Stith on Tackach, 'Lincoln and the Natural Environment'

Author: 
James Tackach
Reviewer: 
Matthew M. Stith

James Tackach. Lincoln and the Natural Environment. Concise Lincoln Library Series. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 160 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8093-3698-2

Reviewed by Matthew M. Stith (University of Texas at Tyler) Published on H-Environment (November, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56297

James Tackach’s Lincoln and the Natural Environment explores the natural world in which Abraham Lincoln lived and worked. In so doing, Tackach skillfully threads Lincoln’s well-known story into a fresh perspective informed by the built and natural environments that consumed both Lincoln and mid-nineteenth-century rural America. Indeed, as Tackach makes clear, it is impossible to remove Lincoln from the natural environment that so indelibly influenced his existence. From the hills of Kentucky and farm fields of Indiana to the disease-ravaged Union armies, Lincoln’s life—as with nearly all his contemporaries—was shaped by the world around him. Tackach contends that Lincoln’s “relationship to the natural environment, both direct and indirect, was lifelong,” and it was defined by a persistent struggle with the rapidly changing natural world amid an increasingly industrial, conflict-riven, and environmentally exploitive United States (p. 8).

Lincoln and much of his generation viewed the natural environment in which they lived and worked as an illimitable resource for human consumption and construction. To be sure, Lincoln’s childhood and early adulthood were inextricably bound together with America’s industrial and market revolutions—fueled by advances in transportation and the progressively efficient use (and abuse) of the natural world. Lincoln’s time in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, Tackach makes clear, was both geographically and environmentally bound by these tremendous economic forces. But as Lincoln matured into a lawyer and politician, so too did certain segments of American society mature into positions of environmental protection. Lincoln, then, came of age in an era pushed by industry, agriculture, and immense growth increasingly but never overwhelmingly balanced by warning calls from Henry David Thoreau and many more who spoke and wrote against such blithe environmental overuse and exploitation. As a result, his own views of the natural world also ebbed and flowed.

At the core of Tackach’s book is the evolution of Lincoln’s political and cultural relationship with the environment. As a Whig in the 1830s and 1840s, Lincoln supported internal improvements and sought, with most Americans, to rein in the perceived wilderness by reshaping it to further his party’s, and to an extent the nation’s, industrial and economic goals. Lincoln never lost sight of his own fascination with the natural world, however. His amateur poetry brimmed with stories of the environment around him, and nature often took center stage in the witty stories, analogies, and metaphors he used to such great effect throughout his life.

By the 1850s, Lincoln’s personal environmental interests began to merge with his political life. Tackach appropriately shows how Lincoln’s (and the country’s) political crisis was inextricably linked to the world around and beneath him. The persistence, growth, and consequential politics of southern slavery was in many ways a product of the South’s natural environment. With the ever-present threat of new slave states to the west, Lincoln and the nation literally and figuratively refocused their attention on the politics of soil. Then came civil war. The natural environment emerged into even sharper relief for Lincoln, who knew early on that prospects for victory rested on proper leverage and control of natural resources, agriculture, waterways, foodstuffs, and many more environmental factors. Moreover, Tackach explains, the effective use of such elements came to also mean environmental and agricultural devastation in something very close to total war, especially in certain pockets of the South. On top of war-torn landscapes, Lincoln became acutely aware and distressed with the mounting toll of Union casualties from disease, including typhoid to which his son Willie succumbed in 1862. For Lincoln and all those who experienced it, the environment could not be separated from the causes, course, or consequences of the Civil War.

But Tackach also makes clear that Lincoln emerged from the quagmire of environmental devastation long enough to play no small role in protecting and shaping the natural environment in largely positive ways. As president, he signed into law the Yosemite Valley Grant Act (1864) to protect the stunning valley that would become a national park. He also shepherded through a more effective Department of Agriculture and, most famously, approved the Homestead Act (1862). Lincoln was no environmentalist, but, like so many of his contemporaries, he came to recognize nature’s centrality in American culture, politics, and war.

Lincoln and the Natural Environment’s principal achievement lies in its first-rate analysis of the role nature played in shaping Lincoln and his world. Tackach’s intentionally slender volume is a valuable addition to the Concise Lincoln Library Series much as it is a welcome addition to the important and growing field of Civil War-era environmental history.[1] Students of Lincoln, nineteenth-century America, and American environmental history will benefit much from Tackach’s work.

Note

[1]. For the most recent synthesis of Civil War environmental history, see Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, An Environmental History of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Citation: Matthew M. Stith. Review of Tackach, James, Lincoln and the Natural Environment. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56297

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.