U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Challenging Their Cozy Cosmos: Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Lost Cause

The following is a guest post by John McKee Barr, who teaches history at Lone Star College–Kingwood and is the author of Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present

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 of speech has been all too often violated in U.S. history, especially regarding the lives and ideas of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (both of whom, it might be noted, were born on the same day, February 12, 1809). In so doing, a few Americans ensured – and continue to ensure – that – “vital information” about science, democracy, and the nature of human beings and their rights was denied to others, to the detriment of all Americans’ scientific, political, and intellectual liberty. Although some historians have argued that the impact of Darwin’s and Lincoln’s ideas were largely conservative, or, in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s words, both “revolutionary as well as conservative,” such was not the case with the two men’s enemies. They understood Darwin and Lincoln, either singularly or together, to be revolutionaries, powerful adversaries of their hierarchical, or vertical, worldview and they fought hard to counter their influence with every weapon at their disposal. To paraphrase the political philosopher Larry Arnhart, they fought Darwin and Lincoln not only because they thought they were wrong, but also because they feared they were right.

The fear that many people had of both men was sharply reinforced for me as I completed David N. Livingstone’s excellent, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Arguments with Evolution (2014). Livingstone’s work, based upon his 2014 Gifford Lectures, investigates “how religious communities dealt with Darwin and . . . the role played by . . . place, politics, and rhetoric in public encounters with one of the greatest scientific theories of our time” (preface). His key argument 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 the United States and, more specifically, the former states of the Confederacy. The fourth chapter of Dealing with Darwin, entitled “Columbia, Woodrow, and the Legacy of the Lost Cause,” details the firing of James Woodrow (the Uncle of future president and Lincoln admirer Woodrow Wilson) in the 1880s “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 and told white southerners something that they did not want to hear: namely, that Darwin was more or less right. In the end, it cost Woodrow his job.

As I read through this chapter on Woodrow’s dismissal, I was reminded that when I was doing research for my own book, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present (2014), I found at least one person who expressed hatred for Darwin’s theory of evolution for its threat to Christianity who was likewise critical of Abraham Lincoln. This suggested that both men were viewed, to borrow a phrase of Livingstone’s, as “infidel cankers” on the white southern soul.

Related to this point, Livingstone shows that Woodrow’s case was not only about evolution, but also inextricably connected to questions regarding race and (white) southern culture. Woodrow was no biblical literalist, but his opponents were, and they believed that “Darwin’s theory challenged [Robert] Dabney’s cozy cosmos head-on” (page 145), evolution “challenged the foundation of scripture, slavery, sound science, and social stratification on which southern civilization rested” (page 149). This is the same Robert Dabney, it must be recalled, who viewed the Civil War as a theological war between the North and South, with the supposedly 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,” Livingstone maintains, including “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).

In the fourth chapter of Loathing Lincoln, I wrote about one instance of such anxieties between the two world wars in the person of Virginian Mary DeButts Carter (1871-1948), a leader in the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a group devoted from the 1890s onward to glorifying the Confederacy (e.g. the Lost Cause) and making sure that the “truths” of history were taught in southern schools. Carter, along with many other Americans after 1865, was part of a long tradition that viewed Lincoln as an atheist and blamed him for a host of southern, or American, problems. For Carter, one insoluble dilemma was that the United States still contained a large African American presence. If the freedpeople were not living in America, she claimed, “we [white Americans?] would be free from an ever-increasing unassimilable in the body politic.” This was “Lincoln’s legacy to this country.” Carter believed that if not for Lincoln’s use of military force during the Civil War the slaves would have been peacefully emancipated and eventually colonized back to Africa.

Even more worrisome for Carter, however, was that a statue of Lincoln had been placed in the Cathedral of St. John Divine in New York City. In May 1930 she wrote a public letter to Bishop James E. Freeman of the Episcopal Church of Washington, D.C., an epistle displayed prominently in the Southern Churchman, the Episcopal church paper published out of Richmond, Virginia, complaining that “the Mariolatry that our Protestant churches so highly condemn in the Catholic church is being paralleled by a far more insidious, objectionable Lincolnolatry in our own churches.” For her, the irony of it all was too much: “What a spectacle! The reviler of Christ, selected by the Ministers of Christ, as the equal of Christ!” Although I found no explicit condemnation of Darwin from Carter in my research, considering her orthodox Christian viewpoint, her belief that “the glorification of Lincoln as next to the Nazarene and the holding him up as a model religiously, has led to this spirit of Atheism abroad in the land and is largely responsible for this Modernist movement denying that Jesus was the Son of God,” her devotion to the Lost Cause, and her circle of intellectual compatriots, it seemed highly improbable that she would have had any sympathy for Charles Darwin or his ideas.

