In our historical memory debates, I am constantly amazed that people will apologize for Theodore Roosevelt because they like his personality. He was a stone cold racist, someone who did as much damage to the nation’s race relations as Woodrow Wilson, someone as great a hypocrite as Thomas Jefferson, someone who held the racist values of Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover and Donald Trump. Yes, Roosevelt had dinner with Booker T. Washington. Fine. But he regretted that tremendously in the aftermath. His railroading of Black soldiers in the Brownsville incident outraged even the most corrupt old-school members of the Republican Party. He was close friends with Madison Grant, an influence on Adolf Hitler. He openly believed in genocide. The man genuinely enjoyed killing both animals and humans. This is a very bad human being. Just because he created some national parks (which was also connected to racism since he strongly believed that wild places needed protection to create the next generation of Anglo-Saxon elites who would conquer the world and lead to American greatness) doesn’t mean we should ignore the reality of just what this broken, racist, quite awful human being was. TR is one of those people who even lots of liberals still want to love. I don’t think Roosevelt is particularly worse than a lot of other people during his time, except for the whole personal love of killing thing, which is quite disturbing. As much as I disliked the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts and was outraged that George Will was there to comment on FDR (which is exactly the kind of cultural conservatism underlying all of Burns’ work), Will did make the comment that Roosevelt was probably massively bipolar but that his personal love of killing came from a deeply disturbed person. I just don’t see why we talk about how horrible Wilson was while not talking about how Roosevelt was equally bad. Even on one of the key issues that Wilson gets blamed for–the segregation of the federal government–Roosevelt had already moved that ball forward significantly in his 7 1/2 years as president (as did Taft following). Wilson deserves every bit of damnation we gives him for that, but there are others to blame too. By not talking about how this racism was essentially bipartisan consensus, moved forward by bad actors from both parties, we do the work of letting parts of the past–and by proxy, ourselves–off the hook for the horrible racism our society has refused to deal with to the present because we can point to someone as the Bad Guy, like Donald Trump. So there are a lot of problems here.
After more than a year of talk, it’s official: The Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History is coming down.
The New York City Public Design Commission voted unanimously at a public meeting on Monday to relocate the statue by long-term loan to a cultural institution dedicated to the life and legacy of the former president. (No institution has been designated yet, and discussions about its ultimate destination are ongoing.)
The vote follows years of protest and adverse public reaction over the statue as a symbol of colonialism, largely because of the Native American and African men who are depicted flanking Roosevelt on a horse. Those objections led the museum in June 2020 to propose removing the statue. New York City, which owns the building and property, agreed to the suggestion, and Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed his support.
To some extent, the debates over historical memory replicate those of the civil rights movement, in that northern whites were plenty supportive of it when it was about the South. But once people started making demands on the North like daring to have little Jennifer and Jason go to school with those people, well, time to spear that Black guy in Boston with a flag. Problematic monuments are not confined just to those who committed treason in defense of slavery, just like racism is not even just a southern thing, it’s not even worse in the South than it is around the rest of the nation.