I don’t know if you’ve heard this yet or not, but today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
Lincoln is a rare figure. He’s a folk hero who we know actually existed. He might be the most mythologized person in American history — the man born in a log cabin who rose to the highest office in the nation; the rail-splitter, the wrestler, the country lawyer, great emancipator. He’s more than just our greatest president. He’s the great saint of American history, a man strong enough to lead, but not too stubborn to change. We remember Lincoln as the man who freed the slaves, usually forgetting that he was at best a reluctant abolitionist for most of his public career. It wasn’t until the Civil War was well underway that he came to see slavery as truly evil, and ending it as the overriding moral purpose of the conflict. But that’s precisely why my admiration for Lincoln is so immense — he wasn’t born a great man, he grew into one. That statue in Washington is made of marble, but Abe wasn’t.
So that’s Abe Lincoln, born two hundred years ago this very day. Amazingly, this is also the 200th birthday of another giant of history, Charles Darwin. While Lincoln struggled to end physical slavery, Darwin (an abolitionist himself who took great pride in the end of slavery in his native Britain in 1833) fought against the enslavement of the mind. In 1859, a year before the election of Lincoln, Darwin published On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, which laid the foundation for evolutionary biology. It was Darwin who established the fact that evolution occurred and continues to occur, and Darwin who first constructed the theory that describes its process. If we ever construct a Mount Rushmore for scientists (while I’m on the subject, why the hell haven’t we done that?), Darwin must have his place there alongside Newton, Galileo, and Einstein. His impact on humanity and our understanding of our world and ourselves can’t be overstated.
Their contributions to history speak for themselves, but one of the things I dig the most about Lincoln and Darwin is that they were both prolific writers. Lincoln was by far the most eloquent man ever to serve as President of the United States, and for a sickly little nerd with a butterfly collection, Darwin had quite a way with words his own self. I can’t think of a better way to mark their bicentennials than to let both men speak for themselves.
First, Lincoln. The obvious move would be to quote the Gettysburg Address, but, though my appreciation for that beautiful speech hasn’t diminished even after hearing or reading it ten thousand fucking times, I’ve got something a little more original. In a letter dated April 1, 1838, young Mr. Lincoln writes to his good friend Mrs. Orville Browning, to tell her about his disastrous (and brief) engagement to a friend’s sister:
In a few days we had an interview, and although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an “old maid”, and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appellation; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat, to permit its contracting in to wrinkles; but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years; and in short, I was not all pleased with her. But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse; and I made a point of honor and conscience in all things, to stick to my word, especially if others had been induced to act on it, which in this case, I doubted not they had, for I was now fairly convinced, that no other man on earth would have her, and hence the conclusion that they were bent on holding me to my bargain. Well, thought I, I have said it, and, be consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it. At once I determined to consider her my wife; and this done, all my powers of discovery were put to the rack, in search of perfections in her, which might be fairly set-off against her defects. I tried to imagine she was handsome, which, but for her unfortunate corpulency, was actually true. Exclusive of this, no woman that I have seen, has a finer face. I also tried to convince myself, that the mind was much more to be valued than the person; and in this, she was not inferior, as I could discover, to any with whom I had been acquainted.
Shortly after this, without attempting to come to any positive understanding with her, I set out for Vandalia, where and when you first saw me. During my stay there, I had letters from her, which I did not change my opinion of either her intellect or intention; but on the contrary, confirmed it in both.
. . . I now want to know, if you can guess how I got out of it. Out clear in every sense of the term; no violation of word, honor or conscience. I don’t believe you can guess, and so I may as well tell you at once. As the lawyers say, it was done in the manner following, to wit. After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do, which by the way had brought me round into the last fall, I concluded I might as well bring it to a consummation without further delay; and so I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill-become her, under the peculiar circumstances of her case; but on my renewal of the charge, I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success. I finally was forced to give it up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection, that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also, that she whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness; and to cap the whole, I then, for the first time, began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her. But let it all go. I’ll try and out live it. Others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never be with truth said of myself. I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me.
Oddly enough, I can’t find anything this funny to quote from Darwin. Still, the writings of the father of evolution are full of wisdom, eloquence, and insight about people and the world. Here’s snippet from a letter he wrote to his friend and colleague Asa Gray, dated May 22, 1860:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—
Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.
And, since the Lincoln quote was so long, here’s a bit more from Darwin, on the subject of African slavery. The next time a creationist tries to discredit evolution by claiming Darwin was a racist (as if that would be relevant even if it were true), show them this, from The Voyage of the Beagle (1839):
I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; — nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.
. . . It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children — those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own — being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.
Happy birthday, guys. We all owe you one.