The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln and Evolution

Today marks the bicentennial of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born February 12, 1809. Several have noted curious connections between these two men, most notably New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik in recent times, with the publication of his book Angels and Ages – A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.

Lincoln and Darwin both lost their mothers in early childhood. Both had distant relationships with their fathers, at times bordering on loathing. Boyhood friends described both as tenderhearted and hating all forms of cruelty. Both suffered from depression and severe stomach pains on and off throughout their lives. Both men doted on their wives and both lost three children.

Each was raised Christian but struggled with religious doubts. While always a person of faith and a rigorous student of the Bible, Lincoln belong to no organized religion and supposedly scoffed at most. For his part, Darwin eventually proclaimed himself an agnostic.

Both men rapidly rose from relative obscurity into the world spotlight and greatness in their fifties and within a year of each other.

Lincoln suppressed issuing his Emancipation Proclamation for months, even though he believed it the right thing to do. Darwin put off publishing On the Origin of Species for years, even though he felt certain he was correct. Both hesitated out of fear how the public would receive these works.

Their enemies often caricatured the two as apes or monkeys – Darwin because of his contention that men and apes shared a common ancestor and Lincoln due to his less-than-handsome physiognomy.

Indeed, it is important to remember that both men were controversial and had real enemies during their lifetimes and both remain disliked by many up to the present day. Conversely, both men’s admirers tended to mythologize them after their deaths, which often works to their detriment when attempting to evaluate them and their contributions historically.

Yet the most surprising link between Lincoln and Darwin is the role each played in helping to fight the scourges of racism and slavery. Just as surprising is how each man’s personal positions on these topics differ from our expectations and their public accomplishments.

Darwin was a pureblood abolitionist, from a family of abolitionist leaders going back at least as far as his maternal and paternal grandparents. For Darwin, holding such strong sentiments was as natural as breathing.

“Great God, how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth, Slavery, abolished!” he exclaimed in an 1861 letter to a friend.

Darwin did not share his grandparents’ activism in the abolitionist movement. This is hardly surprising, as slavery had been illegal in Great Britain since before his birth and outlawed in its colonies by the time he reached adulthood.

However, Darwin’s second major publication, the Descent of Man, in 1871, scientifically established all human beings as members of a single species, Homo sapiens, and descended from common ancestors. This contradicted and undermined the teachings of pro-slavery groups that non-whites were different – and inferior – species from whites.

Darwin came to prove what he had long suspected – that slavery was wrong because it denied the basic equality of all races.

“Unless we willfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge approximately recognize our [commonality]; nor need we feel ashamed of it,” he once wrote.

Lincoln’s contribution to ending slavery in America is far more direct but he came to it slowly. His sole interest at the start of his Presidency was preserving the Union. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation partly as a military tactic to break the South’s reason for fighting and partly to ennoble an increasingly bloody and heart wrenching war.

What is more, despite a lifelong detestation of slavery, Lincoln was far from progressive, even for the Nineteenth Century, when it came to equality of the races. He retained many racist views regarding blacks. The following except from his debates with Stephen Douglas during their 1858 Senate race is now widely quoted to demonstrate this.

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

However, when the mythology falls away and we view Lincoln, warts and all, it leaves his opposition to slavery still admirable, albeit more human and less ideal. Ignorant and outmoded as his views on blacks may now seem, Lincoln nonetheless championed legal equality for slaves because he saw no way to reconcile slavery with the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

In the same debates with Douglas, he pushes aside his personal feelings to make a case for this supremely American principle.

“I agree with Judge Douglas that [the Negro] is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”

And does so again, even more eloquently, here.

“It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world . . . It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread . . . and I'll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

By the end of his Presidency and life, Lincoln had begun to reconcile himself to the eventuality of blacks and whites coexisting as well as full African American citizenship. In a speech before a crowd at the White House, he called for the right to vote being extended to some, better-educated blacks. John Wilkes Booth stood listening within the crowd and it was this announcement that hardened his heart to kill Lincoln.

Lincoln and Darwin never met and it is unclear if Lincoln ever even heard of the British naturalist. Nevertheless, the way each shifted the prevailing beliefs and institutions of their era – with continued influences still felt in modern times – inextricably links them together. In no way is the link more important than their joint affirmation of basic humanism, one out of Nineteenth Century scientific empiricism and the other out of Eighteenth Century Enlightenment philosophy.

For Darwin, the evolutionist, his personal belief in the concept was virtually innate and unchanging. For Lincoln, the backwoods child of poverty turned prairie lawyer, his personal beliefs were ever altering and adapting to meet the realities and exigencies of the nation he ultimately not only preserved but also made over into something superior than its earlier form. One might say that Abraham Lincoln evolved and forced the United States to evolve with him.

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