Given the recent debates over whether to preserve, contextualize or even destroy monuments to figures ranging from Confederate generals and leaders to Christopher Columbus, Roosevelt’s reluctance to be memorialized seems prescient. Yet more than a century after his death, Roosevelt has lent clarity to these bitter disputes. The decision to remove a monument of Roosevelt that shows a Native American and an African subordinate to the late president suggests a useful standard as we move forward: If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.
Unlike the Confederate leaders whose statues have been pulled down in recent days, Roosevelt owned no slaves. As president he fought for social justice and a “square deal” amid rapid industrialization that exacerbated inequalities. As the founder of the Progressive Party he promoted women’s suffrage, national health care, campaign finance reform and direct democracy.
And Roosevelt’s steadfast advocacy of conservation and the outdoors surely makes him one of the greatest environmentalists of the 20th century. That legacy alone has kept Roosevelt atop the perch at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s why the memorial hall and the adjacent park bear his name. Roosevelt collected specimens for the museum from youth to adulthood, and more than any president before or after, implored his fellow citizens to experience nature.
But the equestrian statue the museum intends to remove, showing Roosevelt flanked by a Native American and an African, indicates nothing of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. Rather it symbolizes the least appealing aspect of his natural history philosophy. The idea of racial hierarchies dominated Victorian-era American thought. Roosevelt subscribed to his own unique racial ideology that combined the prevailing social Darwinism of his time with obsolete theories about evolution.
Today, these theories have no place in science or social studies, but in Roosevelt’s time, they gave rise to unsavory ideas about race suicide and eugenics. What’s worse, Roosevelt occasionally promoted racial stereotypes that stoked hatred and polarized American politics. His book “The Winning of the West” portrayed Native Americans as savages of the Earth’s “waste spaces,” depicting their forced removal as a natural consequence of European superiority. In retirement he called for an end to hyphenated Americanism — of those with dual identities often associated with immigrants who made the United States their home while maintaining a connection to their birthplace. These ideas bred hatred.
As president, however, Roosevelt preached tolerance and encouraged equality. He famously broke bread with Booker T. Washington — the first president to dine with an African American in the White House. He cleaned up the Interior Department, ensured federal jobs for minorities and reconciled many land disputes with Native Americans. He promoted a brand of American nationalism that guaranteed civil liberties for all, regardless of personal identities.
For those who believe removing the Roosevelt statue from the steps of the American Museum of Natural History erases a hero from the landscape of his native city, think again. It removes a celebration of Roosevelt’s worst qualities. The statue symbolizes none of his achievements. Had Washington’s Monument or Jefferson’s Memorial depicted these presidents alongside the many slaves they owned, they should be removed, as well.
But those memorials celebrate the achievements of former presidents, as do the many other statues that Roosevelt never wanted. For those who say Roosevelt is turning in his grave, think again. No one would want that statue removed as hastily as TR.