It’s difficult to imagine two more important figures of the nineteenth century than Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, both born on February 12, 1809.
As 2009 marked their bicentennial birthdays, prominent celebrations have been held throughout the year. This double historical anniversary also sparked a debate about which man was more important. Which one left a greater legacy to the world? Who is more indispensable to history? Was it the British scientist or the American politician?
Many articles seemed to give Darwin the advantage—and not without reason. Evolutionary theories changed the way the world thinks about life’s emergence and forced people to reconsider their view of human origins. Darwin’s influence was truly monumental and international in impact. He changed the scientific paradigm in biology and, thus, changed the world.
As is my habit of siding with the underdog (I argue that Wilt Chamberlain was a greater NBA player than Michael Jordan), I would respectfully assert that Lincoln has left a more impressive historical legacy. He changed America forever and, in turn, America changed the world.
President Lincoln accomplished two things that impacted the world in more enduring ways than even Darwin. First, Lincoln introduced political and legal measures that led directly to the abolition of slavery in America. His Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 challenged the nation to live in a way that is morally consistent with what the founders proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Second, Lincoln’s presidential leadership uniquely held the Union together during America’s greatest internal crisis: the Civil War (1861–1865). Before the war, people would say “the United States are.” After the war, people would forever say “the United States is.”
Because Lincoln held the Union together, the United States of America succeeded in saving the world in the twentieth century from the oppressive and tyrannical ideologies of fascism and communism. Without a Union victory in the Civil War there likely would not have been an Allied victory in World War II and in the Cold War.
Lincoln directly and indirectly helped liberate oppressed peoples around the world. Between these two towering figures of history, I see his legacy as the greater one.