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. Board of Education; and the oil crisis of 1973–1974. Given its pedagogical orientation, it is hardly surprising that a broad survey of this sort would have a certain programmatic character about it.
The prologue sets the tone for all that follows. It begins with a breathless description of an anonymous “you” who visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and gets swept up by its “unearthly” grandeur. “For a fleeting moment you are aware of an ultimate purpose and meaning, a higher truth, in the marble,” but upon further reflection you wonder: Who made this monument? How did it come to be?
This elicits from Fiege a brief history of the project, where its marble came from, who worked on its construction, at what cost, and under what circumstances. “Even as it expresses the highest of ideals, [the Lincoln Memorial] objectifies earthbound existence.” In other words, its materials came from nature. The lesson of this opening parable is that “within every famous icon, turning point, movement, or moment is a story of people struggling with the earthy, organic substances that are integral to the human predicament.”
In his first chapter, “Satan in the Land,” Fiege steers clear of controversial speculations—say along the lines of Mary Kilbourne Mattosian’s Poisons of the Past, which links hallucinations generated by moldy, ergot-contaminated grain to widespread paranoia—and claims that charges of Satanism were rooted in New England’s “precarious existence on the fringe of empire” as well as in various social tensions caused by the rapid increase in human and livestock populations. “The “natural sources of social upset extended right down to the organic bodies the colonists inhabited.” Their “inflexible social order” did not allow them to “accommodate the vagaries of…life.”
Such a generic thesis has little explanatory purchase. Why have many other societies around the world experienced similar levels of stress under equally inflexible social orders without breaking into witch hysterias? Why did many parts of Europe with quite different social and environmental circumstances also suffer from witchcraft prosecutions at roughly the same time?
In his second chapter, about the ideological roots of the American republic, Fiege argues that a broad conception of an orderly universe, as well as a sense of entitlement to the riches of a portion of that universe, animated the revolutionary impulse and the expansionist drive that followed from it. Jefferson believed that reason, the faculty native to human beings, was under a mandate to harness the forces of nature (including human nature) and shape it in ways that would promote human dignity, happiness, and self-determination. The basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence derived from European theories of natural law, which had little to do with the natural world as such, yet Fiege seeks to connect the two by inviting us to see Monticello not only as a microcosm of Jefferson’s vision of humanity’s authority over nature but also as an architectural counterpart to the Declaration of Independence itself. This claim—that Jefferson, and after him Lincoln, believed in reason’s responsibility for, and authority over, nature—lies behind Fiege’s use of the definite article in his book’s title.
The chapter on the antebellum cotton plantations of the South is, in my view, the best. Here we learn about the cotton plant itself, around which so much of the institution of slavery revolved, and about how its annual life cycle was interwoven with the life cycle of the slaves who cultivated it. The plant was the “point of struggle between masters and slaves,” as the former struggled to discipline the latter’s bodies for agricultural work.
Fiege describes in detail the exacting, strenuous work that went into clearing the land of forests and wild vegetation, preparing the soil, planting the cotton (timing was crucial), and then dexterously picking the pods (the latter operation entailed walking between the rows, and, in one motion, grabbing the boll with both hands, extracting its fluffy fiber, putting it in a sack, and moving on to the next pod—all at an accelerated pace). “Of all the great cycles that shaped the history of the early United States,” he writes, “few were more powerful than the seasonal development of staple crops such as cotton.” The “inherent instability of the crop cycle, the environmental conditions that shaped it, and the very nature of the enslaved people’s bodies” constantly disrupted production, forcing the masters and overseers to increase their pressure on the slaves by any means necessary.
The next two chapters—on Abraham Lincoln and Gettysburg—are central to the book. Here Fiege makes a great deal about Lincoln’s hands-on relation to nature as a rail splitter, his intimate knowledge of geography, and his bodily experience of labor, which convinced him that slavery was “a gross outrage on the law of nature,” which dictates that “whatever any one man earns with his hands and by the sweat of his brow, he shall enjoy in peace.”
If there is one place in his book that Fiege attempts to justify his title, it is in the pages that probe Lincoln’s vision of the genetic link between America’s nature and its republic. Lincoln adopted many of Jefferson’s abstract ideas about natural law and sought to root them in a vision of how America’s citizens, its material resources, and its form of government should form an “organic” whole. According to this organic vision, “Americans would apply their labor and ingenuity to transforming ‘the physical world’ into wealth and property, the basis of their economic self-sufficiency and independence.” In so doing they would fulfill the intrinsic potential of America’s land and all it contained, as well as human nature’s potential for self-determination.
