At the end of their second century, two strange, brilliant men shape our lives
February 12, 1809 was a great day in the history of the human species, since two of its best specimens took their first breaths that day on two sides of the Atlantic. Both those infants grew into odd boys.
One split rails, plowed fields and slaughtered hogs on his father’s and neighboring farms in the still-wild Midwest, dense with forests he helped clear. The other, a son and grandson of upper-middle-class privilege, toted his gun around almost manicured English woods, bagging partridges and dreamily musing on the strange ways of nature.
One, discouraged from reading by his father, nevertheless taught himself, was elected to the Illinois state legislature, and became a lawyer, a career he returned to after one term in the U.S. Congress. The other dropped out of medical school at the great University of Edinburgh, considered becoming an Anglican priest, and against much wise advice signed on for a five-year, round-the-world voyage as the naturalist on a small naval ship.
Both harbored ambitions that seemed ludicrous to others. Both were private men who would provoke the wrath of millions and the adulation of millions more. Both hated slavery yet considered blacks inferior. Each found himself, because of his ambition, riding a tiger that he could only partly control. Each drastically changed the world.
Each, too, was among the greatest writers of his time, and used his gifts to explain the most complex matters with clarity but in all needed detail, always trying to take the dire struggles he saw in the world and frame them in the language of hope.
One wrote in 1861, at the age of 52, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The other had written in 1859, at the age of 50, "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Like so many in their time, each lost a much-loved young child—Willie Lincoln, age 11, and Annie Darwin, age 10—and during long grief became intimate with the dark side of life, cognizant of the absence of fairness, and yet resolved to persevere in spite of the very worst. Each became if anything more determined to reconcile an overarching idea about the world with the world itself.
One ran a devastating civil war and paid for that with a bullet in his brain, but saved the country he called “the last, best hope on earth” and ended the ownership of one human being by another. The other sat in his country home toying with carnivorous plants, occasionally adjudicating local disputes as a part-time magistrate in his dining room, and trying to placate his deeply religious wife while he wrote books that seemed to undermine faith even as they explained and changed the world.
But each was torn and suffered badly from the contradictions between what he thought and what others believed, between an idea whose time had come and the cost of advancing that idea. Both led lives of courage, determination, genius, decency, sadness, and hope. Two hundred years ago, on the same day, two human lives began, and the world would be a much different and poorer place if they had not.