidential nominee.
According to Charles Hamlin, Lincoln had no illusion about Johnson. His dislike and distrust was based on his knowledge of his new vice president’s character, particularly his private habit of consorting with women of “a certain class.” While Hannibal Hamlin was surprised not to be kept on the ticket, he began cherishing a return to Maine. He was enormously relieved that the war was clearly headed to a victorious close, slavery had been abolished, and his friend and idol had been successfully re-elected.
Hannibal Hamlin’s last official act as vice president of the United States was to swear in his successor, an incident colorfully retold in the 1899 text. When Johnson staggered into his office at the U.S. Capitol, Hamlin sensed that his successor seemed quite drunk. Johnson asked if Hamlin had some liquor to calm his nerves. Hamlin replied that he had banished liquor from his office. An aide quickly brought Johnson another bottle of spirits, which he consumed before stumbling into the adjoining room where he would be sworn into office. Johnson then began mumbling in odd and incoherent talk. Hamlin’s last official act was to quietly ask his successor to sit down. President Lincoln looked aghast at this performance. It was an inauspicious start to the brief time Lincoln and Johnson would serve together.
Lincoln then proceeded to deliver his second inaugural address, which many historians think was his finest oration ever. He outlined his rationale for why God caused such a long and awful war and then issued his great plea to bind these wounds “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln had spent the past many months pondering how to quickly heal the raw wounds between the North and the South and was determined to be as fine a president as he had proved to be during the Civil War.
As Lincoln was creating his second Cabinet, he made it known that he wanted to have Mr. Hamlin remain in Washington in his council. Lincoln considered Hamlin as an ideal secretary of the treasury. Hamlin later told his son, Cyrus, that President Lincoln had called him to the White House one day and in sorrow informed him that Senator Fessenden, his fellow Mainer, had threatened political war if he should appoint Hamlin to the Cabinet.
As soon as Lincoln’s inauguration concluded, Hannibal Hamlin quietly returned to Maine. He was walking down a street in Bangor on April 15 when the awful news of Lincoln’s death reached him. He was grief-stricken and attended the funeral in Washington but did not accompany the mourners on the long train journey to Illinois.
In the early days of Hamlin’s brief retirement, he led the movement to establish a state college of agriculture and mechanical arts. He recommended this new college be located in Orono. When the University of Maine was established, Hamlin was elected as president of the board. He also helped establish a railroad line to transport vacationers to Moosehead Lake. Meanwhile, Charles Hamlin claims that Charles Sumner was conscience-stricken at the mistake he made in preventing Hamlin from being re-nominated as vice president. To atone for the error, he initiated a campaign to make Hamlin tax collector of the port of Boston. This was a prestigious post and also one of the highest paying civil jobs in the U.S. Hamlin quickly accepted the position. He undertook this new assignment in 1865.
After accepting this important post, Hamlin became increasingly alarmed at the behavior of President Andrew Johnson, who seemed eager to use his new powers to punish his critics and enemies. His plan for Reconstruction stood against everything Lincoln had espoused. Hamlin soon decided he could no longer remain silent and considered seeking Johnson’s impeachment. But, in good conscience, he could not hold a high government position while actively opposed to the president of the United States. So he resigned his tax collection position at the port.
Hamlin returned to Maine and threw his hat back into the ring to once again become a U.S. Senator. He became an active supporter in the 1868 election of General Grant and regained his old Senate seat in 1869. He served another twelve distinguished years in the Senate and upon his retirement, tied or even set a new record of sponsoring more legislation than any other public servant, according to his grandson. By the time he retired, he was chairman of the important Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
After Hamlin’s retirement from the Senate in June, 1881, President James Garfield nominated him for the post of minister to Spain, in which capacity he served from 1881 to the end of 1882. He then retired from public life to his home in Bangor. He continued, however, to be a behind-the-scenes influence in the local and state Republican Party.
Hamlin delivered his last public speech in February of 1891 in New York City where he addressed the Republican Club at Delmonico’s restaurant. In this last address, he urged America to pass a national holiday celebrating Lincoln’s birth. He predicted that the day would soon come when the profound talk Lincoln gave at Gettysburg would be required to be memorized by students as perhaps the finest oration in U.S. history.
On July 4, 1891 — a celebration day he always enjoyed immensely — Hamlin walked briskly to the Tarratine Club in Bangor to play his usual game of cards with an old friend. While playing cards, he grasped his heart, fell to the floor, and died soon thereafter. He was eighty-one years old. He had served his country for forty-five years.