In Lincoln’s mind the American republic’s ideology of independence and self-governance called for the “improvement” both of America’s nature and of the moral and intellectual life of the citizen. He preferred the word “improvement” to “progress” because it implied human cultivation of the land through agriculture, husbandry, and labor, as well as cultivation of the self through education, rectitude, and self-discipline. America would become the republic of nature only by turning the vast “field” of its national territories into a generous “garden” where the natural rights of its citizens could thrive.
After a topographical account of the Battle of Gettysburg, Fiege turns to the transcontinental railroad, pointing out that it was built along certain natural features (creeks, rivers, mountains, etc.) as a way of following the contingent signs of God’s providence, as if, despite its recalcitrance, the natural landscape had been sculpted to allow for, and even encourage, the railroad’s construction. His narrative is lively and informative, yet here too, as in many of the other chapters, he offers up a number of truisms, such as the fact that environmental constraints made the construction difficult and that the project’s success entailed working through “natural processes,” among them the “metabolizing, sweating, farting, defecating bodies” of the horses employed.
Another truism underlies the chapter on World War II and the development of nuclear weapons: since atoms are a part of nature, tinkering with them involves engagement with the natural world. The book ends with two somewhat thin chapters—one about Brown v. Board of Education, the other about the oil crisis of 1973–1974—and an epilogue, “Paths That Beckon,” that offers up a set of schematic blueprints for how the environmental historian might approach several other episodes of American history not covered by the preceding chapters.
It is unfortunate that, precisely at the moment when the reader who has made it this far feels the need for the book to tie together its diverse strands and articulate a thematic or theoretical synthesis, Fiege chooses to disperse rather than consolidate his narrative. He clearly wants to evoke a wide-open, beckoning horizon for future environmental studies, yet a more decisive effort at closure would have served him better.
By and large The Republic of Nature delivers on its promise to “find the nature embedded in the iconic moments of American history.” As an educational textbook, there is much to recommend it. Fiege is a good storyteller; he is knowledgeable; he writes well; and he keeps it simple.
As far as its contribution to the field of environmental history goes, The Republic of Nature is a far more modest affair. It falls considerably short of the expectations engendered by the early enthusiastic endorsements it has received from eminent scholars in the field, such as Richard White, who provided a glowing dust-cover comment, and William Cronon, who in his foreword calls it “surely among the most important works of environmental history published since the field was founded four or more decades ago.”
I don’t believe it meets those expectations because, in the end, The Republic of Nature tells us little that is new. Fiege never tires of reminding us that we are bodily entities who inhabit a physical world (as if we had doubts about that) and that history should therefore be conceptualized in environmental terms, yet his “iconic moments” are well known and his retelling of them frequently rehearses the standard versions, with many nods to nature added to the mix. In insight and scholarly heft, it does not come close to Donald Meinig’s magisterial, multivolume The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, to mention only one example of a genuine “watershed title,” as Karl Jacoby of Brown University calls Fiege’s book in his blurb.*
Since Lincoln stands at the center of The Republic of Nature, let me offer some thoughts about how much Fiege leaves out of his account when it comes to “nature’s nobleman.” Fiege defines nature as “the omnipresent substance of reality, the calloused hands of laborers no less than the materials…with which they alter the world.” Nature is that, to be sure, yet in the course of American history its semantics expand far beyond this definition, especially when it comes to Lincoln, whose dominant concern was for the nation to take a morally justified place in history and root its republic in the land.
The word “nature,” from the Latin nasci, to be born, shares the same root as the word “nation,” suggesting that nature is not merely extended in space but is also a process of being born that takes place in time, or, in the case of republics, in history. Lincoln was acutely aware of this in his Gettysburg Address when he described the founding of the republic as a birthing process:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The declarative sentence turns “our fathers” into mothers (or perhaps into midwives) who brought forth a child in a place indicated by a demonstrative pronoun: “this continent.” The child in question was a “new nation”—“new” insofar as it was “conceived in Liberty”—yet at the time Lincoln delivered his address the nation had yet to accomplish its birth (such is the paradox of his speech), insofar as slavery contradicted its founding proposition:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We look back on that war as an important chapter in American history; yet in Lincoln’s mind it represented a crucial moment of its birth—a “new birth of freedom,” as he called it later in his speech.
What relation did the American republic have with “this continent” prior to the Civil War? Was it “native” to that soil? Not really, for the fathers had conceived their republic abstractly. The general principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence could presumably apply to any republic, regardless of location. At Gettysburg Lincoln did nothing less than ground the nation in its native soil and thereby rendered that ground native to its republic. How so?
History and geography come together in Lincoln’s address in a punctual coincidence of time and place. The moment is “now,” in the midst of a civil war. The place is “here,” on the battlefield. The word “here” occurs an astonishing eight times in the speech’s fourteen sentences, and in each case it refers to the ground—“this ground,” as Lincoln emphasizes—where the slain had been laid to rest.
