06 August 2015

History: a Study in Coincidences

by Brian Thornton

"We are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence."

                                                                                                   – Paul Auster

Have you ever heard the one about how two men, born one year and and a hundred miles apart, went in different directions while still children, and grew up to be antagonists in this country's greatest internal struggle, the American Civil War?

Yes, that's right, Jefferson Davis, born in 1808, just outside what is now Fairview, Kentucky, spent his earliest days just about a hundred miles due west of Hodgenville, Kentucky, the closest metropolitan center to the hardscrabble farm that became the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in 1809.

Davis' family moved south into the newly-settled lands along the lower Mississippi, where his father quickly established a successful plantation. Lincoln's father–an illiterate carpenter who resented both the slaves his elder brother had inherited along with the family farm upon their father's death and how slave labor undercut the fees free tradesmen could charge–uprooted his family and moved north, across the Ohio River into Indiana, and eventually into southern Illinois.

Davis' Birthplace in Kentucky – There is no accurate depiction of Lincoln's birthplace

This is just one example of the coincidences which pop up in history from time to time. I mean, think about it: through a coincidence of birth, the first openly abolitionist president and one of the antebellum South's wealthiest slave-owning politicians were born within a year of each other, in the same state, nearly next-door to each other, and yet look how differently they turned out!

Here's one you may not have heard about though.

 Two men, born on adjacent Caribbean islands, within five miles of each other, their birth places separated only by a shallow, two mile-wide stretch of ocean known as "The Narrows." Both of these men were born out of wedlock to members of their respective island's planter class. Both of their fathers were British-born and raised, coming out to the "Sugar Islands" seeking their fortunes.

The view from one of the Caribbean Islands mentioned above to the other Caribbean island mentioned above
Both of these men early demonstrated so much native intelligence that they were sent abroad (One to England, the other to New York City) to receive an education superior to the one they could have received at home.

Both of these men became very successful in both business and politics. They were both products of slave-holding societies during the 18th century, and it was on the subject of slavery that these two men could not have been further apart. One of them, impressed by the writings of Enlightenment philosophers on the subject, became a confirmed abolitionist at a time when it was rare for a gentleman, even those who found slavery distasteful, to express an interest in completely destroying the practice.

The other inherited his father's sugar plantation back home, and owned slaves until the very day the practice was abolished.

Oh, and there was one other area in which the two men vastly differed. Ethnically. One was Scottish and English, and the other was the half-Welsh son of a plantation owner and one of his black slaves, and thus born into slavery himself.

Care to guess which one was the abolitionist, and which one was the slave-owner?

Tune in right here in two weeks to find out.

Feel free to express an opinion or hazard a guess in the comments section.

See you in two weeks!


  1. I'm guessing that the abolitionist was Alexander Hamilton. I don't know who the other one was.

    By the way, I think it's a shame that there's so much talk about taking Hamilton off the ten-dollar bill while leaving Andrew Jackson, a lifelong advocate of preserving and extending slavery, on the twenty.

  2. Well, to play the game it seems only fair NOT to consult Wikipedia. So (not having consulted) the two islands in the picture are Nevis, foreground, and St. Kitts, background. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis, in Charlestown I think. I'm drawing a blank on who was born in St. Kitts and might fit the description, but I will keep thinking!

    I look at the map fondly. I have set foot on virtually every island shown, with Cuba being a noticeable exception. But with lessening travel restrictions, hope springs eternal!

    By the way -- Anyone know which Caribbean island was the first to fire a cannon salute to the United States as a new nation in 1776? Hint (though hardly helpful!) The island's name does NOT appear on the map in the article!

  3. You are both correct that one of the men mentioned in this article is none other than Alexander Hamilton.

    And the island that first recognized the colors of the fledgeling United States was the Dutch-owned St. Eustatius, a smuggler's paradise that served as a profitable entrepot in a thriving arms trade between Britain's traditional European antagonists (France and Spain) and Britain's rebelling colonies.

    Thanks for chiming in!


  4. I'm guessing your reference is to a certain hypocritical and overrated President. Not sure those St. Kitts allegations have ever been proven but I've been out of the loop on that stuff for awhile.

  5. ...or not. That's what I get for rushing through this and misreading. No idea who the other fellow is.

  6. Hey Gary–

    Nope. To my knowledge the one who wasn't Hamilton never even visited the United States.

    And I meant say before that B.K. was, of course, correct about Hamilton coming from Nevis Island, and Dale is quite right, the two islands pictured are Nevis and St. Kitts.

  7. I can hardly wait to see the next one!

  8. All right, I'm definitely tuning it!

  9. Kudos on knowing that Status did the first salute. And what island, also unnamed on the map, has NO beaches and was featured in the original version of King Kong?

  10. Damned spell check. "Status" should read "Statia"

  11. BTW -- The island that was used as a backdrop shot from the ship in the original King Kong was Saba. Not a beach on it, visible on a clear day from St. Maarten. Been there twice. Wouldn't want to fly in -- it and St. Barths have the scariest commercial airfields in the world.


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