Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Lincoln Bicentennial

August 27 was always an important date in my family. As I have observed elsewhere, today was my mother's birthday.

She was born and raised in Texas, where August 27 actually is a legal state holiday, although it wasn't one when she was a child and it probably comes and goes today without the knowledge of many state employees. You see, August 27 was Lyndon Johnson's birthday. After Johnson's death, the state legislature created a holiday on his birthday. It is optional, and state offices do not close for it. In fact, much of today's workforce probably would not recognize Johnson's name.

Elsewhere, I guess, August 27 isn't a very significant day. But, since we observed the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln earlier this year, it seems to me that someone needs to point out that today is the 200th birthday of Lincoln's first vice president — Hannibal Hamlin.

Hamlin is kind of a nondescript figure in American history. He and Lincoln didn't even meet each other until after they were elected. His is not a household name, but Hamlin was the charter member of a very exclusive club — a politician from the state of Maine who was on a major party national ticket. In fact, I guess you could say he belongs to an even more exclusive club — politicians from Maine who were elected to a national office.

In 1860, he was elected the first vice president from the Republican Party. Apparently, he was a skilled orator and a vocal opponent of slavery, and he would have become president following Lincoln's assassination if he had been renominated in 1864. But that year, Lincoln ran under the banner of the National Union Party, which was a coalition of Republicans loyal to Lincoln and Northern Democrats, plus a few Southern Democrats. The National Union Party chose Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee, to be Lincoln's running mate. Lincoln's attention was on postwar Reconstruction, and he believed a Southerner like Johnson could help him with that.

In hindsight, it might have been better if Hamlin had been allowed to run for re–election with Lincoln. A few years after Lincoln's assassination, Johnson, of course, was impeached by the House and then acquitted by a single vote in the Senate trial.

Presidential candidate Jame Blaine was the next Mainer to be nominated for national office. He lost to Grover Cleveland in a bitterly contested election in 1884. Blaine and many of his supporters believed their defeat was due to a narrow loss in New York, where, shortly before the election, a Protestant minister used the controversial phrase "rum, Romanism and rebellion" to summarize what Democrats stood for — rum being a reference to the liquor interests, Romanism being a reference to Catholics (then, as now, a sizable constituency in New York) and rebellion being a reference to the Confederacy.

That was also the campaign in which it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, leading to the famous Republican chant, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Even so, Cleveland became the only Democrat to win the presidency in the late 19th century. When he won the election, jubilant Democrats added the line "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

A man named Arthur Sewall was the next Mainer to be nominated by his party for national office. He was a Democrat who never held office but was a member of the Democratic National Committee in the 1880s and 1890s. William Jennings Bryan picked him as his running mate in 1896. The Bryan—Sewall ticket was beaten by William McKinley, and Sewall's name was largely forgotten for more than a century — until he was mentioned by the St. Louis Post–Dispatch in its endorsement of Barack Obama last year.

The Post–Dispatch told its readers that John McCain was guilty of "selecting the least qualified running mate since the Swedenborgian shipbuilder Arthur Sewall ran as William Jennings Bryan's No. 2 in 1896." That probably sent more than a few history students — and their teachers — scurrying for their history books, wondering Who the heck was Arthur Sewall?

Bonus points are in order if you know (without looking it up) what Swedenborgian means.

The newspaper's endorsement seems to have been ignored by the voters. Missouri voted for McCain.

The most recent Mainer on a national ticket (unless I have overlooked someone) was Edmund Muskie, who was chosen to be Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968. The Humphrey–Muskie ticket lost a close election to Richard Nixon, with independent segregationist George Wallace carrying five states and threatening, at one point, to send the selection of the next president to the House of Representatives.

Anyway, Hamlin is the only politician from Maine who has ever been elected vice president. He died on Independence Day in 1891.

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