By declaring that the dead, through their “dedication” to the nation’s founding proposition, had consecrated the ground on which he stood, Lincoln linked the blood of the war’s martyrs to the birthing process of the American republic, suggesting that now, for the first time in its history, the nation could come together and root itself here, where the dead had taken possession of “this ground,” which in turn had taken possession of the dead. It is through the ritual consignment of the dead to the continent’s ground “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Or so Lincoln hoped at the time.
The paradox—or tragic irony—of America’s republic is that it was born defectively, or only partially, and it would have to be born again—not once but many times in the course of its future history. A century after Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, Martin Luther King stood in the Riverside Church in New York City and, in the midst of another conflict that was tearing America apart, echoed Lincoln’s “now” when he declared, with reference to the Vietnam War: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” King then proclaimed: “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.”
The history of the American nation represents a long, tortuous struggle to be reborn into its founding conception of itself, and to this day it continues to obsess over its birth, war over its birth, and struggle to realize its birth. Lincoln asked whether “that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” yet an equally pertinent question is whether such a nation can ever fully be born, or whether its birth remains an ever-receding prospect. Langston Hughes once wrote:
America was never America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
America’s birth pangs are not only political but also spiritual. In “Experience,” Emerson speaks of an “excellent region of life” where everything seems “initial, and promises a sequel.” Approaching it, he feels “a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty.” Emerson adds: “I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.” Dying out of nature here does not mean shedding his physical body, any more than being “born again” means ascending into an otherworldly heaven. That new America into which he would be reborn is here, on earth. It is intensely present in the continent’s land, waters, and skies, yet for all its surrounding nearness, it remains “insubstantial”—or unapproachable.
The phrase “this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West” evokes Emerson’s Puritan forebears who sailed westward over the Atlantic to a place they called “New England.” By “new” they did not mean a more recent version of the old. They meant of a different order than the old, in the Christian sense of a new “covenant of grace” that transcends and nullifies the older “covenant of works.” Well before the republic was born as a political entity, the early Puritan pilgrims conceived of their crossing of the Atlantic as a symbolic baptism preparing them for spiritual rebirth on the North American continent.
Finding this kind of renewal in the new world was perhaps an impossible expectation, and it explains in part that deeply American sentiment of disappointment that runs like a general undercurrent through American society, politics, and culture. Many of the early Puritans had resigned themselves to disappointment by the time Anne Hutchinson and her fellow Antinomians fomented such dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s. Their pastors, or so they claimed, were still preaching the old covenant of works, while they—the dissenters—had come to America to “walk” in the covenant of grace. “We want the world and we want it now,” they protested—not in those exact words, to be sure, but in their own Christian idiom.
It is impossible to certify empirically how much of the Antinomian spirit—or how much of the irrepressible psychic energies that subsequently permeated what Harold Bloom calls “The American Religion,” in all its proliferating denominations—were inflamed, nourished, or sponsored by the prospect of grace that America’s physical nature opens in the soul. The maddening thing about America’s land, waters, skies, and all that falls under the rubric of what Wallace Stevens called “the silken weavings of our afternoons” is that they are full of intimations of paradise, yet at the same time America’s nature also partakes of that recalcitrant “substance of reality” that requires “the calloused hands of laborers” to render it inhabitable. Early on the Puritans seem to have decided that America could be born into its promise only through work, yet their theology held that grace (like nature’s bounty) is given gratuitously.
Thoreau for one refused to share his countrymen’s disappointments, or what he called their “quiet despair.” In 1845 he set out to the shores of Walden Pond and discovered that they had “somewhat hastily concluded” that no Eden was to be found in America. For two years he lived in a mortal paradise (“mortal” because “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,/Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams,” to quote again Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”). Like Emerson, Thoreau sensed the palpable presence of something redemptive in America’s nature. With the birth of each new day he would seek to be born into it, yet no matter how early he would wake up, the birth was only partial. “That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.”
The fact that one cannot fully wake up to it—take hold of it, seize it, and possess it—is no reason to give up on the “new birth of freedom” that, in the mode of promise, surrounds the American republic on all sides. The “environment”—that which encircles, encloses, and surrounds—is not only the “substance of reality” but also what used to be called the “spirit of the land.” That elusive spirit has an environmental history all its own.
I am grateful to my Stanford colleague Martin Lewis, a geographer, who, in addition to referring me to Meinig’s book (published by Yale University Press, 1986–2004), made me acutely aware of the degree to which geographers have, for decades and even centuries, been doing the kind of work that Fiege advocates. ↩