Stephen Douglas held Abraham Lincoln’s hat.
Inaugurated president, Lincoln prepared to give his speech. He had thought a lot about the wording of his speech but not the logistics of giving it. He had his hat in hand – easy to imagine the large stovepipe hat – and a cane in his other hand and his speech in his pocket.
He was in the awkward position of holding that large hat and the cane and trying to pull his speech from his pocket. He needed extra hands to juggle everything while an anxious, fraying nation waited for words from the new president.
Stephen Douglas gave him those hands.
The most surprising hands, of all.
Lincoln and Douglas were rivals. Long-time rivals. Political rivals. Personal rivals. Their rivalry is etched in history and long celebrated as the name of the Lincoln-Douglas debate style even today, more than 150 years later.
They started as stars in Illinois political circles. Then became national leaders of their respective political parties – Lincoln, the new Republicans; Douglas, the northern Democrats.
They ran against each other for the Illinois Senate seat. During the campaign, they embarked on their series of debates with Lincoln speaking against the spread of slavery and Douglas for a territory’s right to choose slavery.
Douglas won the Senate election but the debates brought Lincoln to national prominence.
Douglas may have won that campaign but Lincoln persevered in a more personal effort in their younger days.
Both men were suitors of Mary Todd, the belle of Springfield, Ill., but Lincoln married her.
In 1860, with the country splitting, with Southern states threatening to secede, Lincoln ran as the Republican candidate for president, while Douglas, representing the North, was one of multiple Democratic candidates.
Lincoln won the presidency.
Which brings us back to the inauguration, with Lincoln’s hat, cane and speech.
As historian H.W. Brands describes the moment in his book, “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” Lincoln “looked around for a place to put the cane, and settled on balancing it on the table. This freed up one hand to find the speech, but he couldn’t deliver the speech with the hat in his hand. The table being too small to accommodate it and the cane and the speech manuscript, he was about to bend over and put the hat on the floor of the platform when his old foe came to his rescue.”
Prior to the 1860 election, Douglas was one of the most outspoken and well-known politicians in America. Short of height but large on political stature, Douglas was known as the “Little Giant.” He always assumed he would one day be president. He always assumed he would shape the nation. He assumed he would be remembered.
In that moment, with Lincoln stepping into the highest office in the land, did Stephen Douglas wonder if he would be remembered only because of his rivalry with Lincoln? That, if not for his relationship with Lincoln, he might not be remembered at all?
And then seated on the inaugural dais, so close to his longtime rival, watching Lincoln fumble with his hat, cane and speech, some men in such situations and with such rich adversarial histories would enjoy watching their rival squirm and possibly humiliate himself at such a crucial moment.
But whatever the reason, or the motivation, whether it was a long history of knowing one another, muscle memory from long miles of debating on the campaign trail, putting nation before self and party, or simply one human helping another, Douglas offered Lincoln that extra hand.
Stephen Douglas held out a hand to take Lincoln’s hat.
Lincoln accepted the offer and Douglas held the hat of the man who defeated him for the presidency.
In his speech, Lincoln spoke of maintaining the Union, of the South returning to the fold, though in some small way, the closing words could have applied to him and Douglas.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Though Douglas would criticize Lincoln and the inaugural address a short time later, and Douglas died three months after the inauguration, for that one awkward moment of Lincoln juggling hat, cane and speech, Stephen Douglas found his better angel.
Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.