Abe and Charles, United by Middle Class Values

Michael Medved
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Posted: Feb 18, 2009 12:01 AM
Abe and Charles, United by Middle Class Values

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.

Down House, with its extensive, shaded grounds and well-kept gardens, provided a far more gracious and spacious dwelling than did Lincoln's downtown home in bustling, freshly settled state capital, but then Darwin grew up as the son of a prosperous and prominent physician, while Lincoln really did begin life in abject poverty in a log cabin with a dirt floor. Nevertheless, by the time he purchased the respectable house at Eighth and Jackson Streets, Lincoln had become a noted lawyer and veteran state legislator whose additions to the building made it one of the finest homes in the neighborhood. The 1860 Census showed the house inhabited by "Abraham Lincoln, a 51-year-old lawyer," his 42-year-old wife, their three surviving sons, as well as a "22-year old hired girl" (one M. Johnson) and a 14-year-old "hired boy," Phillip Dinkell.

The interiors of the two homes display striking similarities, especially since the painstaking restoration to their original Victorian splendor with over-stuffed furniture, patterned wallpaper, heavy curtains, busy, decorative and richly-hued carpets, thick wooden desks and chests, innumerable ornate candlesticks, sentimental sculptures, framed prints and portraits, and well-stocked libraries with handsomely bound volumes of cherished books. Both homes qualify as handsome and comfortable, even by the standards of our own age, let alone the more modest terms of the mid-nineteenth century. Though Lincoln and Darwin never came close to meeting, each of them might have adapted without too much difficulty to his counterpart's abode, though Charles would have surely commandeered the Lincoln "guest room" to accommodate his ongoing specimens and experiments. Despite the scientific paraphernalia in Down House, the two houses each come across as undeniably homey, cozy, unpretentious, snug. The untranslatable German word "gemutlich" comes to mind--- agreeable, comfortable, pleasant, down to earth.

The two homes highlight the prominent roles that Lincoln and Darwin proudly and passionately shared: as husbands, fathers, householders. In the parlance of their era, both men qualified as "gentlemen" – Darwin by birth and breeding, Lincoln through his own relentless and self-conscious effort. While Darwin compiled a glittering record at Cambridge, Lincoln made up for his own lack of formal education by driving his oldest boy, Robert, to academic excellence. When Robert failed his Harvard entrance exams in 1859, the Lincolns enrolled him at Phillips Exeter Academy in distant New Hampshire, until he won admittance to Harvard on his second try (and graduated before entering the Union Army in 1864).

Both Lincoln and Darwin adored their children, and mourned prodigiously over the early, tragic death of Annie Darwin (aged ten, in 1851), Eddie Lincoln (age four, in 1850), and Willie Lincoln (age eleven, in 1862, at the height of the Civil War). Both men relished spending time in family pursuits at home. Lincoln enjoyed reading aloud to his boys, or wrestling with them on the floor -- though his career as a circuit-riding lawyer and ceaselessly ambitious politician kept him frequently on the road. Describing the carefully reconstructed ground floor of Down House, the curators explain: "Here you imagine Darwin, the man and father, scooting about his study in his wheeled armchair, taking on his sons at billiards and sprawling on the blue couch in the drawing room while Emma plays her grand piano (with 'vigour and spirit, but not passion,' recalled their daughter Henrietta)."

Both men, despite bouts of anxiety and "melancholy" (to use a phrase in vogue at the time) took great care to live up to expectations in their conventional, respectable, honorable roles as family patriarchs. Other bearded eminences of the era showed well-advertised contempt for middle class mores – as did Lincoln's worshipful poetic supporter, Walt Whitman, or Darwin's fan Karl Marx (who sent the naturalist an inscribed copy of the first volume of "Das Kapital," signed "from his sincere admirer.")

In the last analysis, rebels and free spirits could dismiss Abe and Charles as hopelessly bourgeois—timid souls who whole-heartedly embraced the proper joys of family life so frequently celebrated in the Victorian age. Though married relatively late in life (Darwin at 29, Lincoln at 33), both men ultimately seized the opportunity wittily described by their contemporary W.S. Gilbert: "to indulge in the felicity/ of unbounded domesticity." Yes, Lincolns and Darwins suffered their share of tragedies– the sort of losses melodically mourned in the sentimental songs that Honest Abe immoderately loved –but these setbacks in no way compromised the commitment of the two heads of household to ideals of family bliss.

In commemorating the dual bicentennial of February, 2009, this crucial, unshakable and enthusiastically shared attitude on the part of the martyred president and the world-shaking scientist managed to escape serious notice from leading commentators. It's too bad, since few interested individuals can hope to replicate the genius or stature of the two birthday boys, but we can each aspire to their favored function as devoted fathers, good neighbors, and proud heads of household in comfortable and respectable middle class homes.