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He Did Hold Lincoln’s Hat
Senator Douglas’ act is verified, at last, by first-hand testimony
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
One of the Representatives of this State in Congress reports an interesting and rather funny incident of the Inauguration, which, not having seen in print, we record. On approaching the platform where he was to take his oath and be inducted into the office of Chief Executive, Mr. Lincoln removed his hat and held it in his hand as he took the seat assigned him. The article seemed to be a burden. He changed it awkwardly from one to another, and finally, despairing of finding for it any other easy position, deposited it upon the platform near him. Senators and judges crowded in, and to make room for them he removed nearer the front of the stage, carrying his tile with him. Again it was dandled uneasily, and as Senator Baker approached to introduce him to the audience he made a motion to replace the tile on the stage under the seat, when Douglas, who had been looking on quietly, and apparently with some apprehensions of a catastrophe to the hat, said, “Permit me, sir,” and gallantly took the vexatious article, and held it during the entire reading of the Inaugural! Doug must have reflected pretty seriously during that half hour, that instead of delivering an inaugural address from the portico, he was holding the hat of the man who was doing it.
We may thus accept the incident, at last, as authentic. We may even give credence to Ben: Perley Poore’s additional touch, for Carl Sandburg tells us that Lincoln had not only a new suit and new hat, but “an ebony cane with a gold head the size of a hen’s egg.” Nobody ever found Douglas lacking in presence of mind, and he was alertness itself on this memorable day. Correspondents wrote that while Buchanan kept his eyes closed during most of Lincoln’s delivery, Douglas listened attentively and hardly took his gaze off the speaker.
Douglas’ influence was needed to win over a lukewarm section of the Democratic press and politicians, and firmly did he exert it. Newspapers like the Chicago Times , and some hesitant members of Congress, sharply changed their attitude. Douglas shortly published a letter in the Washington National Intelligencer, dated May 10, recalling how wholeheartedly Clay and Webster had sustained Jackson in the Nullification crisis. When he penned this letter he was confined to his home with illness; on June 3 he was dead. Had he lived he would have been a constant advocate of energetic war measures, he would have co-operated with such old-time Democrats as Gideon Welles, and his voice would have reached across battle lines to assure his former southern followers that peace might be had on the basis of a restored Union, but with nothing less.
Too often the exploration of picturesque legends of the past explodes them, leaving a starkly prosaic truth. It is pleasant to think that we can cherish the poetic picture of the Little Giant, so long a doughty political foe and so able an exponent of hostile principles, gracefully bowing to the Rail Splitter as he takes his hat and tacitly accepts his leadership in the crisis of the Union’s fate.