There’s no question that many, many people are born each and every year. So, the odds of more than one important person being born in a given year are pretty good. 1809 is no exception. According to an internet search, Abraham Lincoln shared his birth year with Louis Braille (who invented the reading/writing system used by the blind), explorer Kit Carson, author Oliver Wendell Holmes, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Cyrus McCormick (of harvester fame), composer Felix Mendelssohn, author/poet Edgar Allen Poe, and his first Vice-President Hannibal Hamilton.
However, in a most intriguing coincidence, Lincoln also shared his birthday (February 12, 1809) with another man who would grow up to change the world. While Nancy Hanks Lincoln was giving birth to little Abraham in that Kentucky log cabin, Robert and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin were welcoming their son, Charles, into the world in Shrewsbury, England.
Of course, young Charles Darwin’s boyhood was very different from Lincoln’s. The son and grandson of medical men, Darwin was well-educated at Edinburgh and Cambridge – a far cry from Lincoln’s backwoods schooling. Darwin’s mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood of the famous Wedgwood pottery company. I imagine that her dowry was probably worth more than Thomas Lincoln lifetime’s earnings. But in another odd turn of events, Darwin’s mother died when the boy was 8 years old! Abe, of course, was only 9 when Nancy died.
Lincoln came to New Salem in 1831. That same year Charles Darwin set sail on a five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. The Beagle explored the coast of South America and Pacific Islands, including the Galapagos Islands. On the expedition, Darwin collected scientific evidence to support the theory of evolution through natural selection. Lincoln spent those same five years (and one more) at New Salem. While Darwin was learning about natural selection, Lincoln was learning many of the skills that would serve him well later in life (politician, military commander, and government employee).
Darwin’s groundbreaking (and controversial) book, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859. The next year, 1860, Lincoln came to national prominence in an election that saw a new political party, the Republicans, come into power.
Did Lincoln know about the theory of evolution? A visitor asked me that question many years ago. I don’t know that anyone knows the answer to that question. Did he read the book or read newspapers accounts about it? He certainly could have, but there were a great many other things demanding his attention at that time. However, it is almost certain that Lincoln would never have formed an opinion on the theoretical relationship between man and monkey. How can I be so sure? Because Darwin’s The Descent of Man which theorized that man and apes shared a common ancestor wasn’t published until 1871. What is certain is that these two men born on February 12, 1809, had a profound impact on their world. And, echoes of that impact continues to reverberate in our world today.