Stephen Douglas’ Most Striking Feature
By Douglas R. Egerton
Friend and foe alike agreed that Stephen A. Douglas’ most striking feature was his enormous head. Republican Charles Francis Adams, Jr., thought the five-feet-three inches tall Little Giant a “squab, vulgar little man,” but he was fascinated by the senator’s “immense, frowsy head.” Journalist Murat Halstead sneered that the stocky Douglas required “a large vest,” and that “his waist [was] becoming still more extensive.” But Halstead too was drawn to the cranium. He “has an immense head – in height, and breadth and depth,” he marveled, “you cannot find its equal in Washington.” In a time when phrenologists believed that personality traits were determined by cranial size and shape, what lay behind the senator’s “splendidly developed” forehead was a subject of speculation. But few observers outdid H.M. Flint, a supporter and early biographer. “His massive head rivets undivided attention,” Flint gushed. “It is a head of the antique, with something of the infinite in its expression of power: a head difficult to describe, but better worth description than any other in the country.”
If Douglas’ prodigious skull housed “a brain of unusual size,” as Flint bragged, it also housed a mind quite capable of political error and miscalculation. To explain why the man virtually everyone conceded would one day grace the president’s chair gasped out his last breath in a Chicago hotel requires a digression of eight years and a detour into the gravest error of the senator’s career. It is, oddly, the story of a railroad. Yet rarely has a single politician wrought so much havoc, and the blunder would reshuffle the nation’s two party system, bring a longtime foe out of political retirement, and cost Douglas the republic’s highest office.
About the author: Douglas R. Egerton is Professor of History at LeMoyne College. He is the author of five books, including He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey; Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802; and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. He lives in Syracuse, NY.
Giveaway is closed.
Would you like an email notification of other drawings? Sign up for our giveaway email list by clicking here.