Hannibal Hamlin: Forgotten Man of the Lincoln Administration

Friday, March 28, AD 2014

Thomas E. Marshall, Vice-President under Wilson, summed up the historical fate of most Vice-Presidents in this joke he used to tell:  There were two brothers.  One was lost at sea and one became Vice-President.  Neither were heard from again.  That was certainly the case with Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first Vice-President.  In an administration where almost everything has been examined endlessly by tens of thousands of historians with magnifying glasses, Hamlin is a complete void.  At the time Hamlin knew that he simply did not count in the Administration, although Lincoln was cordial on the rare occasions they met.  I am the fifth wheel of a coach is how Hamlin described his non-role in shaping the affairs of the nation during his term as Vice-President.

The most prominent politician from Maine, both before and after his term as Vice-President, perhaps Hamlin regretted his four years in political oblivion as Lincoln’s Veep.

Hamlin began his political career in 1836 when he won election to Maine’s house of representatives as a Democrat.  Serving in the Federal House of Representatives in 1843-47.  Appointed to serve out a term in the US Senate in 1848, Hamlin elected to a full term in his own right in 1851.  In 1856 he became a national celebrity when he broke with the Democrat party over slavery, and joined the Republicans.  Elected as a Republican as Governor of Maine in 1856 and  serving briefly, he resigned to take up a seat next year as a Republican, being one of the few members of the Senate to serve in that body as both a Democrat and a Republican.

He was placed on the Presidential ticket for regional balance and for the fame he had won as a former Democrat who left the party over slavery, a natural vote getter among anti-slavery Democrats.  Hamlin and Lincoln did not meet for the first time until after the election.  During the campaign Democrats spread the rumor that Hamlin was a mulatto.  Hamlin did have a swarthy complexion, but there was no truth in the allegation.  The same charge was made against Lincoln, racism being a weapon wielded freely by Democrats in both 1861 and 1864.

Hamlin as Veep advocated Emancipation and the use of black troops.  Less presciently, he also supported placing Fighting Joe Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac.  Hamlin was left off the ticket in 1864 in order to broaden the ticket.  Hamlin was firmly associated now with the radical wing of the Republican Party, and Lincoln believed that a War Democrat would be a better choice in what was likely to be a close contest.  Andrew Johnson thus ultimately became President and Hamlin missed his opportunity to be something other than an historical footnote.

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5 Responses to Hannibal Hamlin: Forgotten Man of the Lincoln Administration

Vice-Presidents of the United States

Thursday, February 23, AD 2012

Ah, the occupants of an office which is only of importance upon the death of someone!  Many of the men who have occupied the office have left some pungent quotes about it.  Here are a few:

John Adams, first Vice-President:   “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth Vice-President:  “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president.”

Thomas Marshall, twenty-eighth Vice-President:  “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again”.

Charles Dawes, thirtieth Vice-President:  “This is a hell of a job. I can only do two things: one is to sit up here and listen to you birds talk….The other is to look at newspapers every morning to see how the president’s health is.”

John Nance Garner, thirty-second Vice-President:  “The vice-presidency is not worth a warm bucket of spit.”  (Cactus Jack probably used another term instead of “spit”, but this is a family blog.)

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13 Responses to Vice-Presidents of the United States

  • Hate to be a nitnoid, but Henry Wallace was the 33rd Veep.

  • I always appreciate factual corrections Dale. Truman of course was the thirty-third president as well as being the thirty-fourth vice-president, and that threw me apparently I suppose. Additionally, there are fewer US vice-presidents more deserving of historical oblivion than Henry Wallace! The nation dodged a bullet in that FDR’s health held out just long enough to make certain that the Stalin sympathizing Wallace was back in private life by the time that FDR was wheeled off the stage. To be fair, shortly before Stalin died, Wallace did publicly recant his previous positive misconceptions about the Soviet Union, even writing a book about how wrong he had been, and reversed wheels politically, endorsing the re-election of Eisenhower in 1956.

  • This also serves as a useful reminder that for all the attention we pay the Veep selection, the guy who gets the nod will be slightly less relevant than the head of HUD.

  • Yes and no, Paul. Four of the nine quoted above became presidents, three of them in the most unfortunate way. It’s a reminder why the best teams pay a fortune to the backup quarterback that they hope never takes a snap.

  • it is indeed rather a peculiarity of the Vice Presidency that the only regular constitutional action for which the Vice President is absolutely essential is opening the envelopes for Electoral College votes.

  • Doesn’t the VP enjoy equally irrelevant status as President Pro Tem of the Senate unless he casts a tie-breaking vote?

