Rebel Giants Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, 1809-2009

David R. Contosta

Two centuries ago, two men, one an American and one an Englishman, turned their world—and ours—upside down. They were Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Astonishingly, both men were born on the exact same day, February 12, 1809. While this might seem the kind of coincidence that fills astrologers with glee, further reflection points to many parallels and intersections in their lives. These offer insights into the wellsprings of greatness and the crucial intersection between individuals and events in monumental paradigm shifts.

The struggles of Lincoln and Darwin to understand and promote the basic humanity of all people, despite their own prejudices, offers hope for global understanding and universal human dignity. The ways in which their ideas and accomplishments have been twisted, exploited, and misunderstood are excellent examples of how the continuing dialogue between past and present is impacted by changing worldviews and special interests.

In fact, the timing of the men’s births was important—not because of any celestial forces at play, but because being born ten or a dozen years earlier or later would have made all the difference. Lincoln could not have grasped the political opportunities and extraordinary events—the ferment over slavery and the breakdown of party alignments—that came his way at just the right time and circumstance. In Darwin’s case, the advances in scientific knowledge pointed to a plausible theory of evolution in the second half of the nineteenth century that someone was sure to formulate.

Given their identical ages, the dates of crucial events were often very close. 1858 seemed a devastating year for both men: in Illinois, Lincoln lost his bid for the United States Senate despite his broiling ambition and his impressive performance in a series of debates against Stephen A. Douglas. In England, Darwin was stunned to receive a packet in the mail from Alfred Russel Wallace announcing a theory of evolution that appeared to undo his own years of hard work and block any possibility of scientific preeminence.

Yet these setbacks were only turning points. Within two years both men would touch off revolutions that continue to shake the world: Darwin published his pathbreaking On the Origin of Species in November 1859, and a year later, in November 1860, Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Darwin’s book launched a continuing debate about the place of human beings in the universe that had implications for racial and individual equality, while Lincoln’s election led to a bloody Civil War that ultimately was about human dignity and human rights.

Impressive though Lincoln and Darwin were and remain, there is nothing magical about their fame. Studying these men and their often intersecting needs, methods, and timing explains and demystifies them in ways that examining each one in isolation cannot do.

Both left home in search of who they were and who they might become. They found different ways of postponing careers, and at the end of the same half-dozen years, each discovered his life’s work. As young men, they also said “no” to the conventional truths of the day. In rejecting these commonplace views, they were able to lead others to face the contradictions between traditional practices and beliefs and the needs and realities of a new age—what a later generation would call thinking and acting “outside the box.”

At first glance Lincoln and Darwin would seem to have little in common—one born to a struggling and obscure family on the American frontier, the other to a wealthy and prominent English family; one with less than a year’s formal education, the other with a degree from Cambridge University; one a lawyer and politician, the other a scientist and country gentleman; one seeking the approval of the crowd, the other a partial recluse.

But the similarities are striking, and examining these (along with the differences) helps us to understand each man better. Both lost their mothers in childhood and both lost beloved children at young ages, both had strained relations with their fathers, both struggled with religious doubt, both hated slavery, both read and admired William Shakespeare, both were latter-day sons of the Enlightenment who elevated reason over religious revelation, both were ambitious as well as patient men, both had sure and steady mental powers rather than quick minds, and, despite vast differences in their formal educations, both were in many ways self-taught. Both were skillful “politicians” who could persuade others to support them and help lay the groundwork for future triumphs. They also shared a common political inheritance, rooted in the Whig traditions of both countries. Perhaps most important, they possessed an excellent sense of pacing that allowed them to wait until the time was ripe for their ideas and leadership.

These common factors—especially difficulties in childhood, burning ambitions, a willingness to postpone decisions about careers and to reject the familiar notions of their age, a superb sense of timing, and dogged determination—set Lincoln and Darwin apart. Although working in different fields, these qualities allowed both men to stand out from the several thousand other individuals born in the English-speaking world on February 12, 1809.

Lincoln and Darwin were also fortunate in when and where they lived. Darwin came from a country where gentlemen scientists had the wealth and leisure to explore and experiment. Lincoln flourished in a place where individuals—if they were white and male—could rise as far as their native abilities, hard work, and incidents of luck would take them. Religious dissent and political and social reform movements stirred minds on both sides of the Atlantic.

