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In The Republic of Nature, Mark Fiege challenges us to reexamine U.S. history through the lens of the environment. With well-chosen examples and elegant prose, he illuminates the nature at the heart of American civilization. “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” (p. 8). Absent are the more traditional subjects of environmental history, such as Thoreau or the Wilderness Act. Fiege instead reinterprets nine historical events familiar to most Americans, such as the Salem witch trials, the Declaration of Independence, the emergence of King Cotton, the Civil War, the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan Project, and the 1973 oil shock.
In an evocative chapter, Fiege highlights often-overlooked facts about Abraham Lincoln. As a child and young adult, Lincoln knew nature through his own work, challenging landscapes with the ax or rivers with the flatboat. Although he disliked its drudgery, he appreciated what labor produced; it improved his body, his mind, and the land. “And if improvement meant the fulfillment of nature’s potential to nurture and sustain human life, then by extension it also meant the fulfillment of nature’s potential to nurture and to sustain a democracy and the republican form of government built upon it” (p. 158). Lincoln’s experiences, as well as his judgment that the Declaration of Independence applied universally, shaped his political philosophy. Thus, slavery and its extension to the American West violated the laws of nature and “the inherent right of all people to control their bodies and immediate material circumstances” (p. 173). The preservation of the Union remained Lincoln’s priority after Fort Sumter, but the destruction of slavery constituted an essential improvement of nature and society.
Nearly one hundred years later, the still-debated legacy of the [End Page 283] Declaration of Independence and the Civil War played out across the Topeka environment. Fiege asks us to understand the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) first and foremost as a case of racial geography. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the black residents of Topeka, Kansas, lived in geographically segregated but economically vital neighborhoods, both to maintain solidarities formed in slavery and its aftermath and to nurture community in the face of limited opportunities. By the mid-twentieth century, circumstances were different. “Demographic changes, environmental factors, and ideology impelled the integrationists” (p. 337). As the Santa Fe Railroad offered new jobs, many blacks moved to the fringes of their neighborhoods where they interacted with other races and resented their children’s long, often-dangerous commutes to black elementary schools. Linda Brown crossed a busy railroad zone and then waited for a twenty-minute bus ride, although a white school stood six blocks from her home. Fiege persuasively suggests that spatial and environmental relations shaped the Browns’ decision to litigate as much as ideology. In the end, however, despite the Supreme Court decision, the geography of Topeka challenged integration efforts. “In the messy landscapes of streets, houses, neighborhoods, long bus rides to distant schools, and frustrated parents, implementing the law would not be so easy. . . . The problem lay in the complexities of the geography of Topeka. There, the color line would not simply disappear” (p. 353).
With The Republic of Nature, Fiege makes an original contribution that is a must-read for historians willing to challenge their assumptions about U.S. history. Fiege provides new insights into the fundamental events that shaped the nation. It is an eloquent, compelling argument that nature does indeed matter. [End Page 284]
Kathleen A. Brosnan is the Travis Chair of History at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. The author of Uniting Mountain and Plain (2002) and the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History (2010), she is completing an environmental history of the Napa Valley wine industry.