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Dear Walter

Illustration by Tom Bachtell

Illustration by Tom Bachtell

Dear Reader,

Please send your Missives and Queries regarding the Newberry, the Humanities, or this season of Modern Existence generally construed. I shall have my intern-amanuensis, Henry, submit my Reply with a haste that would shame Atalanta. I may be reached, through the ghostly conduit you call “EMAIL,” at dearwalter@newberry.org, or through recourse to a special “WEBFORM.”

Sincerely yours, Walter L. Newberry

Hamlin: The Musical That Never Was

Dear Walter:

A friend recently asked me what I knew about Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president. “Andrew Johnson?” I replied. “No, Hannibal Hamlin.” Who?! Hamlin was indeed Lincoln’s first vice president. His term ended 42 days before Lincoln was assassinated, and, instead of becoming president, Hamlin was relegated to being a historical footnote. What do you know about Almost President Hannibal Hamlin?

—Brian Treglown, Chicago, IL

My Dear Brian,

Allow me a fleeting moment of Whimsy so that I may posit a fanciful Notion to which I promise to return. Perhaps from the Embers of the raging Fire stoked by Hamilton will arise, like a Great Phoenix, a new Musical Entertainment based upon a Revisionist journey into our Nation’s past. Lin-Manuel Miranda, impress upon the theater-crazed Public the story of Hannibal Hamlin so that they may “KNOW HIS NAME.” Think not of Hamilton, but of Hamlin!

In these Modern Times, nominees for the American Presidency decide their Vice Presidential “RUNNING MATES” with a degree of focus and calculation characteristic less of Politics than of Non-Euclidean Geometry. After all, a candidate whose resume boasts the perfectly calibrated blend of temperament, geographic origin, and jawline definition just might “SWING AN ELECTION.” Or perhaps not! Perchance a Vice President, living in the Shadow of the Presidential candidate, can exert only an influence which is so negligible as to be virtually nonexistent.

The matter of Vice Presidential influence divides so-called experts into positions as polarized as the Electorate itself.

Were there ever a time when one could aver the impact of RUNNING-MATE selection without controversy, the time would, in my humble estimation, have occurred in the antebellum period of our nation’s history. This was a time of great political fissures and realignments—a time in which a ticket composed of truly complementary parts attained the power to nurture a new political party (in a fashion not dissimilar to that of a Wet Nurse), giving it the strength to sustain itself during a vulnerable state of infancy.

Take, for example, the Subject of your Inquiry: the Republican “STANDARD BEARERS” of 1860. Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, together, provided the fledgling Republican Party a net capacious enough to ensnare a significant share of Votes. Lincoln, hailing from the Hinterlands of the United States, was perceived by many to hold moderate opinions on slavery, the central issue of the day. Hamlin, by contrast, was an urbane East Coast Gentleman with a more radical reputation among his peers.

Lincoln and Hamlin emerged victorious from the 1860 election. The rest is, as many are wont to declare, “history.” History, however, rarely unfolds without frustrating the ambitions of its mortal participants—particularly in times of Tumult and Upheaval.

In 1864, as the conclusion of our tragic Civil War (and the first term of the Lincoln Administration) drew near, the demand for reconciliation between North and South conspired against Vice President Hamlin. Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean, was deemed capable of liaising betwixt Northerners and Southerners while Washington moved to mitigate the destructive tension among Her fractious States. The specter of “RECONSTRUCTION” looming hopefully if tenuously, Republican leaders cast their votes to replace Hamlin with Johnson.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson acceded to the presidency—mere months removed from his predecessor’s second inauguration. The line of presidential succession, once enacted, created as one of its byproducts a bitter irony: Hannibal Hamlin, the man who had loyally served as Vice President during his country’s darkest hour, had narrowly missed becoming President himself.

Thus, I cannot refrain from pondering a most vexing question: In this year of Hamilton-induced mania, what Productions might we thrill to had Hannibal Hamlin—casualty of history, plaything of Destiny—ascended to the highest American Office? Might the theater-crazed Public clamor not for Hamilton but for Hamlin? Perhaps they might still…

Comments

As the great-great-great grandson of Hannibal Hamlin the VP, I am delighted at the prospect of a musical about my ancestor. I have talked about him to a number of historians, professional and amateur, and I have never heard anyone suggest that the course of American history would NOT have been better if he had been Lincoln's second VP instead of Johnson. His origins, I should point out, were not all that different from Lincoln's. His family was better off, to be sure, but Maine was still a hinterland too (like the western states where Lincoln grew up). He attended Hebron Academy but never went to university, having to tend the family farm after his older brother got sick. Hamlin kept a farm all his life, returning to real (not pastoral) agricultural work in breaks from his work in Washington. He learned the law as an apprentice, and became an attorney in the small town of Hampden. Though he began in local politics as a Democrat, in 1856, when he was a US Senator for Maine, he crossed the floor to join the new Republican party on the issue of slavery. Hamlin was staunchly anti-slavery all his life. Friends of the Newberry might also be interested to know that Hamlin loved the theater, especially Shakespeare, and knew the acting Booth family somewhat from theater-going in DC. Hamlin's daughter and one of his sons were attending Ford's Theater the night John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. I think this could be a great show!
Hamlin is well known in Maine. Had an office in Hampden, Maine. Is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine.

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