Lincoln's Language and Its Legacy

This all began on a very long plane ride, East Coast to West, when I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwinâ??s â??Team of Rivals,â? her book about Abraham Lincoln and his political competitors, and how, in the course of the Civil War, he turned them into a collegial Cabinet. It is a well-told, many-sided story, which attempts to give context to Lincoln without diminishing him, to place him among his peers and place him above them, too.

Coming to the end of the book, to the night of April 14, 1865, and Lincolnâ??s assassination, I reached the words that were once engraved in every American mind. At 7:22 a.m., as Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Fordâ??s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincolnâ??s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word. Stanton is the one with the long comic beard and the spinsterâ??s spectacles, who in the photographs looks a bit like Mr. Pickwick but was actually the iron man in the Cabinet, and who, after a difficult beginning, had come to revere Lincoln as a man and a writer and a politicianâ??had even played something like watchful Horatio to his tragic Hamlet. Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, â??Now he belongs to the ages.â?

Itâ??s probably the most famous epitaph in American biography, and still perhaps the best; reading the words again, I felt a shiver. They seem perfectly chosen, in their bare and stoical evocation of a Lincoln who belongs to history alone, their invocation not of an assumption to an afterlife but of a long reign in the corridors of time, a man now part of eternity.

Overcome again by Lincolnâ??s exampleâ??by the idea of a President who was at once an interesting mind, a tough customer, and a good writerâ??I decided to start reading the new Lincoln literature. It seemed to be multiplying by fission, as amoebas do, on the airport bookstore shelves. For the flight home, I picked up James L. Swansonâ??s â??Manhunt,â? a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering. The Reverend Dr. Gurley, the Lincoln family minister, said, â?? â??Let us pray.â?? He summoned up . . . a stirring prayer. . . . Gurley finished and everyone murmured â??Amen.â?? Then, no one dared to speak. Again Stanton broke the silence. â??Now he belongs to the angels.â?? â?


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