The Land and Lincoln
The Land and Lincoln
As we celebrate the 201st birthday of Abraham Lincoln, a University of Illinois lecture sheds light on Lincoln’s thoughts and connection to the environment.
You may not think of Abraham Lincoln as an environmental president, but according to scholars at the University of Illinois, Springfield, his wise convictions in governing and enduring connection to the land he loved still influence environmental issues today.
Through its continuing lecture series, The Lincoln Legacy, UIS scholars discuss the historical context of a president whose legacy is grounded in the continuation of our very existence as a nation.
In conjunction with the Center For State Policy And Leadership, UIS has sponsored seven lectures so far. The latest, Lincoln And The Environment, conducted by Dr. Mark Fiege, associate professor of History at Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, and a leading environmental historian, seeks to examine the influence of nature on Lincoln and vice versa, a topic that has been largely unexplored by Lincoln scholars.
Lincoln is at the center of American environmental history in many ways, according to Fiege. Undisputedly one of our greatest presidents, Fiege says it’s easy to overlook the connection between Lincoln and the environment as we focus on writings and political policies that shaped the outcome of a nation at war with itself.
Fiege believes that closer study of Lincoln’s writings reveal an often repeated theme—that of mankind’s struggle to determine his destiny and his inevitable link to nature,
Lincoln connected with the environment in much the same way he connected with the people of his day— through experience. Lincoln was not just a scholar, but a laborer. A man of the democracy and a man of the land. He was a farmer, a rail-splitter, a plow-boy and a boatman. He learned to appreciate the land through his hard work and struggle.
Lincoln’s early life was steeped in the rhythms of nature and farm life, says Fiege. As Lincoln made his way without formal education, and by seeing first hand the needs of those who earned a meager living from the land, he learned the importance of maximization and careful use of natural resources.
Lincoln was a pioneer, who sought to make sense of a world were hunger, strife and hardship were part of everyday life for most people. His view of the natural world was shaped by these forces, and his conclusions, both intellectual and practical, were a product of these struggles and cannot be separated from them, according to Fiege.
Central to Lincoln’s environmental philosophy, says Fiege, is the idea that man is an essential part of the equation within the physical world. Lincoln believed that man is not only a bystander, using natural resources to further his own needs for clothing, food and shelter, but an active participant in the total sustainability of the earth.
Fiege uses the eloquence of Lincoln’s own words, culled from numerous speeches, to assert that Lincoln believed that although man is not the only creature to labor to survive on the Earth, man is the only creature who can improve himself. Not just his understanding of the natural world, but his use of it’s resources and his desire to protect and nurture those resources.
Fiege asserts that Lincoln believed that while man must manipulate the environment to survive—by building houses, roads, and waterways, by fishing, planting and harvesting crops, and inventing technologies to better enable us to accomplishing that manipulation—the act of manipulation itself ultimately fulfills the purpose of the natural would. That purpose being to protect, nurture, feed and shelter its inhabitants.
In short, the giving and taking of resources—Earth to man and man back to Earth—should be an endless cycle of sustainability. As we support and nurture the environment, it also does the same for us,
Lincoln believed that the betterment and improvement of the natural world through attention to environmental issues would ultimately lead to the betterment and improvement of man, Fiege says.
Fiege’s lecture has further illuminated the character of one of our greatest leaders and gives great insight into Lincoln’s deep devotion to the pursuit of environmental concerns.
See the full lecture at UIS video on demand. Lincoln and the Environment
For further study, read Dr. Michael Burlingame’s in-depth biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life
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