Culture

Teddy Roosevelt Was a Great American

A statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, N.Y., June 22, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Hands off TR.

Now the cancel police have come for Teddy Roosevelt.

A statue of TR on horseback that has stood at the front of the American Museum of Natural History since 1940 is going to be removed by the museum with the assent of New York City.

The statue portrays two figures beside Roosevelt on foot, a Native American and an African, which is taken to be a statement of racial hierarchy, although the depiction is open to interpretation. Roosevelt is also, of course, getting specifically targeted for his racial views.

There is no doubt that he partook of the prejudices of his time and reflected some of its worst intellectual influences, particularly Social Darwinism. But he was the characteristic American of the early 20th century, who exulted in his country and made enduring contributions to it.

It is for that, that we honor him, and the museum of natural history is one of the obvious places to do it, given that his father was a founding member and TR was a great naturalist and conservationist. Indeed, this is why the New York legislature decided to commemorate Roosevelt at the site in 1920.

Neither conservatives nor progressives can fully embrace TR. Conservatives have no use for the way he lurched to the left after leaving office and championed a progressive vision that would eventually lead to an overweening administrative state. Progressives find his hyper-masculine advocacy of the strenuous life ridiculous and consider him offensive to PC sensibilities on multiple grounds.

And yet, whatever his flaws, Roosevelt unquestionably loved America. His venturesome self-confidence captured the mood of a nation on the verge of greatness. A big-game hunter, boxer, ornithologist, outdoorsman, occasional cowboy, author, and journalist, TR contained multitudes. He led the Rough Riders into battle in the Spanish-American War and wrote about 40 books. He read Tolstoy while chasing down boat thieves out West. One biographer wrote that to be part of Roosevelt’s entourage “was to travel in a carnival led by a conjurer and trailed by an idolatrous throng.”

The son of a patrician family, he graduated from Harvard and plunged into politics, rising from the New York State Assembly to become New York City police commissioner, then to the highest office in the land at age 42 in 1901 after an assassin killed President William McKinley.

He’s worth honoring for his contributions to preserving natural wonders of the West, if nothing else. A spell in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory as a young man had been formative for him, and he wrote a series of books on ranching and hunting. He didn’t lose his taste for outdoor adventure as president. He loved climbing and swimming along Rock Creek in Washington, D.C., warning those he invited along to bring their “worst clothes.” On a trip to the Oklahoma Territory, he thrashed to death a rattlesnake that lunged at him, using an 18-inch quirt for the task. On a trip to Yellowstone National Park, he desperately wanted to shoot a cougar, courting a public backlash, until friends talked him out of the plan.

The Yellowstone visit was a leg of his famous “Great Loop Tour” in 1903 to promote his conservation agenda. He toured the park with the renowned naturalist John Burroughs, who said of Roosevelt, “Nothing escaped him, from bears to mice, from wild geese to chickadees, from elk to red squirrels; he took it all in.” Literally nothing escaped him; at one point, TR jumped from a sled to capture a vole that he thought might be a new species. He stuffed it and sent it to the Smithsonian.

The president gave a speech at the north entrance to the park upon laying the cornerstone for an archway inscribed for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. He called the park “a great natural playground” and argued, “The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give, is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures.”

On the south rim of the Grand Canyon, he gave a talk to Arizonans that touched on similar themes:

I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.

Altogether, Roosevelt had conserved more than 230 million acres by the end of his presidency. He established six national parks, created 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, set aside 51 federal bird preserves, and designated or expanded 150 national forests.

If he wanted to preserve the wonder of our landscape at home, he wanted to build our power abroad.

TR could be bumptious and militaristic, but he was ultimately a realist in the Hamiltonian tradition. He believed, rightly, that conflict is endemic among nations and that military strength is necessary to deter it or, should it come to that, win it.

He took as his axiom a line of George Washington’s: “To be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace.” The ultimate goal, as he put it in his famous 1901 “big stick” speech, was “that self-respecting peace, the attainment of which is and must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people.”

As president, he enhanced the country’s role on the world stage. He sent the Great White Fleet (surely, another count against him) on its 43,000-mile trip, with 20 globe-spanning ports of call. The voyage is regarded, as an account by naval historians relates, as “one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the U.S. Navy.”

He brokered the peace in the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the first U.S. president to win a Nobel prize.

He negotiated a settlement of a dispute between France and Germany over control of Morocco.

He extended the 1823 Monroe Doctrine from its original formulation that warned against European intervention, adding a corollary that made the United States the “policeman” of the Western Hemisphere and asserting the right to intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries so misgoverned that they might invite European meddling.

In 1906, he became the first president to travel out of the country, to visit Panama at the time of the construction of the canal that he had done so much to promote, taking the controls of a steam shovel for a jaunty photograph. The largest building project in U.S. history, the canal linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, boosting commerce and easing American naval operations by cutting the trip from San Francisco to New York by 8,000 miles. It was yet another sign of the arrival of the United States as a world power.

Roosevelt clearly understood the role of America in the 20th century. “Whether we wish it or not,” he said in his “big stick” speech, “we cannot avoid hereafter having duties to do in the face of other nations. All that we can do is to settle whether we shall perform these duties well or ill.”

Mostly, we performed them well, although obviously TR’s enemies beg to differ.

They are currently engaged in a ransacking of our cultural landscape. In his conservation work out West, TR believed that this country’s treasures should be held in trust for future generations. The mob targeting him and other worthy men believes no such thing.

This article is drawn from The Case for Nationalism, published by Broadside Books.

 

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