Lincoln: Does He Belong to "the Ages" or "the Angels"?

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President Obama made a noble gesture to commemorate this date in history. It's something everyone, no matter their politics, should find fitting and appropriate: He declared April 15, 2015 “A Day of Remembrance for President Abraham Lincoln.”

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Lincoln died from the bullet shot into the back of his head in Ford’s Theatre the night before. Lincoln believed, as the president’s proclamation states, that Americans are, at heart, one nation and one people.

“At a time when America was torn apart and our very future was in doubt, he knew our country was more than a collection of states, and that we shared a bond that would not break.”

Obama urged Americans to “join together across the Union he saved to honor his memory and celebrate the freedom for which he gave his last full measure of devotion.”

Amen, to that, Mr. President: Lincoln surely belongs, as a sobbing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said after the 16th president took his last breath, “to the ages.” Or did Stanton say that Lincoln now belonged “to the angels”?

The dispute over the exact words may, or may not, be significant. But here's what we know about the events of that day.

It was determined immediately after Lincoln was shot that his wound was too serious to risk moving him to the White House, so he was carried unconscious across 10th Street to a Petersen’s boardinghouse, and laid out in a tiny room.

Doctors, preachers, aides, and military men tromped through the impromptu emergency room, along with inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln. The scene was chaos all night, in other words, and it is little wonder that there were two distinct versions of Lincoln’s deathbed drama in the cramped space.

The first account was provided by a young military stenographer pressed into service on that tragic and hectic night. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army whose legs had been amputated after being wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run. His name was James Tanner.

He’d been summoned at the behest of Stanton, who, by silent acquiescence of the other “Lincoln Men” on the scene, was the first among equals. As Stanton had begun interrogating potential witnesses to the shooting, an Army officer called out for someone who could take dictation. Cpl. Tanner, who lived next door to the boardinghouse, overheard the request and made his way on peg legs up the stairs and into the room where the president lay dying.

The young soldier seems to have remained there all night.

When the denouement arrived, a pastor led the group in prayer, which Tanner wrote “was only interrupted by the sobs of Stanton as he buried his face in the bedclothes.”

His account continued:

As “Thy will be done, Amen” in subdued and tremulous tones floated through the little chamber, Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face. A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: “He belongs to the angels now.”

Well, that’s pretty definitive. So where does the “Now he belongs to the ages” phasing --favored by popular historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, and most Lincoln biographers, and drummed into our heads by popular culture -- come from?

The answer is that it comes from another very good source, another original source, namely the first-hand Lincoln biography written by John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s two White House secretaries. In their telling, Stanton isn’t sobbing, he’s almost stoic as he solemnly utters his spontaneous benediction: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

So who is right, and does it matter?

To the first point, it would seem that the Nicolay-Hay account is less authoritative, mainly because they didn’t produce their book until 1890, 25 years after the harrowing event, while Tanner was sitting right there. So “angels,” not “ages,” right?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. James Tanner offers a caveat in his own account and it’s this: By the time Lincoln died, his pencil was down to the nub, and in pulling it out in his excitement, he broke off the end of it. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but it suggests that he wrote out the words later. Perhaps minutes later, perhaps a day later; we will never know.

Also, John Hay was also in the room that night and he knew Stanton (and everyone else present) much better than Tanner -- and he was accustomed to taking notes of conversations he was hearing. So maybe “ages,” right?

As for which version makes better sense in the context, that’s almost a matter of personal theology, or maybe one’s own politics. To my ear, “belongs to the angels” sounds right. Also, on the day he was shot Lincoln hadn’t yet become the iconic leader whom other Americans would automatically assume belonged “to the ages.” It was his martyrdom that did that. And Lincoln was associated with the word “angels” even in his own time: He’d evoked them in his first inaugural address when he predicted that the bonds of affection between North and South would be restored. “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched,” he said, “as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

A few years ago, Adam Gopnik, a perceptive writer for The New Yorker, interviewed a handful of presidential historians and Lincoln assassination experts about this ages-angel riddle and detected that subtle ideological differences were at play here between liberals and conservatives.

“A Lincoln for the ages and a Lincoln for the angels already existed,” he wrote. “Now the two seemed to be at war for his epitaph.”

It’s a classic example of what my friend E.J. Dionne has called “a false choice.” But still, the reporter in us wants to know -- what did Edwin Stanton really say? We want to go back in time, and listen. But if we could do that, wouldn’t we just stop John Wilkes Booth from committing murder in the first place?

History is not tidy: This is the real conclusion reached by Adam Gopnik, who implies that even if we had been in that crowded room in Petersen’s boardinghouse, and listened to Edwin Stanton with our own ears, different witnesses would have heard different things.

“All we know for sure,” he wrote, “is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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