Dealing with Darwin (and Lincoln)

George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Sadly, Orwell’s exhortation to freedom has been all too often violated in our nation’s past and reading David N. Livingstone’s excellent book, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Arguments with Evolution (2014) provides confirmation of this abridgment of liberty. Livingstone’s work is based upon his 2014 Gifford Lectures and investigates “how religious communities dealt with Darwin and . . . the role played by what I call place, politics, and rhetoric in public encounters with one of the greatest scientific theories of our time” (preface). His key argument, it seems to me, is that “place, politics, and rhetoric were decisive in how the encounter was conducted and how evolution was judged in . . . different venues” (page 26).

The venue I am most interested in here is, of course, the United States. The fourth chapter of Dealing with Darwin, “Columbia, Woodrow, and the Legacy of the Lost Cause” details the firing of James  Woodrow (the Uncle of future president Woodrow Wilson) “from the professorship he had held for over a quarter of a century at the Southern Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, on account of his views on Darwin’s theory of evolution” (page 117). Woodrow’s “sin”? He thought Darwin was more or less right and it cost him his job.

Now, what interests me here, and be patient dear reader, because this does have relevance to Lincoln, I assure you, is that Woodrow’s case was not only about evolution, but also related to questions regarding race and (white) southern culture. Woodrow’s opponents were biblical literalists and Livingstone shows that “Darwin’s theory challenged [Robert] Dabney’s cozy cosmos head-on” (page 145), it “challenged the foundation of scripture, slavery, sound science, and social stratification on which southern civilization rested” (page 149). This is the same Robert Dabney, of course, who viewed the Civil War as a theological war between the North and South, with the virtuous, white, Christian South attempting to fend off the allegedly godless, mongrel, atheistic North (Yankees). “The Bible was thus appealed to as a means of resisting a host of perceived Yankee evils – radical democracy, emancipation [Lincoln!], higher criticism, and modern science. These were seen as subversive of what was taken to be a biblically sanctioned southern culture and as promoting godless notions of human equality” (page 156).

It is important to note the word emancipation in that  sentence, because in the late nineteenth century it was Lincoln that Americans most associated with the freeing of the slaves. In my research  for Loathing Lincoln I found that Lincoln’s critics were also Darwin’s critics (I think for the most part this is still true and is in need of more investigation). For example, in the 1920s, Lincoln critic Joseph Eggleston, the president of Hampden-Sydney College (where Robert Dabney had taught) worried about the influence of Darwin in Richmond, Virginia’s, churches, and lamented to one correspondent over the way William Jennings Bryan was treated in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

I think this points toward an explanation, at least in the former states of the Confederacy,  of why some white southerners abhorred Lincoln: they equated him with modernism and they believed, as with their fear of Darwin’s theory of evolution, that to venerate Lincoln in any way was to denigrate their beloved white South. So, as I wrote in my book (page 117-118 and based on the work of historian Fred Arthur Bailey):

“No less than primary and secondary schools, higher education in the South also reflected the influence of Lost Cause advocates. In 1911 an especially conspicuous example of southern suppression of pro-Lincoln views occurred when University of Florida professor Enoch Marvin Banks published an article entitled “A Semi-Centennial View of Secession.” Banks argued that, among other things, prior to the war Lincoln and the Republican Party did not want to interfere with slavery in the South and only did so later because of the onset of war. More controversially, Banks claimed that “the Northern position on the subject” of slavery was “in harmony with dictates of an advancing civilization.” Sadly, Banks wrote, “the tragedy of the South’s past, and the tragedy of her present . . . [is] that he does not yet fully realize” this fact. To make matters worse, Banks concluded by favorably comparing Lincoln’s political philosophy with that of Jefferson Davis, which demonstrated the problems, or enemies, that groups such as the UDC rightly believed they faced:

 Viewing the great civil conflict . . . in the light of a broad historical philosophy, we are led irresistibly to the conclusion that the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong. Lincoln for the North became the champion of the principle of national integrity and declared the time ripe for vindication of its validity; Davis for the South became the champion of the principle of particularism exprest [sic] in State sovereignty and declared the time ripe for its vindication. The one advocated a principle of political organization in harmony with the age in which he lived and in accord with the teachings of history; the other advocated a principle out of harmony with his age and discredited by the history of Europe during the past thousand years. The one was a statesman of the highest order . . . the other was a statesman of a distinctly inferior order in comparison, since the cause which he championed with so much ability, heroism and devotion ran counter to the true course of political and social progress.

Banks was eventually pressured to resign from the University of Florida for such opinions, and he died a few short months later, in November 1911.”

Thus, in the former states of the Confederacy, at the very least in some instances, southerners were not at liberty to hear uncomfortable truths about Darwin or Lincoln, and thus intellectual freedom in the region was diminished.



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