Day By Day

Friday, February 12, 2010

This Day In History

On this day in 1809 Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born and one hundred years to the day later the NAACP was founded. This is truly an auspicious day.

No president, with the possible exception of George Washington, is more highly regarded than Abraham Lincoln which might be thought unusual because during his lifetime he was widely despised. I have long argued that the reputation of historical figures depends less on what they actually did than in their ideological or cultural utility. If it serves the interest of people to exalt the memory of a person he or she will be exalted; if it serves their interest to denigrate that person, he or she will be despised.

There is no doubt that Lincoln was a significant figure. Politically, he articulated a moderate position on the great issue of his day, slavery, that a majority of Americans could support and this enabled him to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency and to be elected against more famous and prestigious opponents. His election, however, broke the union as several states elected to secede rather than to remain in a nation dominated by Republicans.

Lincoln's decision to reunite the nation by force was highly controversial, especially as conflict dragged on and casualties mounted. Moreover, in his response to the military crisis Lincoln, more than any other president, systematically and flagrantly violated both the word and the spirit of the Constitution. Despite mounting opposition within the Northern States Lincoln was able to secure re-election in 1864 and, more importantly, to hold together a majority coalition in support of the war effort. Moreover, Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation", while it had little practical effect, was an enormously important policy statement because it in effect changed the nation's war aims from preservation of the Union to the abolition of slavery. His "Gettysburg Address" while little noted at the time has since been seen as an important statement redefining the nature of the Federal Union, and many of the policies he adopted during wartime promoted national economic, financial, and cultural unity.

Was this enough to make Lincoln the greatest [in the minds of many] president of all? Perhaps, although a strong counter-argument could be [and occasionally has been] made. But as Sean Wilentz has recently pointed out in a long review article [here], Lincoln has often been accorded undeserved praise [see also here]. This is because successive generations of scholars have found Lincoln's memory to be useful. His assassination made him in the post-war decades a martyr to national unity, invoked by nationalists of all stripes and of course the Republican Party found his martyred memory useful in their political campaigns. Toward the end of the century, as the nation sought to integrate a flood of immigrants, Lincoln's wise-cracking country boy persona became a useful symbol of the essential American character. In the mid-twentieth century, in the midst of intense ideological conflict, Lincoln was recast as a moderate who held the nation together in an age of extremism. And, of course Lincoln was also invoked as a symbol of the civil rights movement. I could go on, but the point is clear -- Lincoln has been a remarkably useful dead president.

No less consequential was the life of Charles Darwin and he, like Lincoln, has become a useful cultural image. His theory of evolution posed an alternative to invocations of divine providence that has stirred intense debate ever since it was first proposed. It has also provided "scientific" support to a wide range of distasteful movements, from eugenics, to scientific racism, to Western imperialism, to "social Darwinist" defenses of an oppressive class structure, to sex-based discrimination, to German race theory that involved the extermination of entire classes of people, etc. Whatever the scientific merits of Darwin's work, and they are considerable, they must be balanced against the moral implications of its application. That is why today Darwinism is just as controversial and stirs passions just as much as it did in the late Nineteenth Century.

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