Two hundred and nine years ago today, the sun rose over the English village of Shrewsbury. Susannah Darwin was about to give birth to her fifth child, Charles. Her husband Robert was a financier. Her father was a Wedgewood, of pottery fame. Times were not tough in the Darwin household.
The sun moved over the Atlantic, heading for Hardin County, Kentucky. Later in the day — the Darwins’ day, anyway — it passed over the log cabin of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, whose son Abraham had just been born. Times were always tough in the Lincoln household.
All in all, it was a memorable day, if not for the sun, then for the rest of us.
Forty-nine years later, in 1858, Darwin was an amateur naturalist, unemployed but content as a man of leisure. He had achieved some degree of fame with his 1839 book, Journal and Remarks, 1832-1835, known today as The Voyage of the Beagle, but he had not made any major contribution to science.
He had been working for over a quarter century on a manuscript about evolution. He could not bring himself to finish it. That year, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist living in the Malay Peninsula. Wallace in his autobiography said he had been afflicted by a fever. While in bed, he had come up with a theory of evolution through natural selection. He sent the outline of his theory to Darwin.
Darwin was stunned. The theory was almost identical with his own, even with the same section categories. If Wallace got into print first, he would be the winner, though it was not clear what exactly he would be winner of. Darwin told some of his friends, who persuaded him to offer Wallace joint authorship of a paper on natural selection. Wallace agreed. The paper was published in The Journal of the Linnean Society in 1858. It attracted no interest. Darwin was still unknown to the world.
In that same year, 1858, Abraham Lincoln lost the race for United States Senate to Stephen A. Douglas. In 1839, the same year that Darwin’s book appeared, Mary Todd was courted by Douglas, but she decided to end the relationship in favor of Lincoln. It could be said that Douglas had defeated Lincoln twice. In 1858, they were both successful lawyers for the Illinois Central Railroad, but Douglas was the more successful of the two.
In late 1859, Charles Darwin’s book appeared: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The entire edition of 1250 copies sold out the first day. Well, 1170 copies; the others had been sent out as review copies. This was not a best-seller.
That same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Lincoln delivered a speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society on the importance of state fairs. He began with these words: “Agricultural Fairs are becoming an institution of the country; they are useful in more ways than one; they bring us together, and thereby make us better acquainted, and better friends than we otherwise would be.” Not a spellbinding beginning. The ending was not much better. Lincoln seemed to be on a slow track to oblivion.
Then came 1860. Lincoln was invited to give a speech at Cooper Union in New York City. That led to his nomination for President by the Republicans. In November, he won the Presidency.
By the end of 1860, Darwin’s book was becoming famous, due initially to the efforts of his friend Thomas Huxley, who wrote four glowing reviews, including one in the influential Times of London in December of 1859.
At the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, Darwin’s book, along with his follow-up book, The Descent of Man(1871), had conquered the intellectual world. His theory of evolution through natural selection was re-shaping legal theory. One piece of evidence is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s, book, The Common Law (1881).
Deeply affected by 1885 was the new academic discipline of sociology. Social Darwinism had become a major intellectual movement. There were two camps. A laissez-faire camp was led by Herbert Spencer, who coined a phrase that Darwin adopted in later editions of Origin: “the survival of the fittest.” Opposed to him was Lester Frank Ward, who believed that Darwinian science gives a scientific and educational elite the ability and therefore the legal right to plan society. Both men appealed to Darwin’s theory as justification.
Lincoln’s wartime policies re-shaped the politics of the United States. This transformation was reflected in a change of grammar. In 1860, men said “the United States are.” After 1865, they said “the United States is.”