Abraham Lincoln couldn’t stop thinking about the oak tree.
It was April 1865, a few days before the end of the Civil War — about a week before Lincoln would die by an assassin’s bullet at Ford’s Theatre. The 16th president, his wife and a few friends were visiting Petersburg, Virginia, the site of months of trench warfare that left tens of thousands dead and devastated the countryside.
Lincoln first spotted the oak — standing alone at the edge of the city — on the trip out. On his return to Washington, he demanded that the entire party disembark and look at the “magnificent specimen of the stately grandeur of the forest,” as one observer remembered it.
“So there he is, admiring this one tree that survived the battle of Petersburg,” said James Tackach, a professor at Roger Williams University. “And why? Was he saying nature endures even among the follies of man? Or was he saying, ‘Gee, we’ve got to protect those trees, too many have been lost’?”
Lincoln never wrote about the experience, but Tackach thinks he knows the answer: “I can’t help but pick the latter: He knew the country was going to have to heal environmentally.”
It is “eminently fair” to label Lincoln the nation’s first “green president,” said Tackach, the author of “Lincoln and the Natural Environment,” which explores the famous president’s relationship with nature. While in office, Lincoln enacted several pieces of legislation — including the Yosemite Grant Act, which set aside thousands of acres of California forest — that laid the groundwork for future U.S. efforts to preserve, protect and study the environment, historians said. The Yosemite Act in particular proved crucial, helping inspire Theodore Roosevelt to expand America’s national parks system.
Lincoln was spurred to act by the massive destruction inflicted on the American landscape by the Civil War; by his own love for nature; and by early warnings from some authors and politicians that human activity could damage the natural world, Tackach said. He was likely the first U.S. president to face these kinds of reports, according to historian Vernon Burton.
“Noted writers start to write about deforestation, over-hunting, certain species being wiped out, and you see Lincoln learning from that (and) trying to do something about it,” said Burton, a Clemson University professor of history and author of “The Age of Lincoln.” “He becomes aware of that, he’s trying to do something about it when he dies.”
Lincoln’s love affair with nature began during his childhood — spent in a dirt-floor log cabin located in “extremely rural” countryside, according to Burton. The future president milked cows, cleaned out barns and forked away manure, gaining an intimate knowledge of, and appreciation for, the natural world, Burton said.
That world changed dramatically in the course of Lincoln’s lifetime as the United States underwent rapid industrialization, transitioning from an agricultural society to an urban one. When Lincoln was born in 1809, 90 percent of Americans lived on farms, Tackach said. By the end of the 19th century, only a third did so.
It was a change Lincoln helped fuel.
Lincoln was an avid supporter of “internal improvements”: railroad building, canal construction and other infrastructure projects, according to Tackach. His first political party, the Whigs, saw internal improvements as the keystone of their policy platform.
These kinds of projects undoubtedly had a negative effect on the environment, Tackach said.
Allen Guelzo, a Princeton University historian who has written several books about the president, said he disagreed with the idea that Lincoln was environmentally minded. Guelzo noted that Lincoln was “ardent” on the subject of the Transcontinental Railroad, which he helped build by passing the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. “Environmentally speaking, a disaster,” Guelzo said.
Even worse, Guelzo said, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed any U.S. citizen who had not taken up arms against the Union to claim a 160-acre plot of western land for a small fee. That, too, was an “environmental fiasco,” according to Guelzo.
“That was the single biggest privatization of public resources in American history,” Guelzo said. “I think Lincoln was concerned with the environment largely in terms of what could be extracted from it.”
But Lincoln was genuinely pained by the Civil War’s devastating impact on the countryside, Tackach said. Throughout the four years of bitter conflict, soldiers on both sides cut down trees, burned fields and polluted bodies of water.
“I believe it was during the Civil War, when he realized the damage being done to the environment, that he became a greener president,” Tackach said.
Even before the war, Americans were publishing poetry, books and articles decrying man-made changes to nature, especially deforestation.
Newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant wrote an editorial in the 1840s calling on New York City to set aside green space for the public, a plea that ultimately led to the creation of Central Park. Henry David Thoreau penned poems and essays praising the wildness of nature and lamenting the hyper-civilization of towns. And in 1864, American Ambassador to Italy George Perkins Marsh published a book, “Man and Nature,” that argued mankind’s behavior can negatively affect the atmosphere — essentially predicting climate change.
Lincoln was paying attention.
“He was a critical thinker, and smart, so he could see the logic of what was happening,” Burton said.
In the first three years of his presidency, Lincoln signed into law four key pieces of legislation that helped shape American environmentalism for at least the next century, historians said.
In May 1862, he signed a law establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lincoln had a specific vision for the department: It would “study agriculture, and make sure we were doing it the right way,” Tackach said, rendering farming more efficient and less toxic to the environment. Research conducted by USDA scientists ultimately transformed American farming; in recent years, the agency has produced groundbreaking studies addressing the dangers of climate change.
Just two months later, Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which donated thousands of acres for use by public colleges — so long as the schools agreed to offer programs in engineering and agriculture. Then, in early 1863, he signed a bill founding the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit group of academics charged with providing “scientific advice to the government.” Like the USDA, the academy has published vital work on climate change.
In 1864 came Lincoln’s crowning environmental achievement: the Yosemite Grant Act. That law declared Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove — together totaling about 39,000 acres of gorgeous California wilderness — as protected areas, owned by the state, that must be kept pristine for public enjoyment.
It was the first time in U.S. history that a parcel of land was designated exclusively for public use, Burton said. And, he added, it laid the groundwork for the National Park Service.
“He saved these thousands of acres of land, including spectacular Sequoia trees,” Burton said.
“It was just monumental,” Tackach said.
All the while, the Civil War raged.
The conflict stretched from April 1861 to April 1865, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and rending the nation into two separate worlds — a divide that lingers today. It dominated Lincoln’s waking thoughts and tormented him at night, records show.
“So he is fighting for the survival of democracy and at the same time enacting this kind of legislation. It’s pretty amazing,” Burton said.
It’s also probably the reason no one thinks of Lincoln as an environmentally friendly president, Burton and Tackach said. For most Americans, Lincoln’s legacy is entwined completely — exclusively — with the Civil War and the end of slavery. Those two things “just overshadow his environmental agenda,” Tackach said.
Both Burton and Tackach said they are certain that, had Lincoln not been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, he would have passed pro-environmental legislation during his second term. Lincoln was well on the way to developing a strong “environmental ethic” when he was slain, Tackach said.
The professor pointed to Lincoln’s second inaugural address as evidence.
“He says we need to bind up the nation’s wounds, we need to take care of the country every which way,” Tackach said. “And I think he meant environmental damage done here, too: We’ve got to heal the nation’s wounds environmentally.”