Today's topic is the "Birth of the Modern" and a very quick summary of a short essay I wrote 15 years ago which argued that that Febuary 12, 1809 is a great benchmark for the beginning of the modern world. I choose this date as it also was the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Of course, many economic, political, cultural, historical, and scientific forces combined during the 19th century that resulted in a new kind of mechanized society that no prior civilization had encountered. Of course, neither Lincoln nor Darwin 'produced' the modern world (it would have happened without them), but their birthdate is a symbolic day.
In some ways, this date is purely arbitary; however, it is also wonderful point of reference for marking the cultural and sociological shift. It is a logical choice when compared to any other 'single day' as history unfolds as part of continous stream of cause and effect, so teasing out a discrete moment is almost impossible. Nevertheless, Lincoln and Darwin were part of that first generation that witnessed a distinct break with ancient tradition due to technological progress. Communication changed forever with the invention of the telegraph as messages could instantly travel hundreds of miles. Likewise, both the speed and distance that a human being could travel in a single day was greatly increased with the steam-powered transit system: the railway. Neither of these existed when Lincoln and Darwin were born; however, they were commonplace when Darwin died in 1882. Additionally, Lincoln was known as the 'rail candidate'.
As a second benchmark, when both men were 50, events occurred that focused their lasting impact on history:
- On October 16, 1859, John Brown attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory led to the Southern fears of slave insurrections as a clear threat. This failed attempt became the catalyst for secession and the American Civil War. A year later, Lincoln was elected the first Republican President of the United States.
- On November 24, 1859, John Murray published Darwin's book entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which outlined the unifying principle for biology (natural selection) and changed the way humanity views itself today.