George Perkins Marsh, Advocate for Wilderness Conservation

His Book Published in 1864 Was Perhaps a Century Ahead of Its Time

Photograph of George Perkins Marsh

Library of Congress

George Perkins Marsh is not as familiar a name today as his contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Though Marsh is overshadowed by them, and also by a later figure, John Muir, he occupies an important place in the history of the conservation movement.

Marsh applied a brilliant mind to the problem of how man utilizes, and damages and disturbs, the natural world. At a time, the mid-1800s, when most people considered natural resources to be infinite, Marsh cautioned against exploiting them.

In 1864 Marsh published a book, Man and Nature, which emphatically made the case that man was doing great damage to the environment. Marsh's argument was ahead of its time, to say the least. Most people of the time simply could not, or would not, grasp the concept that mankind could harm the earth.

Marsh did not write with the grand literary style of Emerson or Thoreau, and perhaps he is not better known today because much of his writing can seem more competently logical than eloquently dramatic. Yet his words, read a century and a half later, are striking for how prophetic they are.

Early Life of George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh was born on March 15, 1801, in Woodstock, Vermont. Growing up in a rural setting, he retained a love of nature throughout his life. As a child he was intensely curious, and, under the influence of his father, a prominent Vermont attorney, he began to read voluminously at the age of five.

Within a few years, his eyesight began to fail, and he was forbidden to read for several years. He apparently spent much time during those years wandering out of doors, observing nature.

Allowed to begin reading again, he consumed books at a furious rate, and in his late teens, he attended Dartmouth College, from which he graduated at the age of 19. Thanks to his diligent reading and studying, he was capable of speaking several languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian.

He took a job as a teacher of Greek and Latin, but didn’t like teaching, and gravitated to the study of law.

Political Career of George Perkins Marsh

At the age of 24, George Perkins Marsh began practicing law in his native Vermont. He moved to Burlington and attempted several businesses. Law and business didn’t fulfill him, and he began dabbling in politics. He was elected as a member of the House of Representatives from Vermont and served from 1843 to 1849.

In the Congress Marsh, along with a freshman congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln opposed the United States declaring war on Mexico. Marsh also opposed Texas entering the Union as a pro-slavery state.

Involvement With the Smithsonian Institution

The most significant achievement of George Perkins Marsh in Congress is that he spearheaded efforts to establish the Smithsonian Institution.

Marsh was a regent of the Smithsonian in its earliest years, and his obsession with learning and his interest in a wide variety of subjects helped guide the institution toward becoming one of the world’s greatest museums and institutions for learning.

George Perkins Marsh: American Ambassador

In 1848 President Zachary Taylor appointed George Perkins Marsh as the American minister to Turkey. His language skills served him well in the post, and he used his time overseas to collect plant and animal specimens, which he sent back to the Smithsonian.

He also wrote a book on camels, which he had a chance to observe while traveling in the Middle East. At that time, most Americans had never seen a camel, and his extremely detailed observations of the exotic beasts caught the attention of some Americans with an interest in science.

Marsh came to believe that camels could be put to good use in America. A powerful American politician, Jefferson Davis, who had also been affiliated with the Smithsonian and was serving as secretary of war in the early 1850s, came to agree. Based on the recommendation of Marsh, and the influence of Davis, the U.S. Army obtained camels, which it attempted to use in Texas and the Southwest. The experiment failed, mainly because the cavalry officers didn’t fully understand how to handle the camels.

In the mid-1850s Marsh returned to Vermont, where he worked in state government. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him ambassador to Italy. He kept the ambassadorial post in Italy for the remaining 21 years of his life. He died in 1882 and was buried in Rome.

Environmental Writings of George Perkins Marsh

The curious mind, legal training, and love of nature of George Perkins Marsh led him to become a critic of how humans were despoiling the environment in the mid-1800s. At a time when people believed the earth’s resources were infinite and existed solely for man to exploit, Marsh eloquently argued quite the opposite case.

In his masterpiece, Man and Nature, Marsh made the forceful case that man is on earth to borrow its natural resources and should always act responsibly in how he proceeds.

While overseas, Marsh had the chance to observe how people used the land and natural resources in older civilizations, and he compared that to what he had seen in New England in the 1800s. Much of his book is actually a history of how different civilizations viewed their use of the natural world.

The central argument of the book is that man needs to conserve, and, if possible, replenish natural resources.

In Man and Nature, Marsh wrote of the “hostile influence” of man, stating, “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.”

Legacy of George Perkins Marsh

Marsh’s ideas were ahead of his time, yet Man and Nature was a popular book and went through three editions (and was retitled at one point) during Marsh's lifetime. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service in the late 1800s, considered Marsh's book "epoch making." The creation of the US National Forests and the National Parks were partly inspired by George Perkins Marsh.

Marsh's writing, however, faded into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 20th century. Modern environmentalists were impressed with Marsh’s skillful depiction of environmental problems and his suggestions for solutions based on conservation. Indeed, many conservation projects which we take for granted today could be said to have their earliest roots in the writings of George Perkins Marsh.

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McNamara, Robert. "George Perkins Marsh, Advocate for Wilderness Conservation." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 3). George Perkins Marsh, Advocate for Wilderness Conservation. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "George Perkins Marsh, Advocate for Wilderness Conservation." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).