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The Republic of Nature

An Environmental History of the United States

by Mark Fiege

Publication Year: 2012

In The Republic of Nature, Mark Fiege reframes the canonical account of American history based on the simple but radical premise that nothing in the nation's past can be considered apart from the natural circumstances in which it occurred.

Published by: University of Washington Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents, Illustrations

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pp. vi-viii

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Foreword: Environmental History Comes of Age

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pp. ix-xii

Once in a great while, perhaps every decade or two for a given field, a book comes along that changes the way one thinks about an entire subject. Sometimes this happens when a writer of unusual creativity revisits a familiar topic and somehow manages to find in it insights so fresh that it’s hard to believe no one noticed them before. Sometimes it happens when a scholar of unusual range wanders across a vast historiography and ties it...

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Land of Lincoln

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pp. 3-22

To enter the Lincoln Memorial is to enter another world. The passage begins on the east side of the building. Behind you stretches the reflecting pool, its glassy, rectangular surface reaching toward the Washington Monument, which towers above the grass and trees in the heart of the nation’s city. Farther in the eastern distance rises the Capitol...

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1. Satan in the Land: Nature, the Supernatural, and Disorder in Colonial New England

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pp. 23-56

The affliction began with a mysterious swelling in his foot. Perhaps he was walking home from the hayfield when he felt the stiffness, or perhaps it was when he stood up from the supper table. Perhaps, too, he noticed it in the morning when he tried to put on his shoe. Much to Benjamin Abbott’s dismay, the swollen foot was only a prelude to an agonizing “sickness and misery” that would carry him “almost to death’s...

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2. By the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God: Declaring American Independence

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pp. 57-99

Thomas Jefferson believed in an orderly universe. “The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces,” impressed him, he explained to John Adams in 1823, in a letter from Monticello, his mountaintop home in Virginia. So did “the structure of our earth itself, with [its] distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere” and “animal and vegetable bodies,” and...

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3. King Cotton: The Cotton Plant and Southern Slavery

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pp. 100-155

Everyone in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, agreed that Platt Epps had no peer when it came to playing the fiddle. No one else could make the instrument sing as well as the “Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf.” At balls, feasts, and festivals, his fleet bow and nimble fingers called forth tunes that moved people to dance. Whether “Jump Jim Crow,” “Katy Hill,” “Pumpkin Pie,” “Old Joe Clark,” or...

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4. Nature’s Nobleman: Abraham Lincoln and the Improvement of America

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pp. 156-198

At some moment during the mid- to late 1850s, Abraham Lincoln sat down to compose one of his least remembered and least appreciated speeches. The exact location of the chair, desk, or table where he reposed his lanky frame is unknown. Perhaps it was in his house, a two-story wooden structure on the northeast corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield, Illinois. A domestic Parthenon recently...

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5. The Nature of Gettysburg: Environmental History and the Civil War

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pp. 199-227

In late spring 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia on a bold expedition out of the South and onto northern terrain. Somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside, Lee hoped to defeat the Army of the Potomac in battle, thereby convincing the Union that it should abandon its objective of keeping the nation, North and South, whole. He had great confidence in his force of some seventy thousand men. Their morale—their fighting...

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6. Iron Horses: Nature and the Building of the First U.S. Transcontinental Railroad

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pp. 228-280

On a May morning in 1869, 690 miles east of Sacramento and 1,086 miles west of Omaha, a small crowd gathered to witness the driving of the final spike in an ambitious project: a single railroad line that spanned the remote western interior of North America. For six years, laborers for the Central Pacific had laid tracks eastward over the Sierra Nevada and across the Great Basin desert. At last they had pushed...

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7. Atomic Sublime: Toward a Natural History of the Bomb

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pp. 281-317

Mostly ponderosa pine trees, the forest spread for miles across a high, dry, sun-splashed plateau in the mountains of northern New Mexico. For centuries it had provided material and spiritual sustenance to Natives and newcomers alike. Now, on a spring day in 1943, it was under assault. A United States Army soldier revved his bulldozer and drove the clanking machine, blade raised, toward a stand of pines. He was only...

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8. The Road to Brown v. Board: An Environmental History of the Color Line

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pp. 318-357

Her routine couldn’t have been more ordinary. Every weekday morning at 7:40, Linda Carol Brown, age eight, left her home at 511 West First Street in Topeka, Kansas, for school. A happy child, she was the picture of all-American girlhood: dark hair in pigtails, soft brown eyes and chubby cheeks, long wool coat over sweater and skirt, ankle socks and scruffy shoes. Bidding goodbye to her mother and younger sisters, she passed through the front door, slowed.

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9. It’s a Gas: The United States and the Oil Shock of 1973–1974

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pp. 358-402

Norman Reichbach and his customers probably had given little thought to the limitations the natural world imposed on them. Riding on rubber tires and pavement in pursuit of their dreams, they sped over hills and rivers, sliced through snow, rain, and darkness, and collapsed time. In negating environmental obstacles with their machines, they minimized...

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Paths That Beckon

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pp. 403-429

It is a truism that we see what we want to see. “The moment a person forms a theory,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.”1 Perhaps it is hazardous to look for nature at every step in the American past, in every idea, activity, conflict, person, and thing. The theory yields the evidence that confirms it; the environmental historian loses...

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pp. 430-433

I could not have completed this book without the help of many people and institutions. Scott Casper, Jim Davidson, Karl Jacoby, Marianne Keddington-Lang, Jane Kepp, Janet Ore, and Jared Orsi read the entire manuscript in one form or another, and I am grateful for their criticisms, suggestions, and encouragement. John Albright, Ruth Alexander, Sue Ellen Campbell, Nate Citino...


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pp. 434-508


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pp. 509-556


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pp. 557-559


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pp. 560-584

Other Books in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9780295804149
E-ISBN-10: 0295804149
Print-ISBN-13: 9780295991672
Print-ISBN-10: 0295991674

Publication Year: 2012