Along with the good fortunes of time and place, both men suffered from serious depression throughout their adult lives. Both seem to have inherited tendencies toward melancholia, but ambition, overwork, and the stresses of their controversial causes contributed to emotional breakdowns. Yet these sufferings may have offered deeper insights even as these insights provoked additional ill health. In the end, both maintained a will to live by throwing themselves into a line of work that might assure lasting fame.

Lincoln and Darwin never met, though there is no doubt that Darwin, who faithfully followed world events through the English newspapers and who corresponded with Harvard botanist Asa Grey about Lincoln and the Civil War (often disapprovingly), knew about the American president’s struggles to save the Union and abolish slavery. It is unclear if Lincoln knew about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, but he was fascinated by the idea of evolution and had devoured an earlier book on the subject called Vestiges of Creation by Robert Chambers. There is every reason to believe that the publication of Origin, given all the publicity that it received in the United States, came to Lincoln’s attention at some point.

Two centuries after the births of these remarkable men, and nearly a century and a half after their greatest achievements, the period in which they lived—before automobiles, airplanes, space travel, the electronic media, antibiotics, and even a germ theory of disease—seems very remote from our own. But Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were asking and answering questions that will not go away. What is the meaning of human freedom and how can we best achieve it? How did the incredibly complex and interrelated life forms on our planet come to exist, and how can we best save this precious biological inheritance? Is evolution a random process without any ultimate purpose, or has it been directed by some kind of intel
ligent design? How do paradigm shifts occur and why do some extraordinary individuals gather the strength and courage to lead them?

The writings of these two men became instant classics. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address—continue to inspire and provoke. During their own lifetimes, and after, cartoonists never tired of depicting these two distinctive looking men, whose faces remain among the best known of all historical figures. In the United States Lincoln has long appeared on the five-dollar bill and the penny; and in England, Darwin graces the widely circulated ten-pound note. Places and institutions all over the world bear their names.

Both men have been subjects of controversy over the years. Darwin continued to have critics within the scientific community, though mainly in the generation or two after his death, before the breakthroughs in genetics during the first half of the twentieth century. Not unexpectedly, Lincoln was excoriated in the South. More surprisingly, some historians on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line played down his commitment to human equality and accused him of undue sympathies with the southern way of life. This was partly the result of a growing spirit of reconciliation between the North and South around 1900. Many progressive reformers, on the other hand, were inspired by Lincoln’s idealism and use of vigorous executive authority to bring about change.

During the past century debates over Lincoln and Darwin have run into new and unexpected channels, and sometimes came full circle, as earlier praises and condemnations reappeared and then faded away. Religious opposition to Darwin remained and even intensified in some parts of the faith community, particularly in the United States where the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 riveted the attention of a nation. Eight decades later the struggles over teaching evolution in the public schools erupted when parents sued the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board in federal court for requiring the presentation of intelligent design claims in biology classes. In England, where religious fundamentalism has been less prominent and where the national school curriculum has long mandated the teaching of evolution, there has been much less controversy.

During World War II and the cold war against communism, Darwin’s reputation suffered as Lincoln’s rose. Critics of both Nazi Germany and communist Russia unfairly linked Darwin with the materialism and violence of these regimes. Lincoln, on the other hand, was used to personify everything that was good about the American way of life.

During the war years, historian Richard Hofstadter took social Darwinists to task for bolstering cutthroat capitalism and thwarting progressive reforms. Soon after the war, Hofstadter also turned his critical guns on Lincoln, whose praise of capitalistic competition, he charged, furthered the cause of the robber barons.

By the 1960s, Lincoln’s image was suffering, ironically, among many African American historians who renewed the charge that Lincoln was a racist and southern sympathizer. Those who wanted to strengthen the power of the national executive, including President George W. Bush, pointed to Lincoln’s wartime suspension of habeas corpus to justify the withdrawal of certain constitutional protections in “the war against terror.”

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have helped to teach us what it means to be human—free, equal, and connected to the rest of the cosmos. Debates over what they said, did, and represented remain intense as we observe their 200th birthday anniversaries in 2009. Hardly a day passes without some mention of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin in the mass media. To know ourselves in today’s world, we must come to terms with these two rebel giants of the nineteenth century.

David R. Contosta

This essay was adapted from David R. Contosta, Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, Prometheus Books © 2008. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Two centuries ago, two men, one an American and one an Englishman, turned their world—and ours—upside down. They were Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Astonishingly, both men were born on the exact same day, February 12, 1809. While this might seem the kind of coincidence that fills astrologers with glee, further reflection points to many …

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