We welcome to the blog a guest post by William Marvel, author of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton. Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869), one of the nineteenth century’s most impressive legal and political minds, wielded enormous influence and power as Lincoln’s Secretary of War during most of the Civil War and under Johnson during the early years of Reconstruction. In the first full biography of Stanton in more than fifty years, Marvel offers a detailed reexamination of Stanton’s life, career, and legacy. Marvel argues that while Stanton was a formidable advocate and politician, his character was hardly benign. Climbing from a difficult youth to the pinnacle of power, Stanton used his authority–and the public coffers–to pursue political vendettas, and he exercised sweeping wartime powers with a cavalier disregard for civil liberties.
Marking the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln, in the following post Marvel weighs the validity of the eulogy allegedly spoken by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Lincoln’s deathbed.
One of the more touching moments in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination came when a surgeon announced that the president was dead, whereupon the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, broke the silence. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton ostensibly observed, with a poetic spontaneity for which he was not known.
Numerous people recount some form of the quote, but none of them recorded their memory of the phrase until a generation later, after it appeared in the multi-volume Lincoln biography by his former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Nicolay was not in Washington that night; Hay is often depicted at the bedside, although the room was not big enough to accommodate all who have subsequently been placed around it at the moment of the president’s death.
Hay was an especially talented stylist who would have appreciated such eloquence. He was also a prolific writer, but he apparently only put Stanton’s words in print for the biography of 1890. Charles Taft, one of the surgeons attending the dying president, published his own recollection of the scene three years after the Nicolay and Hay biography appeared, claiming that Stanton actually said “He now belongs to the ages.”
Forty years after the assassination, James Tanner, a Veteran Reserve Corps stenographer who was taking testimony in another room, corroborated the Nicolay and Hay quote more closely. A decade after that, a former provost marshal insisted that he was the only one who stood near enough to hear what Stanton said: he remembered it as “Now he belongs to history,” but that rendition enjoyed little circulation or credence.
Had Stanton uttered so memorable a eulogy, it is strange that no one publicized it for a quarter of a century, or conveyed it to the newspaper reporters who swarmed outside the Peterson house, gleaning every detail they could from those passing in and out. If the quote appears in any earlier publication, I have not seen it, and the recitation of such evocative remarks decades later, even by accredited eyewitnesses, is no guarantee of accuracy. The continual retelling of such landmark events can impregnate the minds of actual witnesses with recollections founded less on memory than on external suggestion—besides attracting deliberately fraudulent accounts. keep reading →