Thursday, March 6, 2014

March 6, 2014: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Teddy Roosevelt

[Much of the time when I’ve highlighted something specific in this space, it’s been because I want to emphasize something positive about it, something I enjoy or appreciate. Well, the heck with that! For this week’s series, I’ll focus instead on stuff about which I’m not as keen, and try to AmericanStudy some of the reasons why. Nobody can be positive all the time, right? Add your own non-favorites in comments to help with a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]

On our national commemorative priorities, and the problems with them.
Mount Rushmore was constructed between 1927 and 1936, so it makes sense that, alongside the more historic presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, the designer chose the most prominent and widely beloved recent president, Teddy Roosevelt. I have significant issues with Roosevelt’s positions on and ideas about a number of questions, from Japanese immigration to Native Americans, masculinity to war; but the truth is that the same could be said of any of the other three presidents, and any other prominent national leader for that matter. So the premise of this non-favorite post isn’t that we value Roosevelt too highly in comparison to other presidents, necessarily; instead, my point here is that we prioritize presidents much too highly in our national memories period (a fact quite literally embodied in Mount Rushmore itself).
Of course I understand how easy—and perhaps necessary—it is to connect broad and complex eras and trends with individual figures, iconic representations of those periods. So the Progressive Era becomes Roosevelt’s, in much of our national memory of that late 19th and early 20th century moment. But such an emphasis on individuals—and perhaps especially on presidents—makes it much more difficult for us to remember communities and movements, the kinds of collective efforts and forces that (to my mind) far more significantly shape any and all periods. Obviously we couldn’t put the setttlement house movement or the founding of the NAACP or the City Beautiful movement (to cite three important and influential Progressive efforts) on Mount Rushmore—but I do believe that we should remember them far more than we do; and given the limited amount of space in our national narratives and conversations, such additions might well mean granting Roosevelt a more limited role at the same time.
But even if I grant that compelling individuals will always hold a particular spot in our national (and perhaps all human) memories, it seems to me that presidents are almost always less inspiring choices than other possibilities. After all, the very fact of their presidency means that these leaders had a great deal of opportunity to influence policy, to use what TR called the bully pulpit, to make their mark in a way that needs precious little reinforcing. Whereas a Jane Addams, a W.E.B. Du Bois, a Frederick Lewis Olmstead (to highlight three individuals connected to the three aforementioned movements and discussed in those linked posts)—these figures pushed their way into hugely influential roles and lives out of sheer will and talent, stubborn determination and transcendent imagination. Remembering them more than Roosevelt would help better connect us to the movements and communities—but it would also, I believe, inspire us more fully to seek our own most significant futures.
Last non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this non-favorite? Others you’d share for the weekend post?


  1. I think a lot about this. You hit the nail on the head.

    1. Thanks Ian! I may have done so, but I'd be very happy to hear more of your thoughts too, of course (and as always).