Is Theodore Roosevelt Statue Removal a 'Symbol of Progress'?
It Takes More Than That to Kill a Bull Moose.
Theodore Roosevelt died in the early morning hours of Monday, January 6, 1919. Vice President Thomas Marshall observed, “Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight.”
This came to mind amid the controversy over the future of a prominent statue of TR in New York City.
Crews recently worked past midnight as they disassembled the monument that stood in front of the American Museum of Natural History since 1940. It will be transported to North Dakota, where it will be loaned to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library now under construction. Other tributes to the Rough Rider remain at the museum, reflecting his family’s historical role in its creation as well as his signature achievements as a naturalist and conservationist.
For Our Time or For All Time?
The Roosevelt controversy is one of a series of widespread challenges to iconography honoring historical figures, gaining intensity following the murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020. Statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Winston Churchill and many others have been vandalized or removed.
A nation’s monuments are inevitably political matters. They reflect and nurture the mythic narrative which binds a people. They focus attention. Their historical references may offer explanatory power amid the unsettled tumult of the present. They can limn the contours of a shared vision of the future.
As recounted in Michael Patrick Cullinane’s valuable work, Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon, the memorialization of TR was, from the start, robustly contested. The selection and interpretation of historical memories reflect and reconcile the values and priorities of past, present, and future generations. Far from dusty, retrospective relics, they’re vital, evolving guideposts.
The Roosevelt statue at the Museum of Natural History was representative of the neoclassical design favored in the early twentieth century. The African and Indian depictions would not be a part of American public art commissioned today.
Such considerations prompt the view that the removal and relocation is “a symbol of progress.” It’s appropriate that significant weight be accorded the wishes of the Roosevelt family, several of whom publicly endorsed the decision.
The Monument and the Legacy
If the sole issue were the design of the statue this might have been a mere local matter.
The dispute is a surface manifestation of deeper issues. It implicates a range of perspectives as to how American history should be comprehended and applied.
As in his time, reactions to TR are accentuated by his symbolic resonance. With determination and high intention, Roosevelt came to embody aspects of the American national character. His public persona is notable for its unusual approachability.
More than a century after his death, TR remains, in our terms, relatable. This underlies his durable if fluctuating popularity. Paradoxically, it also renders him peculiarly liable to being evaluated as if he were walking among us today. This is not only a disservice to Roosevelt and his generation. It deprives us of much of the value of their experience and example.
This tendency is exemplified in New York Times coverage of the controversy. A 2020 news report offered context for the decision to remove the statue: “A nationalist, Roosevelt, in his later years became overtly racist, historians say, endorsing sterilization of the poor and the intellectually disabled.”
Such reductionism and presentism continues: “President Trump was among those who criticized the decision on Twitter where he wrote, ‘Ridiculous, don’t do it!”
Amid the removal this month, a dog’s breakfast of reactions inevitably spilled onto social media.
Many similar, heedless, toxic concoctions of malice, ignorance, and self-regard are readily located on Twitter and other centers of today’s public-facing reflection and expression.
One might be tempted to dismiss them with the back of the hand. The problem is that we’re living in a moment of confusion about and lack of awareness of our own history.
We’re at risk of declining into the ominous, cruel caricature drawn by Gore Vidal: the United States of Amnesia.
The Leader as Historian
Roosevelt was no stranger to the rough and tumble of debate relating to American history.
We cannot as a nation be too profoundly grateful for the fact that the Puritan has stamped his influence so deeply on our national life. We need have but scant patience with the men who now rail at the Puritan’s faults….It is a quality of strong natures that their failings, like their virtues, should stand out in bold relief; but there is nothing easier than to belittle the great men of the past by dwelling only on the points where they come short of the universally recognized standards of the present. Men must be judged with reference to the age in which they dwell, and the work they have to do.
The remainder of the address applies the history of the Puritans to comprehend the challenges of the then new twentieth century. Memorably, TR affixed the label “malefactors of great wealth” to oligarchs whom he viewed as imperiling the American experiment.
In the same way, there is much we can learn from Roosevelt and his generation as we confront the circumstances of the early twenty-first century.
History as Necessary for Democratic Citizenship
In Boston on December 27, 1912, Roosevelt, as president of the American Historical Association, spoke of “History as Literature.”
History…is one of the necessary features of a sound education in democratic citizenship….The historical work which [possesses] literary quality may be a permanent contribution to the sum of man’s wisdom, enjoyment, and inspiration.
The mythopoetic aspects of history are essential for national solidarity. This is nowhere more true than in the United States. We are stewards of the most successful experiment in representative democracy ever constituted, with an unprecedented diversity of races and ethnicities, of continental expanse, extending to parts of four centuries.
The national narrative cannot be conjured solely from an individual leader’s vision or the lived experience of one’s own generation. It must be erected on the durable foundation of truth, sought and explored and expressed with courage and humility.
Those who tell the Americans of the future what the Americans of today and of yesterday have done, will perforce tell much that is unpleasant. This is but saying that they will describe the arch-typical civilization of this age. Nevertheless when the tale is finally told, I believe that it will show that the forces working for good in our national life outweigh the forces working for evil, and that, with many blunders and shortcomings, with much halting and turning aside from the path, we shall yet in the end prove our faith by our works, and show in our lives our belief that righteousness exalteth a nation.
Ultimately, Roosevelt’s most lasting monument is his example and teaching of the tenets of American citizenship.
Image credits: Roosevelt GIF from US National Archive; Roosevelt Equestrian Statue from edwardhblake, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons; Roosevelt laying cornerstone, Dedication of Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1907, Unknown, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.