Monday, January 07, 2013

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in Evolutionary History

This past New Year's Day was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was formally issued on January 1, 1863.

I have often written about the many points of agreement between Lincoln and Charles Darwin, which includes their evolutionary understanding of slavery and its abolition.

From his reading of Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Lincoln accepted the idea of evolution, including human evolution. 

Lincoln had a remarkably deep understanding of human cultural evolution that follows the pattern of Darwinian universal history set forth by Darwin and by David Christian in his Maps of Time.

In his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, his "Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society," and in his meeting with some American Indian chiefs, Lincoln laid out his conception of cultural evolution as moving through three stages of society--from foraging societies to agrarian societies to societies based on commercial exchange and free labor.

Like Darwin and Christian, Lincoln believed that what made human beings unique in the animal world was the human capacity for symbolic speech, which allowed for collective learning in the artful domination of nature for the material, moral, and intellectual improvement of human life. Originally, all human beings lived by foraging--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Some of the native American Indians manifested this way of life. The invention of agriculture--based on the cultivation of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals--supported human civilization as an advance beyond the savage life of foragers.

But despite the advance in civilization in agrarian states, such states were founded on slavery and other forms of coerced labor so that rulers lived by exploiting peasant labor. Lincoln saw that the Industrial Revolution based on commercial exchange and free labor was bringing a new revolution in human cultural evolution that promised the physical, moral, and intellectual liberation of labor. He saw the abolition of slavery as the crucial move towards this new state of society that would bring a "new birth of freedom," in which all human beings would have a fair chance in the "race of life."

Thus, Lincoln's classical liberalism was based on an evolutionary understanding of human history.

A few of my many posts on Lincoln, Darwin, and the Emancipation Proclamation can be found here, here., here, and here.


Ken Blanchard said...

Larry: great post. Could you provide a source for the following paragraph?

"From his reading of Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Lincoln accepted the idea of evolution, including human evolution. "

Larry Arnhart said...


The source is William Herndon's biography of Lincoln. I have written a post on this.