Darwin in Lincoln

Call me a sybarite if you must, a crazed party animal, but I spent the evening of New Year’s Eve 2013 watching Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012), which I missed when it was in the theaters. I enjoyed it quite a lot, especially because a large portion of my leisure reading over the last couple of years has been devoted to the American Civil War, and consequently I was in a better position to know who the various characters were and what their backgrounds were than the rest of the people watching the film with me. Did you know that Fernando Wood (played by Lee Place), the Democratic member of Congress who so memorably sparred with Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), floated the idea that New York City should secede from the Union earlier in the war, when he was the city’s mayor? My knowledge of the Civil War era is not prodigious, though, and I didn’t see a lot to nitpick. Until Darwin made his indirect cameo appearance, that is.

As practically everybody will remember in the wake of the Darwin anniversaries in 2009—the bicentennial of his birth in 1809 and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859—Darwin and Lincoln shared a birthday, February 12, 1809. The two didn’t interact significantly, though. Darwin, a lifelong abolitionist, supported the North in spirit during the Civil War, and welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation (see his 1863 letter to the American botanist Asa Gray). Lincoln at least knew about Darwin. According to his law partner William H. Herndon, there were copies of “the works of Spencer, Darwin, and the utterances of other English scientists” in their office in Springfield, Illinois, but although Lincoln occasionally paged through them, he usually would put them down, claiming that they were “too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest.” That was about it.

So where in Lincoln is Darwin present? There’s a scene in which Robert Todd Lincoln, the oldest son, returns from Harvard Law School to the White House in January 1865. As he struggles with his luggage, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln is chattering away to him, while a petitioner seeks to enlist his help in interesting the president in his insolvency proceedings. According to the screenplay, Tad says to his distracted older brother:

She’s asleep, probably, they went to see Avonia Jones last night in a play about Israelites. Daddy’s meeting with a famous scientist now and he’s nervous because of how smart the man is and the man is angry about, ’cause there’s a new book that Sam Beckwith says is about finches, and finches’ beaks, about how they change, it takes years and years and years but—

Well, a new book about finches and their beaks and how they change: what could it be but the Origin? Except, of course, the Origin doesn’t really talk about finches and their beaks and how they change: the word “finch” appears all of three times in the first edition, twice in the first chapter (on variation under domestication), and once in the eighth (on hybridism), and never a word about their beaks.

It seems clear why the scriptwriter Tony Kushner went wrong, though. Ever since the British ornithologist David Lack popularized, in his 1947 book Darwin’s Finches, the term “Darwin’s finches” for the various species of finches that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands during the voyage of the Beagle, people have associated the birds with the naturalist. There’s even a legend in circulation that Darwin had a revelatory moment with the finches, although, as Frank Sulloway wrote (PDF) in a classic appraisal (1982), “Contrary to the legend, Darwin’s finches do not appear to have inspired his earliest theoretical views on evolution, even after he finally became an evolutionist in 1837; rather, it was his evolutionary views that allowed him, retrospectively, to understand the complex case of the finches.” So powerful is the legend that people, apparently including Kushner, often assume that the Galápagos finches must be highlighted in the Origin.

So far so good. But who was the famous scientist, smart enough to intimidate Lincoln, who would be angry about the Origin, whether or not it was about finches and their beaks? Only one name came to mind: Louis Agassiz, arguably the greatest American scientist of his day, the first scientist to recognize ice ages in the planet’s past, and arguably the last great naturalist to defend creationism against evolution. And indeed, a modicum of research quickly revealed that on January 15, 1865, Samuel Hooper, a Republican member of Congress from Massachusetts, brought Agassiz to visit Lincoln in the White House. According to Noah Brooks, who maintained a close friendship with Lincoln during his presidency, Lincoln was delighted to meet Agassiz, telling Brooks, who was present when Hooper's and Agassiz’s visiting cards were brought in, “Don’t go, don’t go. Sit down, and let us see what we can pick up that’s new from this great man.”

If Agassiz was hankering to complain to Lincoln about Darwin, nothing came of it. Brooks wrote, “To my surprise, however, no questions were asked about the Old Silurian, the Glacial Theory, or the Great Snow-storm, but, introductions being over, the President said, ‘I never knew how to properly pronounce your name; won’t you give me a little lesson at that, please?’” Lincoln and Agassiz continued to discuss “curious proper names in various languages” and suchlike linguistic trivia, before comparing notes about their lecturing styles. Lincoln was curious to know about how Agassiz presented his lectures to his classes at Harvard University; Agassiz, in return, asked whether Lincoln had ever lectured. Lincoln had, and described his favorite (a lecture on discoveries and inventions); Agassiz, perhaps by way of flattery, urged him to publish it. When Agassiz left, Lincoln turned to Brooks: “Well, I wasn’t so badly scared, after all! were you?”

Two loose ends. What was Agassiz doing at the White House, anyhow? According to James Lander’s Lincoln and Darwin (2010), Hooper might have “hoped Agassiz’s fame and charm would somehow improve Hooper’s chance of joining the cabinet.” (He would have hoped to succeed William P. Fessenden as the Secretary of the Treasury, since Fessenden’s plan, when he replaced Salmon P. Chase, was to serve only as long as the country was in fiscal trouble. Fessenden happily resigned in March 1865.) And who was Sam Beckwith, whom Tad Lincoln credited with the information about the cause of Agassiz’s ire? Samuel H. Beckwith was General Grant’s telegraph and cipher officer, but the character of that name in Lincoln, operating the telegraph office in the War Department, seems to have been based on David Homer Bates, who wrote a memoir of his time there—in which, as it happens, Darwin was not mentioned.

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.

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