Ground Plans: Conceptualizing Ecology in the Antebellum United States

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Date

2015

Authors

Feeley, Lynne Marie

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Wald, Priscilla

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Abstract

"The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions," writes Thoreau: "Let us spend our lives in conceiving then." This dissertation depicts how Thoreau's fellow antebellum antislavery writers discerned the power of concepts to shape "the universe." Wishing for a new universe, one free of slavery, they spent their lives crafting new concepts. "Ground Plans" argues that antebellum antislavery writers confiscated the concept of nature from proslavery forces and fundamentally redefined it. Advocates of slavery routinely rationalized slave society by referencing a particular conception of nature--as static, transhistorical, and hierarchical--claiming that slavery simply mirrored the natural, permanent racial order. This dissertation demonstrates that to combat slavery's claim to naturalness, antislavery writers reconceptualized nature as composed of dynamic species and races, evolving in relation to one another. In four chapters on David Walker, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, and Gerrit Smith, it shows that this theory of nature enabled these writers to argue for the complete transformation of society to bring it into line with what they characterized as nature's true principles. This dissertation thus restores the concept of nature as a crucial intellectual battleground for abolitionism. Moreover, it shows these politically-charged antebellum debates over nature's meaning to be crucial to the story of natural science, showing that abolitionists speculated on the natural principles that would eventually constitute the founding insights of ecology.

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Feeley, Lynne Marie (2015). Ground Plans: Conceptualizing Ecology in the Antebellum United States. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/9796.

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