Bangor In Focus

Hannibal Hamlin

A statue honoring Hannibal Hamlin has stood at the entrance of the Kenduskeag Parkway in downtown Bangor since being erected in 1927.
As one of the first members of the Republican Party and a devoted statesman for Maine in the U.S. Congress, Hannibal Hamlin was among the first in a long line of strong-willed Mainers who have climbed the ladder of political prominence despite coming from an otherwise politically insignificant state.

Born on Aug. 27, 1809, in Paris Hill, Maine, to Cyrus Hamlin -- a physician -- and Anna Livermore Hamlin, Hannibal Hamlin worked on the family farm before studying law and gaining admission to the Maine bar in 1833. That same year, Hamlin married Sarah Emery.

With his license to practice law, Hamlin became the attorney for Hampden, a bedroom community of Bangor on the Queen City's southern line.

He began his political career two years later, in 1835, when he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives as a Democrat. Respected for his ability to maintain connections and get things done, Hamlin ascended to the speaker's chair in 1838. As a member of the Legislature, Hamlin fought to abolish the death penalty in Maine, an effort that did not pay off until the late 1880s when the Legislature outlawed the punishment after a botched public hanging.

An unsuccessful bid in 1840 to represent Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives didn't deter Hamlin, for he ran again, and won, in 1843. (The election had been delayed so the congressional districts could be redrawn after the 1840 census.)

Five years later, Hamlin won election to the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy. The Maine Legislature elected him to a full term in 1851. He developed important ties with his Senate colleagues, earning him respect and giving him prominent stature from a rural state that had gained its independence from Massachusetts only 28 years earlier.

Hamlin strongly opposed the Democratic Party's support for slavery, but he refrained from leaving the party. In April 1856, Hamlin's wife died from tuberculosis.

Members of the newly formed Republican Party, which opposed slavery, urged Hamlin to switch parties and run for governor. But Hamlin felt he could serve the state better in Washington. Only when the Republicans promised to return him to the U.S. Senate did he agree to resign from the Democratic Party and run for governor as a Republican. He quit the Democratic Party on June 12, 1856, with sharp parting words for his former Democratic colleagues. In September, he married his dead wife's half-sister, Ellen, and won the gubernatorial race.

Hamlin's stint as governor was short-lived, though. After being sworn in on Jan. 8, 1857, Hamlin resigned on Feb. 25, 1857, to return to the U.S. Senate, this time as a Republican, to fill a vacancy.

Hamlin in his younger years.
Hamlin's resignation from the Democratic Party in favor of the new Republican Party caught the attention of many in Washington who already respected Hamlin's fortitude. His defection showed the extent of his disdain for slavery and his willingness to risk his political career by leaving a well-established party in favor of a party with no track record. Southern Democrats, however, saw the Republican Party as radical.

Three years later, the Republicans nominated Hamlin on the second ballot to run as the party's vice presidential candidate alongside Abraham Lincoln. Because Lincoln had been born in Kentucky and hailed from Illinois, the Republicans considered Hamlin to be important for winning the White House because he was from the Northeast.

Hamlin didn't want the vice presidential nomination. In fact, he did not learn he had won the nomination until a group of colleagues interrupted a card game he had been playing at his hotel room to tell him.

"I neither expected it or desired it," Hamlin wrote to his wife, Ellen. "But it has been made and as a faithful man to the cause, it leaves me no alternative but to accept it."

The "cause," of course, was the abolition of slavery.

Hamlin and Lincoln never even met each other until after they won the election. Hamlin predicted astutely that the Republican ticket's win would lead to civil war.

"There's going to be a war, and a terrible one, just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow," Hamlin said.

Between his win with Lincoln and their March inauguration, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded from the Union.

No longer a senator, Hamlin found himself disillusioned soon after becoming vice president. He represented nobody for the first time in his political career, and he had no opportunities to voice his opinions or have a direct hand in formulating policy. Lincoln rarely turned to Hamlin for advice, and when Hamlin offered it, Lincoln held back. Hamlin urged Lincoln to issue an emancipation proclamation immediately, but Lincoln held off, fearing that doing so would create discord in the Northern states and fracture the Union. Only when the war took a turn for the worse did Lincoln issue the proclamation, some scholars believe to invigorate the Union states into giving their fight extra meaning.

After deciding it time to issue the proclamation, Lincoln met with Hamlin and showed him a draft before anybody else. Hamlin is said to have suggested revisions, but it isn't known how much of an influence his suggestions had on Lincoln's final draft.

While the strife between the North and South catapulted Hamlin to the vice presidency, the resulting civil war led to Hamlin's being left off the Republican ticket for re-election. The Northern Republicans sought to assuage their differences with bitter Southern Democrats by replacing Hamlin with a Southerner -- Andrew Johnson, from Tennessee.

Senate Secretary John W. Forney consoled Hamlin, telling him: "You know how it is, with the prince of Wales of the heir apparent. He is waiting for somebody to die, and that is all of it."

Shortly before the 1864 election, Hamlin was called to active duty in the Coast Guard when his Maine unit was ordered to report to Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine, that summer for training. Hamlin could have excused himself from the training assignment, but his sense of duty compelled him to report to Fort McClary. There, he trained alongside the other men. When training ended, Hamlin hit the campaign trail for Lincoln and Johnson.

Only weeks after leaving the vice presidency, Hamlin learned of Lincoln's assassination when he returned to Bangor on April 15, 1865, from a trip. Incidentally, one of Hamlin's daughters was at Ford's Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Hamlin quickly returned to Washington to stand alongside Johnson at Lincoln's funeral.

As Lincoln's successor, Johnson appointed Hamlin collector of the port of Boston. Hamlin later resigned in protest of Johnson's Reconstruction policies after the Civil War at the urgings of his closest Republican colleagues.

The couch that Hamlin died on is on display on the second floor of the Bangor Public Library.

Not content with private life, Hamlin returned to the U.S. Senate in 1868 to serve two more terms before declining to run for re-election in 1880 because of a weak heart. His last duty as a public servant came in 1881, when Secretary of State James G. Blaine -- a Mainer -- convinced President Garfield to name Hamlin minister to Spain. Hamlin held the position for two years.

Upon returning from Spain, Hamlin retired from public life to his home in Bangor, where he had bought an Italianate mansion in 1851 at 15 Fifth St., on the west side of the city. He died July 4, 1891, while playing cards at the Tarratine Club, which he founded. He was 81.

Today, the president of the Bangor Theological Seminary lives at the Hamlin mansion; Hamlin's son, Hannibal E., gave the estate to the seminary in 1933. Hamlin is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, on the State Street side. A statue depicting the statesman in a cape with a determined yet compassionate and understanding look graces Kenduskeag Parkway in downtown Bangor between Central and State streets.