Beyond the much-discussed coincidence of their shared birthday on February 12, 1809, what common factors linked Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin?
The simultaneous bicentennial celebrations of America's 16th President and Britain's most celebrated naturalist featured endless attempts to connect the two great men.
The most common formulation portrayed them both as liberators, with Lincoln breaking the chains of slavery and Darwin purportedly freeing all humanity from the bondage of ignorance and superstition. Superficial resemblances (yes, the twin titans both wore beards) also helped to fuel the recent trans-Atlantic efforts to compare the careers of two of the most influential individuals of the nineteenth century. For instance, both Darwin and Lincoln achieved international fame relatively late in life: the pioneering scientist at age 50 with publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859 and the often-frustrated prairie politician with his election as president the following year. The two men also shared a passionate loathing of slavery, along with enduring a lifelong series of mysterious maladies, with periods of incapacitation and apparent depression derived from undiagnosed illness (that may have been psychosomatic). Darwin, who outlived the assassinated Lincoln by almost exactly seventeen years, spent the last years of his life cruelly tormented by his punishing intestinal problems and painfully inflamed skin.
For all the strained efforts to join these two fascinating figures as destiny's darlings, the leading commentators have largely ignored their most significant common trait – a crucial factor in both lives that becomes unmistakably obvious after a visit to their homes.
Both structures now function as museums consecrated to the memory of their one-time occupants. The Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois (administered since 1972 by the National Park Service) sheltered Abe and Mary Lincoln and their four boys for seventeen years preceding his departure for the White House. The Darwins (Charles, Emma and their ten children, seven of whom survived childhood) spent more than forty years in Down House in the Kent countryside not far from London. Their newly restored and re-opened home welcomes visitors under the auspices of English Heritage.
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