One of the pleasures of studying history is figuring out which things about the past we know for sure, and which we don’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. For the entire 20th century virtually all Lincoln historians took for granted that the Secretary had indeed uttered the word “ages.” 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 the phrase “now he belongs to the ages.” And in 1865 none other than John Hay had stood beside Lincoln’s deathbed just as Stanton had done. What could be more certain than words presumably spoken in the hearing of John Hay and the other friends and associates of Lincoln gathered around his deathbed?
But in the 21st century several historians have mounted a challenge to “ages,” claiming that Stanton actually said “now he belongs to the angels.” There were in fact rumors in the early 20th century that Stanton perhaps had spoken the word “angels,” not “ages,” but no documentary evidence ever emerged to convert the rumors into historical 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. But as photo historians, not phrase historians, the Kunhardts didn’t pay close enough attention to their textual sources, or alert their readers to where they’d found their sources.
They asserted that James Tanner – a young Civil War amputee who had served as Secretary Stanton’s stenographer at Lincoln’s deathbed — had written a first-hand account of the event and had remembered that Stanton said “angels.” They excerpted Tanner’s short memoir in Twenty Days, but they didn’t identify its date of publication or archival location. We can tell by reading even a few lines of their excerpt that they were quoting a well-known Tanner document entitled “The Passing of Lincoln.” But the original text of “The Passing of Lincoln” actually says “ages,” not “angels.” A few years before his death in 1927, Tanner published that recollection in several places, including the magazine National Republic (pictured here). Every time he published his recollection, he used “ages.”
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential library owns a signed copy of Tanner’s original six-page manuscript of “The Passing of Lincoln,” as well as a copy of the pamphlet edition published by the Government Printing Office in 1926 (after it had appeared in the Congressional Record). Both copies, and the Congressional Record, give “ages,” not “angels.” It is hard to believe 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 transposed Tanner’s “ages” into “angels.”
The lesson for historians is never to accept the word of a later source like the Kunhardts’ book when an earlier source is available to be checked. Their assertion of “angels” ran up against a 75-year historians’ consensus on “ages.” Historians writing after 1965 were duty-bound to find the Tanner text excerpted by the Kunhardts and to confirm that they had copied it correctly in Twenty Days.
But the same principle of verifying the textual foundation for historical claims 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? Is John Hay’s apparent recollection of those words, published in 1890, an adequate foundation for such a claim? It would make Hay’s ”Now he belongs to the ages” much more credible if there was a single other deathbed observer who heard Stanton utter some version of that phrase, and said so at the time. But it turns out there is no confirmation of those words from anyone else present at the deathbed. No one heard Stanton emit any memorial phrase for Lincoln.
A New York Herald reporter, pencil in hand, was present in the death chamber when Lincoln passed away, and the detailed dispatch he telegraphed to New York mentioned nothing about Stanton uttering any such phrase. The first reference to Stanton’s “Now he belongs to the ages” came a full quarter-century later, in Nicolay and Hay’s 1890 biography.
Unless new evidence comes to light, we’ll never be sure what, if anything, Stanton said when Lincoln died. As Adam Gopnik shrewdly suggested in his 2009 book Angels and Ages, 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 that “Now he belongs to the ages” would still make a fitting benediction retroactively, since the martyred president was already sure to endure in the hearts of his fellow citizens. Stanton could have reported his realization to John Hay, and Hay could have kept it in mind until the 1880s, when he and Nicolay were crafting 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. As far as we know, no deathbed mourners or observers ever vouched for “angels.” That makes the case for “ages,” weak as it may be, much stronger than the case for “angels.” But there’s no reason for historians to pose as having attained certainty on what Stanton said. It’s better to admit that “ages” rests on shaky ground, and trust that readers won’t jump to “angels,” which rests on 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.