Bible

Hope for a Nation Seen in the Holding of a Hat

Lincoln Douglas political unity hold hat

March 4, 1861, dawned in Washington, D.C. It was Inauguration Day. Despite the importance of the day and the fact that it had been on the calendar for a long time, there were a lot of details that had been left unfinished.

For one thing, the ceremony would be held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building. Its unfinished dome towered over the proceedings, giving an air of incompleteness to the day.

Unfinished U.S. Capitol building
The unfinished dome of the U.S. Capitol, as it appeared on March 4, 1861.

In those days, the inaugural ceremonies took place on the east side of the Capitol Building. Because of this, those in attendance were spared further reminders of unfinished business on the other side of the building. Construction of the Washington Monument remained at a halt, now going on seven years. The unfinished obelisk seemed to emphasize the idea that this was a city where things got started, but never completed.

Unfinished Washington Monument
The unfinished Washington Monument, as it stood on March 4, 1861.


The crowd of 25,000 spectators gathered to witness the historic transfer of power from outgoing President James Buchanan to President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the crowd were other visible reminders of uncertainty. In the preceding four months, eleven states had declared their secession from the Union. With the threat of civil war and plots against Lincoln’s life, a heavy contingent of uniformed soldiers and plainclothes detectives kept a close eye on everything and everyone. Even so, there were many that day who looked upon the unfinished architecture and wondered whether the nation would survive long enough to see the completed works.

As the official party gathered on the inaugural platform, only a few knew of another incomplete detail. Rumored assassination attempts triggered last-minute changes in Lincoln’s travel to the nation’s capital. In all of the rush and concern about his safety, it was understandable — although still distracting — that Lincoln’s household goods had not yet arrived from Springfield, so the Lincoln family would have to wait to make the White House their home.

More troubling for the day’s festivities was the fact that Lincoln’s family Bible was among the items that were still in transit. A clerk for the Supreme Court, William Thomas Carroll, was sent out to buy a Bible to use for the swearing-in. He selected an 1853 Oxford University Press printing of the King James Bible, bound in burgundy velvet with metal trim. Carroll managed to procure the book in time for the ceremony, and he made sure it was on the platform before the President-elect arrived.

Only when it came time for Lincoln to give his inaugural address did anyone realize there was something else missing.

Senator Edward D. Baker, a longtime friend of the Lincolns, introduced the president-elect to the crowd. Carl Schurz, another political friend, observed the moment and said, “I saw Lincoln step forward to the desk upon which the Bible lay — his rugged face, appearing above all those surrounding him, calm and sad.”

Lincoln looked at those who had joined him on the platform. One of the men had a long and complicated relationship. Senator Stephen A. Douglas had been Lincoln’s rival politically and personally. In 1842, it was Douglas who had courted the beautiful Mary Todd years earlier, only to see her choose the tall, homely Springfield lawyer, instead. Sixteen years later, Lincoln and Douglas would face off again. They each campaigned for the same seat in the U.S. Senate. This time, Douglas would be the victor, but the celebrated debates between the two men brought Abraham Lincoln’s name to national prominence.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas

In 1860, the two rivals again faced each other, this time for a much bigger prize: the presidency of the United States. Lincoln, of course, was the victor, and that was the reason for their assembly in front of the Capitol that day.

If anyone wondered whether the rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas would flare up at that moment, bringing even more foreboding to the day, they soon got their answer. Lincoln stepped to the front of the platform, pulled out a pair of reading glasses, and his manuscript, and removed his new silk hat. Schurz, who had just been reflecting on the sadness of Lincoln’s expression, said, “I witnessed the remarkable scene when Lincoln, about to deliver his inaugural address, could not at once find a convenient place for his hat, and Douglas took that hat and held it like an attendant, while Lincoln was speaking.”

If anyone was looking for a sign that day, perhaps they found some comfort at that moment. Despite the incompleteness, tension, and indications of difficult days ahead, there was also a clear sign of hope. Two rivals, at that moment, put their differences behind them for the good of the nation. Douglas may not have been able to win the heart of Lincoln’s wife. He didn’t get to hold Lincoln’s office. But he was the first to step forward to hold his hat.


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