Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery | The Nation


Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

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Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. As historical coincidences go, this isn't quite as stunning as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson departing this world within a few hours of each other in 1826. Not only were Adams and Jefferson architects of the American Revolution, but they died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Darwin and Lincoln never met or corresponded, and they distinguished themselves in very different endeavors. But Adam Gopnik uses the coincidence of their birth to make the case, in Angels and Ages, for their shared significance as "prophets of liberal civilization." Lincoln and Darwin have incontestable claims to posterity: one saved the Union from collapse and altered the course of history; the other developed the single most important scientific idea about life on our planet. Both retain a power to fascinate: for Gopnik, Lincoln and Darwin have "never been more present."

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Nicholas Guyatt
Nicholas Guyatt, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, teaches American history at the University of York in...

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Gopnik depicts the two men as "snails with sublime purposes" who inched toward mighty conclusions. You know the obvious ones: the need for liberty and union to triumph over slavery and secession, the power of natural selection to explain the development of every living organism. Gopnik argues that these men shared an even deeper insight. They came to believe in "a world without a present God but with providential purposes." Both rejected orthodox religious doctrines and embraced rationalism and science, yet they imagined a higher purpose for humanity. Gopnik has a variety of names for their vision: "enchanted secularism," "natural universalism," "mystical materialism." By the end of his book, he's become a passionate advocate for the same outlook.

What Gopnik offers in the preceding pages is accessible and nicely turned hagiography, which detaches Darwin and Lincoln from their times and draws attention away from their quirks and limitations. There's a dash of mystery--did Lincoln's first eulogizer, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, declare on the president's deathbed that he belonged to the angels, or to the ages? Mostly, though, the book treads familiar ground. The best parts are about writing; from On the Origin of Species to the Gettysburg Address, Gopnik says that both men were committed to a plain-spoken style that allowed for moments of transcendence. They were proponents of a "literary eloquence" shaped by the existence and intelligence of a mass audience; both men searched for the truth--about the natural world or politics--and both recognized the need to convey their convictions to the public.

By turning Lincoln and Darwin into champions of modern liberal persuasion, Gopnik is fashioning a usable past for our troubled times. One can hear echoes of Paul Berman or Christopher Hitchens as Gopnik describes what's at stake in venerating his heroes and why we shouldn't take their achievements for granted. ("There is a constant struggle between the spirit of free inquiry and the spirit of fundamentalist dogma," Gopnik observes.) The cost of this approach, in which Lincoln and Darwin are retrofitted to withstand the shocks of contemporary debates, is fidelity to detail and the bigger picture of the nineteenth century. Gopnik's occasional prickliness toward scholarly historians--at one point he complains about the "quavers and qualifications of professional history" that would marginalize the role of Lincoln's election in hastening Southern secession--only serves to draw attention to his overreaching.

In his rush to praise Darwin as a solitary genius, Gopnik downplays the naturalist's extraordinary reliance on networks of information and promotion that were transforming knowledge in the Victorian world. Darwin drew upon an incredible array of correspondents in his research, and he retreated behind a well-tended group of partisans who promoted his theories in everything from the Times of London to the meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. (During these meetings, at which the bishop of Oxford denounced natural selection, one of Darwin's disciples sensationally remarked that he'd rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man of the cloth who "introduc[es] ridicule into a grave scientific discussion.") Gopnik nonchalantly observes that "almost everyone" read Darwin, but the dissemination of Darwinian ideas relied to a great extent on the published writings of other people, many of whom had very different ideas about the role of evolution in shaping contemporary affairs.

With Lincoln, the challenge is to present the president as an enchanted secularist in spite of indelible evidence for his religious commitment. Gopnik's platform is the Second Inaugural Address, which "feels so familiar that it is hard for us to grasp how complicated it is." Most Americans can probably remember a bit of the speech, which Lincoln delivered a few weeks before his death: it's the one in which he talked about God favoring neither the North nor the South completely, and made the jarring claim that the war would be justified by the sin of slavery even if it lasted for 250 years. As Gopnik wrings the address for evidence of Lincoln's spiritual crisis, his eloquence falters and he spins a web of qualifications that sounds like a rental car agreement:

If we accept what God knew to be the evil of slavery into the world, and into America, for some mysterious purpose but with a definite lease, intending to end it, and if God made the war so horrible in order to punish those who brought the evil into the country (notwithstanding that God deliberately failed to prevent them from doing it in the first place), then does this strange equation make us believe less in a God capable of acting so bizarrely? Well, no, Lincoln says, even if that were so, "still it must be said that 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

The strained conclusion is that Lincoln, like Job, came to view history with a "mystical resignation." Gopnik asserts that Lincoln used his Second Inaugural to tell Americans (if they were listening very carefully) that "the war is willed by fate for reasons that we cannot fully know but that must have something to do with the balancing scales of long historical time."

The more prosaic explanation would be that Lincoln, mindful that the war was nearly over, was looking to the challenge of reunion and the need to bring white Southerners back into the fold. In March 1865 it was a lot easier to invoke a conflict lasting for 250 years than it would have been even six months earlier. This new insistence on God punishing North and South was a clear corrective to the triumphalist sermons of many Northern preachers who, emboldened by the impending collapse of Lee's army in Virginia, aligned God with the Union cause alone. You don't need to see Lincoln as Job to make sense of the speech: it was theologically persuasive and politically useful to insist that both sides had been humbled for their complicity in American slavery.

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