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Book Review: “The Book That Changed America.” Did Darwin Influence the Civil War and Bring Down Slavery?

From ape to man

During the recent unpleasantness (as some Southerners still refer to the US Civil War) it is interesting that Confederate soldiers who were essentially fighting for slavery seldom owned slaves while Northern intellectuals happily acquiesced in treating Native Americans as badly or worse than southern slaves who at least had economic value.

Civil War Confusion Among Current Politicians

But there is one subject seldom if ever referred to in the many books written about the causes and intellectual justification for the Civil War. (None of the thousands of books or documentaries have apparently been read by President Trump who recently asked why no one had questioned the cause of the Civil War.)

Randall Fuller’s “The Book That Changed America,” explores the influence Charles Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species…,” may have had on the ethical backing for the idea that black slaves were every bit as human as those in the South who “owned” them. In particular, did the book influence the Civil War itself?

(Reviewer’s Note: In reading this book I suggest you consider how often in history a war was begun over intellectual disagreements. If in doubt, think about how often the side which starts a war ends up losing it.)

Darwin’s book and ideas

Darwin’s seminal work was published in America just before the outbreak of The Civil War and, according to this book, was widely sought out and studied by Northern intellectuals, novelists, poets, and scientists.

From ape to man

Prior to the publication of Darwin’s thoroughly researched book, a prominent theory in US scientific thought was that of polygenists who contended that blacks and whites were, in fact, two different species (despite the obvious fact that they could interbreed.)

But this book doesn’t stop there. Importantly, it extends the influence of the theory of evolution into the last century, particularly in the still heavily racist south and most notably in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925.

The main argument in this book is that Darwin was essentially responsible for the abolition of slavery in the United States. As I pointed out earlier in this review, there is little if any reference to Darwin’s theories and their supposed powerful influence on political thought in the Republic in books about the war.

Civil War battle monument.

But What Changed What?

The question remains unsettled whether Darwin changed America, or whether it was mere coincidence that Darwin’s theories became popular in the North at the time economic and religious pressures came to a head in the secession movement.

In considering this, it is instructive to consider how the actual war began. The Confederate States declared independence and opened hostilities by firing on Union-held Fort Sumter. At that time there had been no move on Lincoln’s part to attempt to end slavery in current slave-holding states.

How then can the Civil War or Emancipation Declaration have been primarily or even peripherally triggered by very recent intellectual concerns over Darwin’s theories? Ones which some intellectuals saw as saying blacks and whites were equal?

Bottom Line?

Nevertheless, this is a very interesting read and well worth a place in the library of any serious student of the Civil War or of the relationship between science and politics. This is a topic which has become critical with today’s anti-intellectual administration.

The release of this book is timely because it looks at just how intellectual and scientific arguments do or do not alter political thinking.

Whether you accept the arguments in this book or reject them, there are well-presented arguments which do help to bring current and 20th-century racist attitudes into perspective.

“The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation,” Randall Fuller, Viking, 2017, 300 pages. Available in Kindle ($13.99), paperback ($10.46 ), and Hardcover ($27.00).

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