Last week we asked: Who was more important, Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin? T.A. Frail took up the fight for Lincoln, and Laura Helmuth argued for Darwin. Today, senior editor Mark Strauss, the grand organizer of all of our recent Lincoln coverage in the magazine, takes the helm.
Please add your own arguments to the comments. Make a convincing case and I might recruit you into our little office blog war.
All good points, but aren’t we just avoiding the real issue: Who would prevail in a kickboxing match? (Lincoln was a former rail-splitter—and with those long legs of his, I’m betting that Darwin would have gone down in two.)
As for the more mundane question of who was more influential, I think there’s a third variation on the way Laura approaches the debate: How would history have been different if either of these men had never been born? (Otherwise known as the “It’s a Wonderful Life” theory of human history.)
If Darwin had never been born, I genuinely believe it would have been only a matter of time before someone else introduced the theories of natural selection and evolution. Would the case for the “Great Idea” have been as meticulously researched and logically argued as Darwin presented it? Probably not. In that regard, he was truly one of a kind. But, once the idea was out there, it still would have eventually gained widespread acceptance, following years of additional research, arguments and counter-arguments. (Lest we forget, even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was controversial in its day.)
But if Lincoln had never been born, I’m convinced that I would need a passport today to visit Virginia. Such was Lincoln’s political and military genius that I have a difficult time imagining how any other leader in his position could have saved the Union and recreated the nation. (Before the Civil War, people said, “The United States are…” After Lincoln, they said, “The United States is….”)
I don’t know how a Confederate States of America and a United States of America would have gotten along. (I’ll leave such conjecture to the alternate history buffs.) But, I do think that both nations would have been worse off without the other—and one does not have to be U.S.-centric to argue that the United States had a profound and beneficial impact on the 20th century. (Who else would have turned the tide against the Axis Powers? Who else had the resources to contain the Soviet Union?)
And while I do agree that slavery would have eventually collapsed on its own, I also believe that—absent Lincoln’s bold and visionary decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation—it could have been decades before the Confederacy’s “peculiar institution” was finally banished. (And, subsequent advances in civil rights would have likewise been delayed.) For the four million people in bondage, the 13th Amendment couldn’t come soon enough—indeed, it was centuries too late.