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He Did Hold Lincoln’s Hat

July 2024
5min read

Senator Douglas’ act is verified, at last, by first-hand testimony

An atmosphere of tension enveloped Washington on March 4, 1861, as President-elect Lincoln and President Buchanan rode from Willard’s Hotel to the Capitol. There was the usual pageantry—gaily uniformed militia companies, a float of 34 pretty girls, carriages filled with jubilant Republican politicians and lugubrious Democrats, and so on. But observant citizens noted that far stricter precautions were being taken than in any previous inauguration ceremony. Infantry and cavalry lined the street, there was artillery just north of the Capitol, and sharpshooters were posted in the Capitol windows. The presidential party entered by a special passageway of heavy planks, solidly guarded by soldiers and marines.

In the Senate chamber Hannibal Hamlin of Maine took the oath of office as Vice-President, administered by John C. Breckinridge, who had just received 72 electoral votes for the Presidency but who was soon to be a major general in the Confederate Army. At times the proceedings were interrupted by loud bursts of martial music outside, where 25,000 people waited in the bright sunshine east of the Capitol, their eyes fixed on a wooden platform in front of the portico. This crowd saw Mrs. Lincoln and other ladies emerge from the central door, accompanied by various dignitaries, and take their places on the platform. Then came the portly Clerk of the Supreme Court, bearing a Bible and giving an anxious arm to aged Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. The Supreme Court justices seated themselves with Taney.

Then came Lincoln and Buchanan, who took seats near the front center of the platform. Other senators followed—Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Lazarus Powell of Kentucky, Henry M. Rice of Minnesota, and Lincoln’s beloved friend E. D. Baker, formerly of Illinois but now of Oregon.

When all was ready Senator Baker stepped forward and announced in his resonant voice: “Fellow citizens, I introduce to you Abraham Lincoln, President-elect of the United States, who will now proceed to deliver his inaugural address.” Lincoln arose, put on his steelbowed spectacles—a surprise to many, for his photographs had not shown glasses—and began to read. His clear, firm, rather shrill voice carried his words to the extremities of the crowd. When, after five minutes, he declared: “I hold that, in the contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual,” a cheer came from the assemblage.

So far, all chroniclers are agreed, except for trivial details, on what happened at Lincoln’s inauguration. All agree, too, on the moment of high drama that came when Chief Justice Taney, in his tremulous voice, gave Lincoln his oath. Taney knew that from that instant his Dred Scott decision, which held that slavery followed the flag into the territories, was dead. But on the question of another dramatic moment we meet doubt and dissent.

Did Lincoln, just before he rose to speak, look about in embarrassment for a place to put his new stovepipe hat? Did Senator Douglas, springing forward, bow, say “Permit me,” and then take the hat to hold on his knee during the address? If he did, the act could be symbolic. The leader of northern Democrats, who had polled 1,375,000 votes for President as against Lincoln’s 1,866,000, would thus indicate his readiness to support the new President against southern secessionists.

Historians always doubt an extraordinarily histrionic incident of this kind. James G. Randall’s scholarly treatment of the subject, in his admirable Lincoln the President , is skeptical. “None of the newspaper reports or other accounts written at the time ,” he remarks, “within the knowledge of the author, mentions the hat incident.”

Randall lists three writers who vouch for the story, but points out that all wrote belatedly and that one may even be a fictitious person.

The anecdote was first related in book form by Josiah Gilbert Holland, one of the editors of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican , in his Life of Abraham Lincoln , published in 1866; he did not claim to have attended the inauguration. In 1879 “The Diary of a Public Man” was published in the North American Review , and one installment mentioned the incident; but no one knows who the “Public Man” was, and many now believe he was an invented figure. Finally, Henry Watterson gave the story as an event he had witnessed; but this was in 1918–19, and a sixty-year-old reminiscence is almost worthless as evidence.

“This is not to assert that the hat incident did not occur,” says Randall. “The point is rather that a careful biographer looks for contemporary evidence, and where such evidence is lacking, or has not yet been found, it is his duty to say so.”

Actually, there are two other sources. The newspaperman Ben: (so he abbreviated his first name) Perley Poore gives the story, in reminiscences published in 1885, and Carl Schurz, who wrote his own memoirs in 1907–08, gives the story with circumstantial detail. Schurz, of course, was old when he wrote, but his memory was exceptionally clear and retentive.

But still the evidence is unsatisfactory. Only a strictly contemporaneous account can be deemed conclusive.

Happily, such an account can now be cited. The Cincinnati Commercial , edited by the trustworthy Murat Halstead, on March 11, 1861, published “An Incident of the Inauguration,” in the following words:

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.

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