New England and Early Conservationism: The North American Review 1830-1860

By Spann, Edward K. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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New England and Early Conservationism: The North American Review 1830-1860


Spann, Edward K., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


The publication of George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature in 1864 is generally believed to mark the beginning of modern conservationism in the United States; in 1963, for instance, Secretary of Interior Stewart L. Udall said that it introduced "land wisdom in this country."1 From the start, the Vermonter's book won a respectful hearing in influential circles, most notably in New England's leading quarterly journal, the North American Review, whose editor, James Russell Lowell, recognized that Marsh had issued a call on Modern Man to exercise an enlightened stewardship over the natural world. The book, said Lowell, properly indicted Man as "a destroying agent" of the physical environment, but it was ultimately "consoling; for proving as it does the power of man for mischief, it also suggests that the same prodigious force, intelligently organized and guided, may be equally potent for remedy and the restoration of equilibrium."2 This appraisal was to be expected from the Review, because over the previous three decades it had often expressed the same general attitude toward the relationship between human society and the natural world.

It is probably true that Man and Nature was, as Lewis Mumford called it, the "fountainhead" of conservationism on the national level, but such judgments ignore earlier origins of the conservationist movement. This oversight tends both to overstate the importance of the post-Civil War period in originating the movement and to obscure the full meaning of conversationism; if any credit is given to the pre-war period, it is bestowed on the work of artists and writers, especially Henry Thoreau, in promoting wilderness preservation.3 The subject of this article is another form of antebellum conservationism which emphasized a more positive relationship between nature and a modernizing society.

This form appeared in the North American Review between 1830 and 1860, when New England experienced a period of rapid modernization in nearly every aspect of its life. Like Marsh, the Review had a much different attitude toward nature than that of its better known contemporaries, the Transcendentalists, who saw the natural world chiefly as an antidote to civilized life; it would certainly not agree with Thoreau when he declared that "hope and future for me are not in the lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps." Although it recognized the literary brilliance of Walden, it ended its brief review of that book in 1854 by questioning its relevance, "for the author's life in the woods was on too narrow a scale to find imitation."4 In contrast to Thoreau's sophisticated primitivism with its a-social individualism, the attitude of this conservative Boston-based quarterly was that human beings had the right and obligation to cultivate nature in the interests of progress and a civilized society.

The North American Review was founded in 1815 by William Tudor with the aim of protecting the United States from both the domination of English culture and the influence of French radical thought. As it matured, it became an influential agency for the spread of progressive ideas as well as a defender of traditional Yankee values. Throughout the nineteenth century, it represented the enlightened conservatism of a small but select constituency, chiefly scholars, ministers, and other professional men who helped to guide the modernization of eastern New England. It was not a popular journal nor a particularly inspired one, but it was a respected medium for many of the new ideas which eventually influenced policy in the region and in the nation.5

The Review's attitude toward nature developed out of its distinctive view of human society and its potential. Rejecting the pessimistic forecast of Thomas Malthus that population increases would inevitably prevent humankind from overcoming scarcity and privation, its editors believed that the growth of population under modern conditions could be expected to bring an even greater growth in material wealth.

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