James Tackach of Roger Williams University, author of the book Lincoln and the Natural Environment, thinks so. Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo disagrees. Here is a taste of Hannah Nathanson’s Washington Post piece, “Lincoln’s Forgotten Legacy as America’s First “Green President“:
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.
Read the entire piece here.