In fact, one of Carter’s numerous correspondents was Joseph Eggleston, the president of Hampden-Sydney College (where Robert Dabney had taught), who in addition to reading Mary Carter’s (and many others) anti-Lincoln missives, criticized the influence of Darwin in southern churches. “The fight between Christianity and Modernism is now raging in Richmond, Virginia,” he told one friend in 1923. “Old St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, where General Robert E. Lee worshipped – that humble, consecrated Christian man, and sincere believer in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior – has now a Modernist preaching as its Rector, and he is substituting Evolution for the Gospel, and has recently lauded Huxley and Darwin as a modern John the Baptist.” Later, after the Scopes Trial concluded in 1925, he worried aloud to the same person about his beloved South: “As you know, as well as I do, the apostasy grows in this country at increasing speed. It gathers momentum. Here in our quiet, conservative South it is beginning to loom up in each of the Churches, even in the conservative Southern Presbyterian Church. Evolution and Modernism are the great fads of the Church, and the propaganda of the educational institutions, with few exceptions. The sense of sin is passing out rapidly, everything is getting on high gear, the dance of death increases its pace.” As for Lincoln, Eggleston was no fan: “I do not regard Lincoln as ‘the greatest criminal in all history,’” he told one correspondent. “But he committed a great crime against the South.”

Perhaps it is not all that surprising that Eggleston or white southerners more generally opposed Darwin and/or Lincoln; some overlap of hatred for the two was to some degree inevitable. Still, I think more research is warranted here, because it seems there is a connection, however tenuous, between hatred for Darwin and hatred for Lincoln. In the former states of the Confederacy some white southerners abhorred – and continue to abhor – Darwin and/or Lincoln because they were equated with modernism (e.g. egalitarianism, or a more “horizontal” society, natural rights for all, democracy, religious uncertainty if not outright atheism) and believed that to venerate either in any way denigrated their beloved white South and its hierarchical – and Christian – social arrangements. The “cozy cosmos” that they challenged, or upset, was one where, as Adam Gopnik showed several years ago, “the hierarchies of nature and race and class that had governed the world, where power fell in a fixed chain on down, were false.” In others words, in part because of Darwin and Lincoln, “life was increasingly lived on a . . . horizontal plane, [where] we are invested in our future as much as in our afterlife, and in our children more than our ancestors” (Gopnik, Angels and Ages, 7). More than most, the enemies of Darwin and Lincoln keenly understood the threat such an outlook posed to their society.

Consequently, white southerners attempted, with considerable success, to regulate what was taught about both men in southern schools, as evidenced by the Scopes Trial in Darwin’s case, or in the Enoch Marvin Banks imbroglio regarding Lincoln. Banks, a professor at the University of Florida, committed an unpardonable sin in 1911, analogous to Woodrow’s, when he expressed the idea that “we are led irresistibly to the conclusion that the North was relatively in the right [in the late Civil War], 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.” For this, Banks was forced to resign his appointment.

To be clear, this is not to say that some northern states did not occasionally censor unpleasant books or materials, as H.L. Mencken discovered in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1926. In fact, the anti-Lincoln writer Charles L.C. Minor’s The Real Lincoln (1901), a compilation of almost everything negative said about the sixteenth president during the Civil War, was excluded from Boston’s libraries in the 1920s, while a few years later Edgar Lee Masters’s scathingly critical biography, Lincoln: The Man (1931) was “banned in parts of Boston and Philadelphia” and “Congress even considered banning the book from the U.S. mails” (page 191, Loathing Lincoln). Thus intellectual freedom was circumscribed in the North, too, although not without public protest from well-known figures such as Mencken who, it might be added, had imbibed the Lost Cause view of Lincoln yet retained affection for Darwin and his defenders.

Nevertheless, efforts to control what was taught about Darwin and Lincoln, if they were mentioned at all, were to an extent more systematic and effective in the former states of the Confederacy. In those areas especially, Americans did not enjoy untrammeled liberty to hear Darwin’s or Lincoln’s ideas about the human species basic unity, or common ancestry, or how federal power broadened freedom and vindicated democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Indeed, textbook materials that omitted or mischaracterized evolution, denigrated Lincoln, or extolled the virtues of the Confederacy in all likelihood reached African American schoolchildren. It was this type of intellectual stultification, of course, that Mencken lampooned so brilliantly in his essay “Sahara of the Bozart”. Meanwhile, in 2014, opposition to both men and their horizontal view of life persists on an even broader scale, threatening not only accurate knowledge of ourselves and our nation’s past, but also, perhaps, the scientific, political, and economic opportunities for all who seek, in Lincoln’s words, “equal privileges in the race of life.”

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  1. This is a wonderful, wonderful read. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I think what you’ve indicated here is important for understanding 19th century American intellectual history–for those opposed to Lincoln and Darwin, it’s important to note that what they stood for seemed to their opponents all part and parcel of the same anti-tradition narrative. What you’ve proposed here is an interesting way to think about debates about science, liberalism, etc. in that era. Thanks again.

    This really also makes me consider what African American intellectuals may have been writing in this era about evolution. I wonder if anyone’s done anything about that? I’ll have to look that up this week at some point.

  2. Thanks for the nice words. I think that is a very good idea about exploring what African American intellectuals thought about evolution. That may well be a dissertation/book waiting to be written.

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