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“Hannibal Hamlin: The First Mainer To Serve As Vice President”

2009 is the bicentennial of the birth of one of America's greatest leaders, President Abraham Lincoln. It also marks the 200th birthday of the Mainer that President Lincoln chose to serve as his first Vice President during America's greatest time of trial, Hannibal Hamlin.

Hamlin was born on August 27, 1809, in the village of Paris Hill, now part of Paris, the shiretown of Oxford County. He was one of seven children born to Dr. Cyrus and Ann Hamlin, a couple devoted to education and to building their community. Their influence is seen throughout Hamlin's long life of service to our state and our nation.

As a boy, young Hannibal was an outstanding scholar, balancing his studies at Hebron Academy with hard work on the family farm. In 1829, he enrolled at Columbia to pursue his goal of becoming a lawyer. The next spring, however, his father died suddenly, leaving the family with severely diminished finances. Hamlin voluntarily withdrew from college to allow his brother, Elijah, to continue his studies. He returned home to manage the farm and to support his family.

Hamlin continued to study law as an apprentice and became a practicing attorney, but he soon found his true calling in public service. In 1836, he was elected to the Maine Legislature, where his intellect and energy accelerated his rise to the position of Speaker of the House. In 1848, Hamlin was elected to the United States Senate. In 1856, he became a founding member of the Republican Party, which formed in opposition to the failure of the Democrats and Whigs to stop the spread of slavery in the new states of the West.

Although a staunch foe of slavery, Senator Hamlin demonstrated a great ability to work with Southern Senators on other issues. When the GOP held its convention in 1860 to choose its presidential slate, Hamlin was an early and vigorous supporter of Abraham Lincoln, in whom he saw the character and abilities needed in that time of crisis. Lincoln saw those same qualities in Hamlin and selected him to be his vice-presidential nominee. It was hoped that Hamlin's good relationships with Southern Senators would prevent secession and avoid the tragedy of war.

That tragedy was not to be avoided, but Hamlin's contributions to saving the nation were vital. Many historians believe that his influence helped keep the border slave states of Maryland and Kentucky in the Union. Had those states seceded, our nation's capital in Washington would have been completely surrounded by the Confederacy and the Ohio River, the key to the West, would have been cut off.

As Vice President, Hamlin's contributions were many. President Lincoln greatly respected Hamlin and sought his advice on a host of key issues, including the formation of his great "Team of Rivals" cabinet. Hamlin was among the first to recognize the unique talents of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and urged his elevation to the heights of command. In the summer of 1862, President Lincoln consented to Hamlin's persistent urgings to issue an Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, and some scholars believe the two men huddled together at the Soldiers' Home in Washington to perfect that landmark document.

One of the great unanswered questions of history is why President Lincoln did not keep Hamlin by his side for his second term. Certainly, it had nothing to do with any strained relationship between the two - they were utterly devoted to each other. The most likely explanation is that, with the tide of the Civil War turning in the Union's favor, President Lincoln thought the anti-slavery Tennessean Andrew Johnson would be better positioned to heal the wounds of the Civil War. Johnson's incompetence and vindictive nature revealed that to be a terrible mistake. There is no doubt that Hamlin's inherent kindness and principles would have brought about the Reconstruction Lincoln envisioned in his Second Inaugural Address: a nation restored "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

After the inauguration, Hamlin returned quietly to Maine. In April of 1865, he was walking along a street in Bangor when he heard the news of President Lincoln's assassination. Though stricken with grief, he rushed back to Washington to attend the funeral.

Hamlin's retirement was brief. Always looking for ways to serve, he led the effort to establish a state college at Orono, laying the groundwork for the University of Maine, and helped establish a railroad line to Moosehead Lake. In 1868, he actively supported the election of President Grant and re-gained his former seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served for 12 more years, establishing an unsurpassed record of legislative accomplishment and earning the affectionate title of "Father of the Senate." He concluded his public career by serving as President Garfield's Ambassador to Spain.

The depth of his affection for Abraham Lincoln was revealed at his last public speech, delivered in February of 1891 in New York City. He urged the creation of a national holiday in President Lincoln's honor and predicted that the Gettysburg Address "will be taught by our mothers to their children, and it will stand as a gem of English literature in all the ages that shall come."

Less than five months later, on his favorite day of the year - the Fourth of July -- Hannibal Hamlin walked to the Tarratine Club, which he created, in Bangor for his favorite pastime of playing cards with friends. He clutched his heart and fell to the floor. A life devoted to service and to our nation's highest ideals had come to an end. Today, a statue in his honor stands in downtown Bangor.

The 200th anniversary of the beginning of Hamlin's remarkable life is the perfect time to pay tribute to someone who gave so much to our state and our nation. On Saturday, August 22, The Hamlin Memorial Library on Paris Hill Road in Paris will mark the day with events honoring his life The people of Maine are proud of Hannibal Hamlin's service to our country.