Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, has been much on our minds recently as Barack Obama moved into the White House. Exactly 200 years after Lincoln’s birth, Obama’s presidency is one fulfillment of the work Lincoln started.
Lincoln shares his birthday with Charles Darwin, the other Great Emancipator of the 19th century. Though in different ways, each liberated us from the traditions of the past.
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were exact contemporaries. Both were born on February 12, 1809 — Darwin into a comfortable family in Shropshire, England, Lincoln into humble circumstances on the American frontier.
They also came to international attention at virtually the same moment. Darwin published his epochal book, “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. The following year, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president of the United States, and in that very year Harvard botanist Asa Gray wrote the first review of Darwin’s book to appear in the United States.
They initiated twin revolutions: one brought by Lincoln — the Civil War and the emancipation of roughly four million African American slaves; the other initiated by Darwin’s explanation of the natural world through the mechanism of natural selection.
Lincoln’s Civil War transformed the social, political and racial landscape in ways which continue to play out. Darwin transformed our understanding of biology, thus paving the way for countless advances in science, especially in medicine. With this powerful scientific explanation of the origins of species, Darwin dispensed with the pseudoscientific assertions of African American inferiority. In this way, Darwin provided the scientific legitimacy for Lincoln’s political and moral actions.
Both revolutions share a commitment to the same proposition: that all human beings are fundamentally equal. In this sense, both Lincoln and Darwin deserve credit for emancipating us from the political and intellectual rationales that justified slavery.
For Lincoln, this was a political principle and a moral imperative. He was deeply ambivalent about the institution of slavery. As the war began, Lincoln believed that saving the Union, not abolishing slavery, was the cause worth fighting for.
As the war ground gruesomely on, Lincoln began to see that ending slavery was the only way to save the Union without making a mockery of the nation’s founding ideals. This is what he meant in his address at Gettysburg in 1863 when he promised that the war would bring “a new birth of freedom”; he was even more emphatic about it in his second inaugural address in 1865. Slavery could not be permitted to exist in a nation founded on the belief that we are all created equal.
For his part, Darwin was a deeply committed abolitionist from a family of deeply committed abolitionists. Exposed to slavery during his trip to South America, Darwin wrote, “It makes one’s blood boil.” He called abolishing slavery his “sacred cause.” In some of his first notes about evolution he railed against the idea that slaves were somehow less than human beings.
For Darwin, our shared humanity was simply a biological fact. Whatever variations exist among the human species — what we call “races” — are simply the natural variations that occur within all species. Like it or not, in a Darwinian world we are all members of one human family. This truth lay at the center of Darwin’s science and at the center of his abolitionism.
That understanding of human equality, arrived at from different directions and for different reasons, helps explain the opposition to the revolutions unleashed by Lincoln and Darwin, and why many Americans, alone in the developed world, continue to deny Darwinian science.
For their part, many white Southerners never accepted Lincoln’s basic proposition about the political equality of black Americans. In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction they set up the brutally baroque structures and rituals of segregation. All the elaborate laws, customs and violence of the segregated South served to deny the basic truth that all Americans are created equal. For their part, most Northerners didn’t care all that much about the “southern problem.”
No wonder, then, that many Americans simply rejected Darwin’s insights out of hand. Slavery and segregation rested on the assumption that black Americans were not fully human. Yet Darwinian science put the lie to all that.
Lincoln insisted on equality as a political fact. Darwin demonstrated it as a biological fact. In their shared commitment to human equality these two Great Emancipators, each in their own realm, helped us to break free from the shackles of the past.
Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.