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America's poignant dilemma - Imperialism, war and civil melt-down

Thoreau: the early nation's conscience.

“It is never too late to give up your prejudices.”

H.D.T., Walden., 1854.

Conflicting attitudes about government, slavery, duty & western settlement.


Thoreau on responsibility in civil society.

Mumford on landscape.

Reisner on federal reclamation policy.

Dates | Summary | Vocabulary | Background | The Republic | Thoreau | Siry | Lesson

tree and grass

  • 1817, Thoreau was born.
  • 1830, Abolitionist publisher William L. Garrison founds "The Liberator."
  • 1836, Emerson's Nature essay.
  • 1846, Abraham Lincoln questions the reasons for declaring war in a speech to the House of Representatives.
  • 1846-1848, The War with Mexico makes Lee's and Grant's military careers.
  • 1849, Thoreau's essay on Civil Disobedience.
  • 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act.
  • 1855, civil strife and rebellion breaks out in Kansas among settlers.
  • 1858, The Dred Scott decision by the Taney Supreme Court.
  • 1860, four different candidates run for President.
  • 1863, President Lincoln issues, The Emancipation Proclamation.

The American civil war was in one degree a struggle over the allocation of free land in the west; pitting slave holding advocates and Abolitionists in a desperate struggle to extend or to end slavery forever.

There emerged twin ideologies with respect to an agrarian vision that coexisted in extreme tension alongside a commercial agenda for the new nation. One ideology based on racial supremacy argued slaves were property subject to the fifth amendment's protection. Abolitionists countered that African slaves and American Negro slaves were people, citizens of the states, and due all the protections afforded citizens of the United States.

Slavery made cotton, rice, indigo, tobacco and corn plantations in the East and South economically viable land-use options for large land owners and small market farmers alike. Tobacco and cotton growing, year after year, depleted the soil -- especially laterite and weathered soils-- characteristic of the southeast. Plantations spread west as the soil fertility declined in the east.

The agrarian vision of Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson and other denmocraitc-republican party leaders could only be sustained if western expansion and development of wild lands in the Mississippi Valley and the prairies were the site of ongoing western expansion and leapfrogging settlement. Such rapid settlement --due to eastern soil exhaustion-- put pressure on American Indian land holdings in the Kansas, Arkansas, Nebraska, and Iowa territories. In California, whole populations of Indians were hunted like wild deer to claim their land where ample mineral and water resources were found.

By 1845, the dream of an agrarian and pastoral paradise in the west rested on the backs of slave labor. This incensed the settlers of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin who brought free labor and small farms into the frontier.

The Mexican War lit the fuse that would eventually explode the nation into civil war. The Civil War of 1861-1865 was fought largely on the premise that slavery should not expand into the far western territories. For many northerners, especially abolitionists, the Mexican War was a warning that the southern slave states would stop at nothing to expand their interests into the Caribbean, Central America, or the "Great American Desert."

Thoreau rejected majority rule as it infringed on minority rights, but ever more so because it forced a moral person to contribute to an immoral purpose, that is, the expansion of slavery. Quakers and other religious sects, like the Abolitionists believed slavery to be a moral evil. As they expressed their ideas publicly, southern demagogues overtook the moderate approach to resolving the slavery question. By the time of the Mexican War southern states were dominating Congress and suppressing opposition to slavery in their respective states.

The nation was poised on the brink of a vicious, divisive and debilitating argument over the proper definition of property, the rights of slave families, and the offensive spread of the institution of slavery into lands --arid lands-- west of the Mississippi Valley. Thoreau challenged the assumptions of the moderates and argued for a rejection of slavery as the "Peculiar Institution" anywhere in the country.


    • laissez faire slavery (no federal interference in slave holding)
    • agrarian land policy was internally inconsistent as it relied on both free & slave labor
    • manumission, the legal decision to set a slave free
    • fugitive slave law was a federal attempt to protect slaves as property
    • property versus poll taxes, poll taxes supported the Mexican War
    • townships and local participatory democracy in New England
    • commons as those lands held by government, for all citizens to use
    • public domain,western land granted by the federal government to settlers
    • sovereign lands, submerged lands beneath waterways and lakes held by states in trust for all American citizens to access and use for fishing and hunting
    • commerce clause grants supremacy to the national (federal) government
    • sanctity of contract was protected by the courts as a defense of slavery.


Internal Improvements

  1. canals
  2. railways
  3. harbors and rivers
  4. turnpikes and post roads


  1. Mason-Dixon line
  2. Seaboard slave states
  3. western expansion & the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law
    1. sowed the seeds of disunion and civil war
    2. made the 13th Amendment to the constitution an inevitable wartime measure

Mission and manifest destiny

  1. did it mean to extend slavery into the western territories?
  2. Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican party said no to the expansion of slavery.


The Republic

Henry Thoreau was a botanist, naturalist and citizen who coined the term ecology and he argued the case for free people to resist unjust tyranny.

He felt that such tyranny was manifest in the inhumane institution of American Negro slavery, that is the treatment of most African American descendants as property to be bought and sold as chattel so that they could work the land of the south, the tobacco lands of the border states and Connecticut River valley for the benefit of their owners.


Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1818, and was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (Baly), after his mother Harriet Bailey. He was a slave until he ran away to New York State in 1838. In 1848 he attended the women's riights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.

As a major Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad he directly helped hundreds of runaway slaves on their way to freedom in Canada through his adopted home city of Rochester, NY. He was a brilliant speaker. Douglass was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to engage in a tour of lectures, and so became recognized as one of America's first great black speakers. He won world fame when his autobiography was publicized in 1845. Two years later he bagan publishing an antislavery paper called the North Star.

Douglass served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and fought for the adoption of constitutional amendments that guaranteed voting rights and other civil liberties for blacks. Douglass provided a powerful voice for human rights during this period of American history and is still respected today for his contributions against racial injustice and is revered for promoting equality and racial tolerance in the United States.

Henry D. Thoreau, (1817-1862), used the term ecology in the 1850s.                                     

Civil Disobedience, 1849


That government that governs best governs least

“the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government”

“prepared to do justice to the slave & to Mexico"

“All voting is a sort of gaming, . . .with a slight moral charge.”

“Action from principle,--the perception and the performance of right,--changes things”

"Unjust laws “shall we be content to obey them?”

“it is not necessary that he do something wrong."

"if it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. .”

“Its very Constitution is the evil.”

“an abolition of slaves in America.”

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”


National ideology is one of competitive concepts:

  1. Federalists and Hamiltonians championed strong national government
  2. Nationalists, Democrats, Agrarians and Jeffersonian liberalism wanted decentralized government

The US land system was under attack by 1819

  1. Too much speculation in western lands
  2. overlapping land claims
  3. western land claims by settlers, called "squatters."
  4. the public domain in Kansas became the focus of a bloody struggle over free land



ecological core is | model of wealth & worldviews | ecosystems are? | landscapes change


Americas Landscape heritage

tree and grass

The triumph of the national agrarian vision after the Civil War slammed into the arid reality of the far western regions and sunk under the weight of idealism.

The federal promotion of commerce and industry and the wholesale transfer of land from treasury office to settlers, or speculators ended in bank foreclosures and the necessity of the federal government to initiate a national program to save the frontier, its businesses and residents.

Manifest destiny