A Phrase for the Ages
© Richard Wightman Fox 2015
One of the pleasures of studying history is figuring out which facts about the past we can be sure about, and which we can’t. If you study history for a living you get used to being less than certain about many important facts. Take the famous comment attributed to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as he stood weeping beside Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed on the rainy Saturday morning of April 15, 1865. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton is supposed to have said, soon after his friend stopped breathing.
For the entire 20th century, virtually all Lincoln historians took for granted that the Secretary had uttered this phrase. No fact seemed more certain. Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay-- in their 1890 biography of the man they had endearingly called “the tycoon”-- had lent their authority to it. They were apparently the first ones to assert—25 years after Lincoln’s death— that Stanton had marked the end of the nine-your vigil with his momentous words.
In the early 21st century, several historians mounted a challenge not to the whole phrase, but to the single word “ages”: they claimed Stanton had actually said, “Now he belongs to the angels.” This idea wasn’t brand new. It was broached in the early 20th century too, but no evidence ever emerged to certify the rumors as fact.
Some recent “angels” advocates have pointed to a written work from 1965 as their authority for “angels”: the book Twenty Days, an excellent collection of Lincoln assassination photographs published by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. They believed that James Tanner (the young Civil War amputee who took dictation from Secretary Stanton during the deathbed vigil) had remembered Stanton saying “angels.” They excerpted a Tanner memoir in Twenty Days, but they didn’t identify its date or place of publication.
Reading even a few lines of the Kunhardts’ excerpt reveals that they were drawing on Tanner’s well-known, early 20th century essay entitled “The Passing of Lincoln.” But the original text of "The Passing of Lincoln,” widely printed in the 1920s (and entered into the Congressional Record in 1926), says “ages,” not “angels.”
It’s hard to believe that the Kunhardts could have miscopied such a crucial word in Tanner’s original text. It seems more likely they were working from an unidentified newspaper clipping that had already mistakenly transposed Tanner’s "ages" into "angels."
The lesson for historians is never to accept the claim of a later source—in this case the Kunhardts’ book of 1965-- when an earlier source is available to be checked. Their use of “angels” ran up against a 75-year historians' consensus on “ages.” Before challenging such a long established fact, historians were duty-bound to consult Tanner’s published work, and to confirm or reject the Kunhardts’ new claim.
Of course the same standard of corroboration applies to the “ages” usage too. How sure can we be that Stanton ever intoned the words “Now he belongs to the ages” at Lincoln’s deathbed? The 1890 acceptance of it by Hay and Nicolay would be much more credible if a single other deathbed observer had heard Stanton utter those words, and said so in the 1860s.
But as far as we know, no one else at the deathbed heard them. A New York Herald reporter, pencil in hand, was apparently present in the death chamber when Lincoln passed away, and the detailed dispatch he telegraphed to New York mentioned nothing about Stanton uttering any words at all.
Unless new evidence comes to light, we’ll never be sure what, if anything, Stanton said when Lincoln died. In his 2009 book Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik shrewdly suggests that Secretary Stanton, his chest heaving with grief at half past seven on April 15, 1865, could easily have muttered “ages,” or “angels,” or both. And whatever he said could have been missed by the others as he choked on whatever words were struggling to come out of his mouth.
Or maybe he said nothing then, and decided months or years later (he died in 1869) that in the mental fog and fatigue of April 15 he had *thought* some version of the "ages" phrase but failed to voice it. Perhaps he realized later that “Now he belongs to the ages" could still stand as a fitting benediction retroactively—after all, the martyred president was sure to endure forever in the hearts of his fellow citizens. Stanton could have reported his realization to John Hay, and Hay could have kept it filed away until the 1880s, when he and Nicolay were drafting their “tycoon’s” biography.
“Ages” certainly rests on dubious foundations, but at least John Hay and James Tanner, who both vouched for it eventually, had been present at Lincoln's deathbed during the long night of April 14-15, 1865. No deathbed observer ever vouched for “angels.” That makes the case for “ages”-- weak as it may be—a lot stronger than the case for “angels.”
There’s no reason for historians to pose as being certain about a fact like this one. It's better to admit that “ages” rests on shaky ground, and to trust that readers will stick with the most likely fact, rather than jumping to "angels." For historians, shaky ground is always better than no ground at all. "Angels" is wafting in the ether.
Of course in April 1865 northerners and southern blacks didn't need Stanton to tell them that Lincoln belonged to the ages. They already knew it. And the religious majority among them-- including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton-- knew very well that Lincoln “belonged to the angels” too.