The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States
by Mark Fiege, with a foreword by William Cronon
University of Washington Press, 584 pp., $34.95
The title of Mark Fiege’s book, The Republic of Nature, seems puzzling. Republics are a form of government in which sovereignty lies with citizens who come together in the public sphere to engage in self-governance through their exercise of free speech and political action. Like virtually every other form of government on earth—old or new, autocratic or democratic—they presuppose a natural world and depend on human labor, which wrests from the earth the sustenance we need for our biological survival. When it comes to its reliance on the land, resources, and labor that make up the wealth of nations, the United States is no exception. In what respect, then, does the United States represent not only “a” but “the” republic of nature?
Mark Fiege seeks to answer that question by surveying the ways that material nature shaped the American republic and in turn shaped the natural world in whose midst it conceived its founding principles, created its institutions, and secured its territories. The environmental approach he adopts, which focuses on physical matter, geography, and human labor, could be applied, with equally good results, to other societies, nations, or empires, yet Fiege wants to claim that there is something quite specific in its history that makes America “the” republic of nature.
That something revolves around Abraham Lincoln’s vision of an “organic” America. One gets a sense that The Republic of Nature really wanted to be a book about Lincoln, but that its author chose instead to offer a broad environmental history of the United States that has several competing purposes, only one of which is to champion “Nature’s Nobleman,” as he calls Lincoln in the title of Chapter Four.
The main agenda is pedagogical. Intended above all for the classroom, The Republic of Nature seeks to remind students and teachers at the high school and college levels that the major episodes of American history unfolded within a set of natural circumstances and through natural processes. The drive to bring nature to the forefront of how history gets taught is tied to the book’s partisanship on behalf of environmental history—yet another one of its concerns.
Like most in his field, Fiege believes that conventional historians either ignore or drastically underemphasize the material and environmental substrates of history. He proposes to counter that neglect by revisiting some of the most “iconic moments” of American history and, in each case, viewing them through the lens of nature. Those moments include the Salem witch trials; the American Revolution; southern slavery; Abraham Lincoln; the Civil War; the first US transcontinental railroad; the atom bomb; Brown v …