A remarkable coincidence will be observed next week. Two men who made enormous impacts on the world were born on the same day two hundred years ago: February 12, 1809. Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest American president, was born in Kentucky the same day that Charles Darwin, one of the giants in the history science, was born in Britain.
It would be a stretch to assign significance to the coincidence itself, but the dual bicentennial gives us a chance to reflect on the men’s lives and lasting influences. The latest issue of Smithsonian magazine (February, 2009) makes a respectable attempt. Three articles — on Lincoln, Darwin, and both — examine the men within their era and looking back from ours. The articles are worth reading.
I especially liked two adjacent paragraphs within the third article (by Adam Gopnik) that reduced their mythological statures to those of real men. They were neither saints nor heroes nor gods, the magazine says. Lincoln was a shrewd “backwoods lawyer, … more of a politician than we would like him to be.” Darwin, meanwhile, was a “frumpy and tedious” naturalist who would “run on and on narrowly on [his] pet subjects.”
Having read much about both men — but falling far short of being a scholar on either — I rather like the view of Lincoln and Darwin as ordinary men, somewhat awkward in their own skins, who rose to greatness through the power of their arguments. Lincoln was a shrewd politician. He negotiated and made compromises. His place in history as the Great Emancipator was not along his original course, but he eventually arrived there. Darwin did not set out to create a new science. He was content to spend most of his days working in his garden at Down House. But his decades-long observations made his eventual theory of evolution difficult to ignore. Both Lincoln and Darwin were steered by ideas, faced overwhelming opposition, and maintained their beliefs. We know them today for what they said and wrote. In the end, their ideas spoke for themselves.
They were interesting men. Their names remain well-known by people around the world. They are each remembered more in mythological form than in human terms. They are disliked by some today and admired by many more. It’s been two hundred years. History doesn’t have many figures that inspire such passion so long after their lifetimes, but Lincoln and Darwin are two. They were born on the same day. Remarkable men, remarkable coincidence.