Two of the nineteenth century’s most controversial figures, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, had at least two things in common. One was the mass media’s love of comparing them to our primate cousins. Lincoln, “the ape baboon of the prairies” as one of his adversaries called him, was often portrayed in political cartoons as a mischievous monkey with a silly grin on his face. Likewise, few members of the religious right needed any convincing that Darwin, who theorized in On the Origin of Species (1859) that humans are descended from apes, was directly related to his simian subjects.
By a strange twist of fate, Lincoln and Darwin had one other thing in common: they were both born on the exact same day, February 12, 1809. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of their birth, this month’s “Cabinet of Curiosities” blog post highlights two items from the holdings of the LSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
On April 28, 1862, shortly after federal troops captured New Orleans, George B. Wallis, a reporter for the New York Herald, wrote to his editor, John Gordon Bennett, about his interview that morning with President Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln, Wallis wrote, “had the fullest confidence in the good news from New Orleans” and was pleased at the progress of the war. “The President looks fresh and vigorous, & says that the government of the U[nited] States, complete & intact, will come out of this war unshaken again by domestic & foreign enemies for at least a hundred years to come.” (George B. Wallis Letter, Mss. 1770).
Charles Darwin was equally upbeat when he wrote to his colleague Sir John Richardson in December 1851. Richardson had lent Darwin a box of animal specimens for him to examine, which Darwin was “particularly glad to see.” Although Richardson was not a theorist like Darwin, his exacting scientific studies (and the studies of other men like him) were what made Darwin’s theories possible. Entering the navy at an early age as a surgeon, Richardson accompanied the arctic explorer Sir John Franklin on two expeditions to Canada between 1819 and 1827 and made many important discoveries there in the field of natural history. Richardson did not accompany Franklin on his ill-fated final voyage to the Arctic in 1845-48, in the course of which Franklin and his crew mysteriously disappeared. He did, however, lead a voyage in search of Franklin in 1848-49. Unsuccessful in its primary goal, the voyage nevertheless gave Richardson one last opportunity to collect additional samples of arctic flora and fauna. He wrote about his ordeal in An Arctic Searching Expedition (1851), which Darwin informed Richardson he had “lately been reading with much interest.” (James E. Murdoch papers, 1837-1903, Mss. 667)
–Michael Taylor, Assistant Curator of Books