    That might actually have impact sometimes. Algore cast the tie-breaking vote to tax elderly Social Security benefits who earn as little as $22,000 per year in 1993.

  • WK — he’s actually the President of the Senate; the President Pro Tem is the guy who does the honors when the VP’s not there. In actual fact, neither has to do much — standard Senate practice is for the President Pro Tem to delegate the position to junior Senators so that they’ll get practice with the rules and procedures, and the only explicit constitutional power is the tie-breaking one. There have been VP’s who actually did a lot in the position — a lot of Senate procedure was developed under the influence of the early VP’s — and some important ties broken; but you’re certainly right that it’s mostly irrelevant — the Senate can perform almost all its business without him. (It’s also useful in that it makes it easier for the Office of the President to have an influence on legislation, though.)

    There have also been Vice Presidents who never attended a Cabinet meeting (that’s at the President’s discretion; the VP has no more a guaranteed right to attend than the First Lady). I always find it fascinating: it’s a government position whose only major function is to assist at making things run smoothly — organizing the Senate, serving as a back-up, making sure Electoral College certificates are in order, etc.

  • Of course – my High School civics slipped for a bit. It is an interesting position, as long as you don’t actually call it yours.

  • PZ: one irrelevant head of HUD, namely Andrew Cuomo, helped wreck the US economy.

    The duties of VP are to inquire daily as to the president’s health and to attend state funerals. They “robo-sign” electoral certificates.

  • A little over a week ago, I took a rather unusual step for a vice-president – I said something.” – Spiro T Agnew.

    As I recall, Spiro T……WHO?? 😉 had quite a bit to say.

    The quote of his that really sticks in my mind was when he called the peace movement emblem an “Encircled crow’s foot.”

  • An even more useless office, most (but not all) of the time, is the state-level counterpart of the Veep, the lieutenant governor or “lite guv”. Some states don’t even bother having one; they simply designate the secretary of state or some other official as the first in line of succession if something should happen to their governor. In the early 1980s one of Illinois’ lite guvs quit the job, claiming that he had (literally) nothing to do. (His boss was not in imminent danger of death, disability or indictment at the time either.)

  • Fun! My favorites were Agnew and Lyndon Johnson.

The Veepstakes: Who Cares?

Thursday, December 22, AD 2011

The other day Pat Archbold wrote a post lamenting that Condoleeza Rice may be positioning herself for a run at the Vice Presidential nomination.  Though I agree with Patrick that she would be an unacceptable choice, it’s probably nothing to worry about.  Frankly it just seemed as though the Washington Times was attempting to make a story out of nothing.

It did prompt me to think about the attention that gets paid to Vice Presidential selections.  What I concluded was that this decision is generally inconsequential, and it’s foolish to determine one’s vote based on this selection.

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5 Responses to The Veepstakes: Who Cares?

  • That’s probably fair analysis about how similar ideology leads to greater influence But I have little confidence in reports about who really carries weight in an administration. You don’t hear many insiders claiming responsibility for failures or saying that they had nothing to do with successes.

    Additionally, what do we mean by impact? LBJ probably didn’t talk Kennedy into anything, but handled the dealings with Congress. It’s been pretty common in recent history for a governor-turned-President to have an insider VP. Anyway, those are my first few thoughts. I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes.

  • Pinky, I was mainly thinking about having an actual impact on administration decision-making, but I hadn’t really considered other things like Congressional influence. That’s a good qualifier.

  • I think Gerald Ford had Nelson Rockefeller supervise the Domestic Policy staff at the White House and put him in charge of one very consequential commission of inquiry. Ford suggested at a later date that optimal use of the vice president would be as a chief of staff.

    Why not eliminate the position, or replace it with a set of appointive vice presidents?

  • What Ford said makes sense, although maybe the skills you’d look for in a Chief of Staff are different than those of a potential President. But does any candidate think about their VP as anything more than an election-season tactic? Maybe Clinton and W did, which is what makes their cases unique. And Paul, the main function of a veep seems to be to go to formal international events and not cause problems – which makes our current vice-president an interesting choice, to put it mildly.

  • I think the duties of the VP are daily to inquire as to the health of the Pres, and to attend state funerals. Otherwise, he’s the president of the Senate and casts a vote if there is a deadlock.

    Don’t trust my memory. It’s a long time since I was in high school. However, in those days they taught facts not ideology.

    They chose Blithering Joe Biden either because he could deliver the Electoral College votes of Delaware; or because they were fairly assured that he would make the zero look like a super star.