Hannibal Hamlin Biography

U.S. Vice President, U.S. Representative(1809–1891)
Hannibal Hamlin was a 19th century U.S. senator who became the country’s 15th vice president, serving under Abraham Lincoln.

Synopsis

Born on August 27, 1809, in Paris Hill, Maine, Hannibal Hamlin went on to become a U.S. senator who maintained an anti-slavery platform. Switching over to the Republican Party, he was chosen to serve as vice president under Abraham Lincoln, and pushed for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Hamlin later supported Radical Reconstruction and opposed Andrew Johnson’s policies.

Background

Hannibal Hamlin was born on August 27, 1809, in Paris Hill, Maine, to Cyrus Hamlin and Anna Livermore. Named after his uncle, who was in fact named after Hannibal of ancient Carthage, Hamlin was an athletic and intellectual youngster who attended Hebron Academy, a preparatory school in Hebron, Maine. He eventually went on to study law under the tutelage of Samuel C. Fessenden, an abolitionist who would greatly influence Hamlin’s politics. In 1833, after starting his own practice, Hamlin wed Sarah Jane Emery.

Early Political Life

Hamlin, a Democrat, was elected to his home state’s House of Representatives in 1835. He went on to win a seat to the U.S. House in 1842 and was elected to the Senate six years later, all the while maintaining an anti-slavery platform.

A man of manners, Hamlin had an excellent congressional attendance record and was disturbed by the amount of drinking and crude behavior that went on during the Senate’s daily sessions. He would eventually take measures to ban alcoholic consumption from the congressional floor.

In 1856, after his state’s Democratic Party had split into factions over the issue of slavery and prohibition, Hamlin was wooed by the Republican Party to run for the governorship of Maine. Hamlin switched parties and won the election, but only served as governor for a little more than a month before leaving the position in early 1857, preferring to return to his Senate seat.

Hamlin was dealing with personal turmoil during this period, as well. His wife, Sarah Jane, had died of tuberculosis in 1856. Later that year, the politician married his late wife’s half-sister, Ellen, with whom he would remain until his death.

Serving as Vice President

Due to his political record, Hamlin ended up receiving the Republican nomination for vice president during Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1860. Hamlin initially didn’t want the job, but was encouraged to take it by a colleague who feared that a refusal would only fuel more attacks from the Democrats. After Lincoln won the election, Vice President Hamlin was able to competently advise the president on the selection of staff.

With the Civil War under way, Hamlin was galled by the loss of power he experienced as vice president compared to his senator days, and as such felt more like a political spectator presiding over Congress than someone who could influence legislation. He and Lincoln also didn’t always see eye to eye.

Still, Hamlin continued to serve as counsel on important issues. He was among those who advised Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation to end southern slavery, though the president initially saw the move as being too potentially divisive among northerners. Lincoln issued the proclamation in 1862, once he understood its strategic usefulness.

With Lincoln’s re-election campaign under way in 1864, he decided not to push for Hamlin as his running mate, selecting southern Democrat Andrew Johnson instead. Though Hamlin went along quietly with the decision, he was hurt by the chain of events, having left his Senate seat to take a position he didn’t want only to be ultimately let go. Nonetheless, he helped with Lincoln’s campaign and briefly served as part of the Union’s armed forces. (He had enlisted years earlier, and his unit was called to active duty in the summer of 1864.)

A Radical Reconstructionist

Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Andrew Johnson became president and appointed Hamlin to be collector for the port of Boston. The two had strong ideological differences, however. Hamlin favoring a Radical Reconstruction agenda in the South that guaranteed the rights of freed African Americans. In contrast, Johnson took a conciliatory approach with former members of the Confederacy, vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and opposing the 14th Amendment, which would institute black citizenship. Hamlin resigned from his Boston post in disagreement with Johnson’s policies, and was re-elected to the Senate in 1869, serving two terms.

Suffering from heart disease in his later years, Hamlin chose not to run for the Senate again in 1880. He was instead made a diplomat to Spain—an office that was less strenuous in its duties—and officially retired from political life in 1882. He died on July 4, 1891, in Bangor, Maine, at the age of 81.

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