A Fateful Day: February 12, 1809
February 12, 1809 was a fateful day. On that day two giants were born, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln is celebrated as one of America’s greatest presidents. Darwin is acclaimed as one of history’s greatest scientists. Lincoln is remembered as the man who freed the slaves. Darwin’s theory of evolution fundamentally changed our understanding of biology. Yet the legacy of both men is much more complicated than many realize.
While Lincoln deserves credit for turning the carnage of the Civil War to a noble end, I find it disturbing that he is revered so highly. Should the best president be the one who killed more Americans than all the other presidents combined? The South had no intention of invading the North in 1861 and the minor incident at Fort Sumter (in which nobody died) is not really a sufficient casus belli. Lincoln could have overlooked the incident, which took place in Southern territory. Wilson did not bring the U.S. into war in 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine even though 128 Americans onboard died.
In 1862 as the cannons resounded in increasingly destructive battles Lincoln was perfectly clear regarding his reason for going to war. In an open letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley Lincoln stated: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” This is a truly awful reason for fighting a war! If Quebec opted for independence and a Canadian leader decided to prosecute a brutal civil war to force Quebec to submit to the Ottawa government what would we think of him? Late in the war Lincoln adopted emancipation as a goal. However, we should remember tyrants have used the liberation of slaves as an excuse to subjugate nations. Both Mussolini (in Ethiopia) and Mao (in Tibet) claimed to be liberators to justify invasion.
We should not forget Lincoln’s contempt for basic rights nor the suffering caused by Lincoln’s blockade and nor Lincoln’s invasionracism. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers. Lincoln did not always side with abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman or Elijah Lovejoy. African American and libertarian scholars have been at the forefront of historians who reject the syrupy myth of “Honest Abe”.
Andrew Jackson is widely condemned for relocating Native Americans, but Lincoln had his own “Trail of Tears”.
I accept the evidence for evolution, However, the pseudo-scientific cults surrounding Darwinism have been among the deadliest in history: racism, imperialism, eugenics, social Darwinism, fascism, Nazism. though I think the scientific objections to Darwin’s theory are not trivial.
Darwin opposed slavery, but his views on race were not entirely enlightened. In The Descent of Man he speculated: “At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes...will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”
Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, was enraptured by The Origin of Species. He invented the term eugenics and advocated its practice. Many on the right and left, not only Nazis, embraced eugenics. The Eugenics Society counted among its members Galton along with John Maynard Keynes, Julian Huxley, Madison Grant, and Havelock Ellis. Other fans of eugenics include George Bernard Shaw and Harold Laski and Leon Trotsky and Margaret Sanger. Sanger loved eugenics so much she vigorously opposed charity because it bred constantly increasing numbers of the "unfit". See: The Pivot of Civilization
In his Ontology and Phylogeny paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that Darwin’s cheerleader Ernst Haeckel’s “evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a "just" state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others . . . all contributed to the rise of Nazism."
Various 19th century figures deserve blame for the militarism, hyper-nationalism, imperialism, tyranny, “scientific” racism, and dehumanization which infected parties of the right and the left and made a bloody disaster of the 20th century. Some of these men managed to combine devotion to soulless capitalism and statism. Lincoln and Darwin, together with other 19th century figures like John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte and Thomas Carlyle and Cesare Lombroso and Jules Ferry and Benjamin Disraeli, require something other than simple-minded veneration. Two particularly destructive 19th century thinkers, Nietzsche and Marx, deserve only condemnation.