Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Hannibal Hamlin (1861–1865)

Hannibal Hamlin was born in Paris Hill, Maine, on August 27, 1809. His father was a doctor and a farmer but Hannibal’s education was limited because of financial restraints. He had to cut school short in order to help on the family farm when his older brother was ill and then when his father died. To help support his family, he worked as a surveyor and a teacher. Finally, he began to study law with a firm in Portland, Maine, and was mentored by Samuel Fessenden, an outspoken antislavery activist. Hamlin was eventually admitted to the bar in 1833 and opened his own law practice in Hampden, Maine, where he also served as the town attorney. That same year, he married Sarah Jane Emery, and they eventually had four children.

Hamlin entered politics when he was first elected to the Maine state House of Representatives in 1835. As a Jacksonian Democrat who strongly opposed slavery, he served in state government until he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1843. In the House, he supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery from spreading into any territory acquired from Mexico. However, the bill died in the Senate. Hamlin retired from the House in 1847, and the next year, when Maine’s sitting senator died in office, the state legislature elected Hamlin to replace him.

Hamlin originally entered the U.S. Senate as a Democrat but he was one of the few Democrats to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act because he did not want slavery to spread into the territories. He renounced his affiliation with the Democratic Party in 1856 and served in the Senate until 1857 when he resigned to run for governor. Although he had no great interest in becoming governor, he made a deal with the newly formed Republican Party to run for governor if he could then return to the U.S. Senate. He won the governorship, which was a major boost for the Republican Party, and assumed office in January 1857 but he resigned in February to return to the U.S. Senate.

After Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party nomination for President in 1860, the party turned to Hamlin as the vice presidential candidate because he had strong antislavery, pro-Union credentials and he was from the Northeast, which helped geographically balance the ticket. Lincoln and Hamlin did not meet in person until after they won the election when Lincoln asked Hamlin for advice on choosing cabinet members. After Lincoln took office and even with the outbreak of the Civil War, however, Hamlin had almost no role in the administration, as was common for this period in history.

Hamlin despised his new position as vice president. He missed being part of the political process and controlling patronage but felt it was his duty to serve. He also found presiding over the Senate boring and was frequently absent. Still he was disappointed when the Republican Party dropped him from the ticket in 1864. Since Maine was sure to vote Republican whether Hamlin was on the ticket, the party wanted to widen its appeal and chose Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Hamlin missed becoming President by just a few weeks after Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. Many have wondered how Reconstruction would have been different if Hamlin, a supporter of Radical Reconstruction, had assumed the presidency instead of Johnson.

President Johnson appointed Hamlin collector of the port of Boston but Hamlin later resigned in protest over Johnson’s policies. He was again elected to the U.S. Senate in 1869 and served until he chose not to run for reelection in 1880. President Garfield then appointed him minister of Spain, and he served in Europe until he retired in 1882. Hamlin died on July 4, 1891.