Two Guys You Might Know

Prepare yourself for the onslaught. We are about to be inundated with tributes, analyses, and dissections of two of the most amazing men the modern age has produced. I am going to get my two cents’ worth in early.

Beards! They both have beards

What do the two gents flanking these words have in common? Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. I came upon this fact (and realized the hoopla the upcoming shared bicentennial will spur) while researching a bio on Darwin for one of my better clients (who I shall not name, in case it doesn’t want to be associated with such a lowly, crisis-ridden blog). I had never known much about Darwin before, except the obvious: The Origin of Species, natural selection, Monkey Trial, etc, etc. Lincoln, though, I’ve come across a lot in my writing career, with books on the Gettysburg Address, his assassination, the famous debates, and of course, countless references to the causes and execution of the Civil War.

(A haranguing aside: OK, let the historians have their arguments, and let the Confederacy apologists spout their verbiage about honor and states’ rights, but no one will ever convince me the South was not acting solely to preserve slavery. A self-serving action to defend a morally repugnant institution, pure and simple. It’s amazing to think there are people who say anything else.  But, in case you’re not sure, Lincoln did not start the Civil War to end slavery. He had told the Southern states he opposed its spread but he would not end it where it already existed. They didn’t believe him – maybe rightfully so. But the war did not become about ending slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation.)

Yup, gotta defend those states' rights

Yup, gotta defend those states' rights

I’m not sure Darwin and Lincoln had much in common, aside from 2/12/09 and the beards. Darwin came from a wealthy family and attended Cambridge. We all know Lincoln’s log-cabin hardscrabble roots and largely auto-didactic education. (Darwin, though, did learn much of importance to his career on his own, from select books and teachers, and his correspondence with researchers, high and low, from around the world.) Darwin studied the natural world, Lincoln the workings of government and the human machinations that propel it. What does link them, though, is the huge impact they had on their times and their continuing impact today.

Learning about Darwin and his life, reading his writings, I was struck by a few things. I didn’t realize that the theory of evolution was so in the air as he did his work. What made him unique – almost – was developing the idea of natural selection to explain it. I say “almost” because much to Darwin’s amazement, somebody else came up with the idea independently at almost the same time.

Who you calllin' a chimp, chump?

Who you callin' a chimp, chump?

Well, actually Darwin had a bit of a head start, but he wanted to amass details that supported his theory. And he knew what he was suggesting – taking God out of the equation in the development of life on Earth – would be so revolutionary and upsetting that he wasn’t sure he was ready for the repercussions. So I guess he was a bit of a politician too, wetting that finger and taking into account which way the breeze was blowing.

Lincoln, of course, had to do that to get elected. Reading the Douglas debates of 1858, you see how his attacks on slavery became more muted in the southern part of Illinois, where proslavery sentiments ran higher than in the north. And of course he tried to balance a lot of competing interests when he was elected in 1860. Abolitionists wanted one thing, Southerners wanted the opposite, and a number of Northerners wanted something in between. (Do not think everyone in the North opposed slavery in 1861. Oh no. And support for the war was tepid at best in some quarters there.)

I guess the key shared trait between Lincoln and Darwin, in the end, was their courage. The finger in the wind came down. Darwin became bolder in asserting God, if he existed at all, had nothing to do with human development. (This coming from a man who once thought he would be a minister. Though he did have Unitarian influences in the family…) Lincoln saw that to be true to his defense of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion that all men are equal, he had to end slavery once and for all, despite the unpopularity of the notion. (A religious aside – unlike Darwin, Lincoln seemed to find greater comfort in the notion of God and the wisdom of the Bible as he got older. Though he never belonged to a formal church and at times seemed uncomfortable with the label Christian. A query: Would we ever elect a Deist president again?)

I know true scholars will bring out more nuanced appraisals of Lincoln and Darwin, their similarities, their differences, their achievements. Take this as the assessment of a guy who knows just enough history to be dangerous. And who respects the intellect and moral courage of the people who truly make a difference in this world. Unlike too many of our so-called “leaders” today.

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~ by mburgan on October 23, 2008.

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