Lincoln’s Language and Its Legacy


(The New Yorker – 20 May 2007)




In the May 28, 2007, issue of  The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik’s “Angels & Ages” (p.30) unpacks the historical debate over Lincoln’s epitaph, probably the most famous in American biography. The traditional account, as written by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her recent “Team of Rivals,” records Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War and close friend, saying to a small and crowded boarding house room across from Ford’s Theatre on the morning of April 15, 1865, “Now he belongs to the ages.” This is the orthodox account, the one engraved in the American mind, and one that James L. Swanson challenges in “Manhunt,” his account of the assassination and the subsequent search for John Wilkes Booth. In his unorthodox account, Stanton is recorded as having said: “Now he belongs to the angels.” Echoed in this exegetical dispute is the historical debate between a tender, soulful Lincoln and a tough, cold-blooded nationalist. Gopnik, in an attempt to settle the war for Lincoln’s epitaph, asks: Does he belong to the angels or the ages?


There have long been debates over what had been said by Lincoln at any given moment, and what people thought had been said. “Even with the Gettysburg Address,” Gopnik writes, “despite our possession of what seem to be two drafts and what are certainly several later copies in Lincoln’s own hand, there are many arguments about exactly what Lincoln said.” Similarly, Booth might or might not have said shortly after murdering the President, “Sic semper tyrannis.”


“What did Edwin Stanton really say at Lincoln’s deathbed?” Gopnik writes. After tracing Swanson’s account through a series of footnotes, Gopnik arrives at the conclusion that “the unorthodox, heretical account of Stanton’s words is actually much easier to ‘source’ than the canonic and orthodox and familiar one: it comes from a stenographic record made in the bedroom that night by a young man named James Tanner.” Tanner was a corporal who had had both legs amputated after the Battle of Bull Run, and who spent the night next to the dying President, recording the testimony of the assassination throughout the night. Of  Stanton, Tanner wrote, “A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’” Having broken his pencil, Tanner did not record the epitaph in-situ, but still, he remains the source of the “angels” quote, and, as Gopnik writes, his account “sounds fairly solid.”


But, Gopnik points out, “the question of Lincoln and the angels leads to the most vexed question in all the Lincoln literature, that of his faith.” Conservatives have felt that the “ages” version masks Lincoln’s religiosity, most evident in his rhetoric as the war progressed. Swanson, in his endnotes, defends the “angels” version by claiming it to be more “consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”


“Though it is easy to track the exact source of the revisionist ‘angels,’ it is much harder to find the source of those ‘ages,’” Gopnik writes. The quotation was popularized by John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s secretaries who, in 1890, published what stood as the standard life of Lincoln for almost a century.

“But, in the twenty-five years that separated the scene and Hay’s version of it, the record is cloudy.” None of the newspapers the following day reported the quotation. “It is possible that there is an obscure source for the epitaph,” Gopnik writes, “but the famous words seem remarkably fragile.”


In researching his story, Gopnik visited the Petersen House, the boarding house where Lincoln spent his last hours. By this time, Gopnik had made up his mind as to what had happened: “Stanton had muttered ‘angels,’ been heard as saying ‘ages,’ and, if he had been asked which afterward, would have been torn.... It seemed possible that both versions were true, one to the intention and the other to the articulation, one to the emotion of the moment and one, in retrospect, to the meaning of the life. Angels or ages? Lincoln belongs to both.”