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.
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