Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery
Perhaps Lincoln and Darwin have something else in common: they brought extraordinary ideas to fruition, but they didn't gratify their public's desire (and ours) for a full accounting of their significance. Lincoln's most famous speeches are the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, each a miracle of concision. He laid the groundwork for the incorporation of black people as citizens of the United States, but he said tantalizingly little about the challenges of integration and a multiracial democracy. Although Darwin lived until 1882 and kept up an active correspondence, he placed strict limits on his public appearances and pronouncements: to see Charles Darwin outside his Kent village was a rarity, and to know what he was thinking you had to wait for his next book (which was probably about facial expressions or earthworms rather than, say, the fate of British India). Even by the standards of the day these men were unobliging celebrities, and our desire to lift them out of their historical setting distracts us from the people who actually mediated their ideas for a contemporary audience.
These figures are the subject of Barry Werth's Banquet at Delmonico's, an important diversion from this year's raft of anniversary books. Werth writes about the period from 1871 to 1882 and promises to chronicle "the triumph of evolution in America" after the Civil War. His main protagonist is Herbert Spencer, the British writer who applied evolutionary concepts to social analysis and became even more famous than Darwin. The book offers vivid sketches of Spencer and his American devotees, who ranged from the libidinous preacher Henry Ward Beecher to the steel baron Andrew Carnegie. These men were rarely out of the papers, they wielded political and economic power and they drove ahead with abandon. On one level, the book is a study of how ideas are understood, reworked, mangled and applied to society: Banquet at Delmonico's is like a racier version of The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand's worthy study of the origins of pragmatism. But by focusing on the 1870s, with Lincoln dead and Darwin mostly silent on the pressing questions of the day, Werth also offers a portrait of how ideas can be transformed if their originators vacate the public sphere.
After the Civil War, the major American misreading of Darwin--which may simply have reflected a preference for Spencer--was that evolution promised progress. Darwin was clear, in both Origin of Species and Descent of Man, that neither natural selection nor sexual selection guaranteed improvements over time. An organism might be thrown off course by accidents and contingencies--disease, climate change--that upset the natural order of things, and even slight variations in circumstances could have enormous effects. Spencer, and especially his American audience, concluded instead that "survival of the fittest" (Spencer's phrase) promised to advance society wherever it was permitted to operate freely. Some of the best parts of Werth's book sketch the application of this dogma to the terrible recession of 1873-78, during which the government bowed to Spencerian lobbyists and did nothing to increase the money supply or stimulate spending.
Spencer was considerably more complicated than his most famous phrase suggests: he befriended socialists, believed in legal aid and even the redistribution of land, and on his eventual visit to America in 1882 berated his hosts for working too hard (hypocritically, given his own bouts of industry). Werth doesn't offer much in the way of interpretation or big ideas, preferring to leave his characters and stories to speak for themselves. But what comes across clearly in his book is that while blacks and Indians were further marginalized in the 1870s by the collapse of Reconstruction and conflicts over the federal reservations policy, and while poor people starved in overcrowded slums, many of the most famous men in America embraced the idea that the United States was on the side of inexorable progress. A society in retreat from social and economic intervention took refuge in evolutionary principles even as it abdicated its responsibility to the neediest. In all of this, the better angels of Darwin and Lincoln didn't count for much.