Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Lincoln and Darwin

Thursday's "Our View" for the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board.

As a prime example of the aberrant synchronicities that punctuate our otherwise chaotic universe, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared a birthday 200 (or 10-score and zero) years ago today. For the past few months, this random confluence of two 19th-century Aquariuses has had many 21st century pundits and public intellectuals sparring over which man had the more profound impact on the world as we now know it:

• The politician or the scientist?

• The emancipator of slaves or the observer of evolutionary processes?

• The man who saved the union or the man who shook faith itself to the core?

Adam Gopnik, in his new book, "Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life," clearly favors Darwin in this political-scientific smackdown -- calling Darwin a "world maker" because of the far-reaching consequences of his legacy. And we, in agreement with President Obama's Inauguration Day call to "restore science to its rightful place," don't mind admitting that the legacy of America's greatest president plays second fiddle to that of the British author of "Origin of the Species" -- a book that turns 150 this year.

But that slight qualification doesn't take away from how much our current leaders could stand to learn from the example of our 16th U.S. president. The man contemporaries once dismissed as a "first-rate second-rate man," now gets hailed as America's greatest leader. As pragmatic politician, Lincoln sought to have his fellow citizens substitute dispassionate reason and obedience to the law for the zeal and violence that too often defined mid-19th-century politics. And as a martyred leader, one we remember more for his poetic outbursts than for his complex legal arguments, Lincoln managed to surpass the cultural limitations of his day and to help move America closer toward that "more perfect union."

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote in answer to the question, "Was Lincoln a racist?":

"He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias in his early years and throughout his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Senate race (the seat that would become Barack Obama's), which he lost. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed -- and loved -- the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And ... his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere" (

Lincoln's complicated legacy isn't one for the angels, but it is one for the ages.

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