A Little Liberal Persuasion

Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik, Alfred A. Knopf, 211 pages, $24.95

The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth is upon us, and the flood of Lincoln books has begun to crest. At least a dozen Lincoln books were released on Presidents' Day weekend. Meanwhile, the Obama camp has played heavily on Lincoln parallels since the campaign began. Conservative columnists chide that if Obama were really to act Lincoln's part, he would reach at once toward a bipartisan political center.

In fact, aside from the extraordinary arc that took them to the White House, most of the parallels between Lincoln and Obama are misleading. Lincoln worked hard to cajole the border states to stay within the Union, but he was no compromiser in 1860. As secession fever consumed the Deep South in the months before his inauguration, and others struggled to forge a grand compromise that would hold the Union together, Lincoln quashed any retreat from the Republican Party's platform principles. The famous "we are not enemies, but friends" paragraph that closed his Inaugural Address was inserted at the suggestion of William Seward, who thought Lincoln's original text too argumentative. Lincoln preferred to let a terrible war come, if it should, than to compromise on the perpetuity of the Union or the principle that the territories must be preserved from slavery.

Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages springs from the coincidence that Lincoln was born on the same day as that other giant figure of the century, Charles Darwin. The year of John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, the year in which Lincoln began his bid for the presidential nomination, was the year in which On The Origin of Species was published. Around these intertwined lives, Gopnik has constructed an elegant, widely ranging book of essays, many of which began as pieces in The New Yorker. Gopnik does not write with his eye directly on the political present, but Angels and Ages tells us more than he might have realized about the timidity of democratic liberalism after three decades of Republican political domination.

What Lincoln and Darwin had most in common, Gopnik argues, was a style of persuasion. Despite the enormous gulf between Lincoln's childhood and Darwin's comfortably sheltered one, they were both avid readers and deeply serious writers. Lincoln's m├ętier was the law case, the close, reasoned argument that, until one gets to Seward's part, framed Lincoln's first Inaugural and the studious inelegance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Darwin's style was that of natural observation: the mountains of precisely observed detail through which he built the argument for species change through natural selection. Revolutionary in their impact, they both consciously eschewed the grand oratorical style. Lincoln's quotable passages are deeply memorable, but there are not nearly as many of them as one might imagine. Darwin famously put his most radical ideas in the most cautious language.

"They were nearsighted visionaries," Gopnik writes. "They particularized in everything." They preferred to write with small words than with overblown ones, to reason rather than to orate, to show the cosmos "in a tea bag" rather than, like Walt Whitman, yawp about it from the rooftops. In doing this, he argues, they invented a new language for liberal democracy: a new "liberal eloquence." To come on that language, on the heels of John Brown's mad, revolutionary rhetoric, is to find yourself at "a true fault line in modern consciousness."

The new style went hand in hand, Gopnik argues, with affection for bourgeois virtues. Both men were devotees of domestic life. Though they had thought as much as any two persons in the mid-19th century about the massive presence of death, that did not prevent either from grieving, with almost unhinging agony, over the deaths of their children. Neither man found comfort in the conventional religious solace of the day. Darwin had dethroned God from any directing hand in creation; Lincoln, who began as a religious skeptic, found his way back by his second Inaugural to a God whose intentions could not be fathomed. They were moderns, Gopnik argues, who could no longer conceive of life vertically and hierarchically but only along the particular-filled horizontals of time.

In all this, Gopnik writes, they helped invent liberal democracy's true language: modest, down to earth, scientific, proceduralistic. "Tininess is the point," he writes of Darwin, just as legal technicality is Lincoln's point. He urges us to find the power in the long, tedious opening section of Lincoln's Cooper Institute address in which he traced out every recorded vote of every one of the Constitution's signers on the question of slavery in the territories. He would have us recognize The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits as the truest of Darwin's books.

John Brown -- the man of utopian visions and transcendentalist admirers -- haunts Gopnik's imagination in these passages, but it's hard not to think that George W. Bush and Jerry Falwell do, too. A sense of science as endangered by armies assembled in blind faith; an uneasiness with higher-law doctrines of preemptive war and legitimate torture; a skepticism about crusading rhetoric of every sort: all this saturates the mood of Angels and Ages and helps drive it back toward the small and precise. Where the big words and grand aspirations have been misappropriated so often, what else is democratic liberalism to do but regroup on the plain of precision, science, and competence?

In truth, Lincoln and Darwin were as caught up in big ideas as any of their contemporaries were. Lincoln's belief in the perpetuity of the Union cannot be unhitched from the powerful tides of romantic nationalism that swept through the 19th century. His belief that the Declaration of Independence had enshrined an anti-slavery premise in the nation's very founding was as much a product of higher-law faith as was the Southern slaveholders' conviction that secession remained a legitimate option because of the declaration's insistence on government by consent.

Darwin, for his part, could not but breathe the assumptions of progress that saturated mid-19th-century England. Racism of any form "had no place either in Darwin's life or in Darwin's logic," Gopnik writes; nor did Social Darwinism. But that is not so. For all Darwin's generosity of mind and his extended rebuttal to the thesis that the races of mankind were the result of distinct and separate creations, Darwin had no qualms about differentiating between savage and civilized races, or in assuming, like most of his Euro-American contemporaries, that in the course of progress the civilized would eventually exterminate the savage. He worried about the dis-eugenic consequences of his age's charitable sentiments even as he recognized the progression in moral power. He did not go nearly as far as Lincoln did when pressed on the point by Stephen Douglas in defending white supremacy, but neither did Darwin write off the skull-measuring experiments of the notorious racist, Samuel Morton. To wring out of either man their absorption in 19th-century liberal democracy's big moral ideals of nation, liberty, and progress (however flawed and partial) is to sketch only a cautious shadow.

Gopnik writes with an elegant sense for the past. His pursuit of the conflicting accounts of Edwin Stanton's words at Lincoln's death (from which the "angels" in his title derives) is an example of the historical method at its best. But he is pre-Darwinian in his historical sensibilities. He thinks something essential had turned by the time Lincoln's and Darwin's life ended, that the obvious truths of 1809, when they were born, had been swept away. The modern condition had arrived and with it (though it would take time for people to catch up to the fact), the language it needed.

Yet if history gives us only a continuous tangle of ways of thinking about the world, then finding the language for liberal democracy is not so simple. To mobilize an immensely diverse and anxious people at liberalism's current moment will take a vocabulary of civic aspirations as big, as justice-infused, and as morally charged as any of the words in the conservative word bank. One of the most striking things about Obama has been the way he has managed to combine (though not without tension) a technocratic ambition for decent, competent government with a liberal aspiration for a new civic and moral culture. Gopnik makes a thoughtful case for a language of smallness. But it would be a tragedy if, at this juncture, Lincoln were to come down only to this.

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