President Abraham Lincoln died early this morning, 150 years ago, nine hours after John Wilkes Booth shot him at Ford’s Theater. After the President drew his last breath, his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is reputed to have declared that “Now he belongs to the ages.” John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary and later Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and who was present at the vigil, years later attributed that quote to Stanton. Some historians have disputed what was actually said— contending that Stanton actually said “angels” instead of “ages.” Among the sources of the latter version, one appears to be from John Tanner, a shorthand reporter who lived in the house next to the one Lincoln was taken to after being shot (there were no level-anything trauma centers in those day, not that it would have mattered— his head wound was similar to Bobby Kennedy’s, who died in spite of state of the art medical care in 1968). Tanner, according to some accounts, wrote what he thought he heard sometime shortly after the event, not as it was said. He, as well as Hay, doubtless heard Stanton utter the brief eulogy. Ears, however, play tricks on us. We are often disposed to remember what we want to or are conditioned to, not what was actually said. The two words can sound similar in certain settings.
Does it matter? Some have attached ideological significance to the versions. Is Lincoln’s immortality in heaven, or is it in human memory— his huge presence in history? It is unnecessary to make that unknowable determination. In many senses, Abraham Lincoln belongs to both— the angels and the ages. Most of all he belongs to all Americans, so long as the Star Spangled Banner yet waves.
For more reading, see Jay Wunik’s April, 1865, mentioned in a previous post. Also, George Packer’s article in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker discusses the conundrum in depth.