Life is strange. Politics is more strange. Raised in Maine, rural values speak to me. Ironically, one is nation over party. Indulge a story as to why – in this moment – that is important.
Roughly half an hour from my fishing hole, another small town hatched a fellow named Hannibal Hamlin. The year was 1809. In time, Hamlin – a Democrat – became a member of Congress, then the US Senate.
However, in 1854, what amounted to a new party appeared. The new party grew out of revulsion by “Anti-Slavery Whigs” and “Independent Democrats” to where the traditional Democrat Party was going.
Since 1820, an uneasy truce existed between free and slave states, with Democrats – heavily in the South – pushing Missouri as a new “slave state.” The North balked, seeing slavery go west.
A compromise – the so-called Missouri Compromise – followed. It kept Civil War at bay for another 30 years by admitting Missouri as a slave state, and Maine as a free state, then banning slavery in the north.
But in 1854, Democrats – led by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas – wanted more western expansion. They proposed Nebraska as a free state and Kansas as a slave state. Northerners blew a gasket.
A combination of northern Whigs and Democrats pushed back hard against this breach of the 1820 agreement not to expand slavery – and dug deeper, issuing appeals for a new party. That party became the Republican Party, born of absolute opposition to any expansion of slavery, anywhere.
Mr. Hamlin now ditched the traditional Democrat Party, and joined the new, anti-slavery “Republican Party.” Meantime, an anti-slavery Whig from Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln, joined the Republicans.
As the election of 1858 approached, the storytelling, anti-slavery, self-taught lawyer from Illinois, Mr. Lincoln, boldly challenged Democrat Douglas for that state’s senate seat. Lincoln lost, but in losing he won – because all those who opposed slavery and appreciated someone of principle, got to know him.
When Lincoln ran for president in 1860, he needed a northerner who saw things the way he did. No one was more anti-slavery than the Senator – and former governor – from free state Maine, Mr. Hamlin. Lincoln went to Hamlin, and the two won the White House, beating a Democrat ticket led by Douglas.
This is where politics gets strangely crazy. The Civil War began in April 1861, with Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin, now vice president, pitching Lincoln to promptly free – and arm – the freed slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves, did issue in January 1863, but Hamlin’s pitch to arm the freed slaves was more abolitionist than Lincoln, who resisted the idea.
Ironically, Lincoln was once questioned about the radical nature of his emancipation move and said, “The Confederates will not assassinate me, because they fear Vice President Hamlin will take my place.”
Hindsight is perfect, sometimes haunting. Hamlin was not a craven man, no doubt happier fishing in rural Maine than catching spears in Washington, so when the Republican Party – not Lincoln – chose appeasement and replaced him with Democrat Andrew Johnson in 1864, Hamlin almost shrugged.
Returning to Maine in early 1865, Hamlin was glad to be out of DC, evinced little regret. Lincoln also selected Maine Senator William Fessenden to be Treasury Secretary, another story. So Hamlin came home – and Andrew Johnson became Lincoln’s second vice president.
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln and Johnson were sworn in. On April 14, Lincoln was assassinated – Hamlin, who had favored arming slaves, was not there. Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was now president.
In a stark reminder that peace is always fragile, party politics always fraught, Johnson called “radical Republicans” – even after the Civil War – “traitors” for their anti-slavery, anti-amnesty positions.
Offensive to southern Democrats for opposing secession and to northern “radical Republicans” for granting amnesty to military confederates, he was impeached, escaped conviction by one vote.
History is such a tortured path. One vote to impeach Johnson came from Maine’s James G. Blaine, a future House Speaker, Governor, Secretary of State, and presidential nominee in 1884.
Twice prior to 1884, Blaine had sought the White House, 1876 and 1880, only to be boxed out in 1880 by James Garfield, who was assassinated by a crazed man – while Garfield and Blaine walked together in DC. Then, in 1884, the next Mainer who was almost president – narrowly lost to Grover Cleveland.
What is to be made of all this history? A few things, valuable to recall. First, party politics – often driven by state-based prejudices – are dangerous if they get out of hand, edging national interest.
Second, predicting outcomes – good or bad – is hard, like predicting New England weather. If Lincoln had not chosen Johnson, would Hamlin’s hardline have deterred Lincoln’s assassination – as Lincoln predicted? If Hamlin had become president, would impeachment have followed? If Blaine had beaten Garfield in 1880, would he have been killed instead of Garfield?
Finally, if you want peace – do not look for it in politics or Washington. Find a good fishing hole and cast away. Americans are proud of state and party, but love of America – and a good fishing hole – are, in the end, where it is at.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.