While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.
Charles Darwin was a nineteenth-century British scientist best known for his theory of evolution. His thesis, as detailed in his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), asserted that animals and plants have evolved over time. By logical extension, it thus could be said that even humans evolved from other animals (apes). At the time, this idea caused a big stir because it called into question the biblical belief that Man was created by God, and it incited intense public and legal debate that continues to this day.
One of the more famous films about this controversy is Inherit the Wind (1960). Directed by Stanley Kramer and boasting an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Dick York, and Fredric March, the movie depicts the notorious John T. Scopes Supreme Court trial, which tested the strength of the Constitution by bringing the debate over whether evolution should be taught in the classroom to the center stage.
Don’t miss a special screening of Inherit the Wind at the Skirball on Tuesday, February 12, in celebration of Darwin’s birthday, then stop by “Lincoln Spotlight” afterwards, and spend the day remembering two revolutionary men who have forever changed our history.