Opinion / Politics

Removing Theodore Roosevelt Statue – Wrongheaded

RooseveltThe American Museum of Natural History has voted to remove the 90-year-old statue of Theodore Roosevelt riding a horse, flanked by two foreign guides. To understand why this is wrong, even in a time of introspection, one must understand history – TR’s, the statue’s, and ours.  Bear with me – as there is a better choice.

On the face of it, as statues topple, this one seems fit to give offense. The depiction is an American president, lifetime equestrian, courageous warrior, prolific writer, former New York police commissioner, governor, vice president, president, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 – with two muscular figures, one native African, the other native American or South American.  Missing, however, is context.

First, the American Museum of Natural History was founded by TR’s father. Many exhibits are from TR’s exploration of Africa in 1910, after which he wrote African Game Trails and returned with 13,000 specimens – and his exploration in 1913 of South America’s “River of Doubt,” later renamed “Rio Teodoro.”

On both expeditions, the intrepid former president nearly lost his life – and on both, he was guided by men like those represented.  The Museum owes existence to TR, just as TR owed existence to his guides. While some deride TR’s statue as racist or adventurist, a better interpretation is that it celebrates individual striving to lift others, infused with exploring spirit.

On January 8, 1919, New York State’s legislature mourned our 26th president: “In his death America has lost a great statesman, a soldier who could either command or obey, an unassuming philanthropist, an undaunted explorer; a beloved leader and a wise counselor and withal an unadulterated American—a man among men.”  The statue grew from that resolution.

TR was the ultimate outdoorsman.  This president created more national parks than any before or since.  He wrote ceaselessly on nature and history, rode every morning, raised four sons and a daughter to appreciate America, our natural history, and our Great Outdoors.

This was a Republican president who recognized prejudice, injustice, and unwarranted disparities, worked his entire life to end them.  He was a rogue New York legislator, fighting to end public corruption, child labor, monopoly power, and disparate treatment of women.

Before that, he was the New York City Police Commissioner who reformed the entire department, firing thousands, requiring academic and moral tests, patrolling streets himself.

In time, he became assistant secretary of the Navy, freed Panama, created “Rough Riders” to win the Spanish-American War, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, reforming governor, Vice President to William McKinley, and when McKinley was killed, became President 1901 to 1909.

Here was a model president, ending wars and propagating peace, launching antitrust actions for the first time in history, leveling the marketplace, advancing equality and women’s suffrage, even before his wife Edith thought the cause timely.

Here was a leader who did as Europe could not, joined Atlantic and Pacific in the Panama Canal, spurring regional development.  Devoted to history, he wrote 37 books on war, peace, land, people, and ideals.  He personally negotiated an end to labor strikes and the Russo-Japanese war.

No problem was too big, no cause too small.  He taught love of liberty and equality, insisting on integrity and respect for republican institutions.  Here was a man who deterred war with the Great White Fleet – a symbol of America’s commitment to global peace.

When his one elected term ended in 1909, Republicans and Democrats tried to nominate him for a second.  He declined, deferring to Washington’s precedent, feeling he had served two. Yet when the nation shrank from leadership, he founded the “Bull Moose” Party – beating Republican William Taft in 1912, falling just shy of beating racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Anticipating the World War, TR intervened with Kaiser Wilhelm II – tried to get him to stop When WWI started, TR trained US troops and volunteered to lead – an offer Wilson declined.

America has never had a more dynamic, kind, determined, thoughtful, or objectively and proactively idealistic president than Theodore Roosevelt.  If any president deserved a place in front of New York’s Natural Museum of History – it is TR.

But what of the flanking figures?  The statue was intended to stand “for all time … a visible recognition of the services” offered “in the welfare and development” of America, including foreign explorations.

The flanking guides, far from signaling racism, highlighted TR’s penchant for international exploration. Where some see “cultural superiority,” the statue’s intent was homage to an American explorer. TR promoted “the strenuous life,” strength and masculinity. The statue does that, just as Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, did in 1501.  Should we remove that statue?

The TR statue, while subject to ready misinterpretation, was meant to celebrate the best in human ideals – no politics.  The design was to “symbolize the scientific, education, outdoor and exploration aspects of Theodore Roosevelt’s life rather than the political.”

The statue’s dedication was to “Theodore Roosevelt, a great leader of the youth of America, in energy and fortitude, in the faith of our fathers, in defense of the rights of the people, in the love and conservation of nature and of the best in life and in man.”

In short, the intent of James Fraser’s bronze equestrian Roosevelt, “accompanied by two guides on foot,” was to honor those depicted, idealizing human development and our place in nature. There was no intent to demean, just to honor and inspire.

The sculptor’s wife noted, “from Theodore Roosevelt came his intense feeling of patriotism and love of America.”  To be proud of what was good – to honor ideals – was the intent.  The question is whether taking this statue down – in any way serves to promote such noble goals.

Better would be a plaque – a call to reflection, thinking, informed observation, and the sort of “reaching higher” that inspired TR, the sculptor, and formation of the museum.  Is it not better to learn from history than destroy it?  Is it not wrongheaded to end what we do not understand, rather than to seek to understand?  The TR statue, flanked by his guides, is educational.  Removing it is not.

If You Enjoy Articles Like This - Subscribe to the AMAC Daily Newsletter!

Sign Up Today
Read more articles by Robert B. Charles
Subscribe
Notify of
2 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x