CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — Theodore Roosevelt, His Statue And The Problem Of The Past

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City decided recently to take down the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has been displayed in front of the museum on Central Park West since 1940. It’s actually a statue group of three men. Roosevelt is high on horseback dressed like a cowboy or Rough Rider. Flanking him, on foot, are a Native American in a Plains headdress and an African gun bearer wearing very little at all.

Roosevelt towers above the people of color, who stand behind him as if for protection. It’s not quite clear whether TR is leading the Native American and the African to a better future or whether they are voluntarily accompanying him. Roosevelt’s horse is actually walking off the pedestal in the direction of America’s manifest destiny.

The statue group could quite easily be called “The White Man’s Burden.”

The Roosevelt statue group has been the subject of public controversy for decades. The recent movement (intensified in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd) to remove all remaining objectionable statues from America’s public spaces caused the museum’s directors to make the difficult decision to remove the statue, an action they have been contemplating and debating for several years.

Native American cultural historian Philip Deloria, a professor of history at Harvard, sees the statue group as a colonial allegory: “They (the Natives) speak to Roosevelt as an American, as a person who happily goes as a dominating white figure to Africa, as a person who goes and takes advantage of the possibilities that (arise) by Indian land being dispossessed.” The advocacy group Decolonize This Place recently declared, “In no way is it ever OK for two nearly naked, ‘savage’ men (figures of one Indigenous and one African) to be standing at the feet of and in service of a colonizer.”

The American Museum’s statue was commissioned in 1921, just two years following the death of TR on Jan. 6, 1919. Theodore Roosevelt was a white privileged member of the Anglo-American establishment. He believed that the Anglo-Saxon peoples had a special destiny and a special responsibility to carry the blessings of “civilization” to, as Mark Twain sarcastically put it, “the people sitting in darkness.” Thus, the statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History is a fair representation of at least that aspect of the life and achievement of Roosevelt.

As a Roosevelt scholar and a serious admirer of the 26th president of the United States, I’m saddened to think that a man of such monumental importance to American history should be defrocked. For many years, I have visited the American Museum of Natural History with joy and respect for both Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (Thee) and his son, President Theodore Roosevelt. I’m not myself a hunter, but I do not object to the animal displays at the museum. I love the diorama in the lobby of the Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch on the west bank of the Little Missouri River in western North Dakota, complete with authentic sagebrush, pronghorn antelopes and even antelope scat.

Roosevelt is not just some famous New Yorker whose statue happens to be located in front of the Museum of Natural History. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (Thee), was one of its founders in 1869. In fact, the American Museum’s charter was signed in the Roosevelt brownstone in lower Manhattan, the home where the future president was born in 1858. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. began contributing specimens to the museum from a very young age. Dozens of his contributions are either on display or stored in the museum’s capacious vaults. Roosevelt’s 1914 foray into the Amazon watershed — what became his exploration of the River of Doubt — was sponsored in part by the museum.

I have visited the American Museum of Natural History several dozen times over the past 20 years and I have cringed (in varying degrees) every time I have gazed at the statue group. Although I acknowledge that it is an accurate representation of Roosevelt’s imperial views and his attitude toward indigenous peoples across the globe, and that it would have pleased him to be depicted as a cowboy on horseback, I have always felt that it is not a fair or adequate representation of Roosevelt the naturalist, which was the point of his long relationship with the American Museum.

I can think of a dozen moments from Roosevelt’s life that artist James Earle Fraser might have chosen to depict, all of them closer to the spirit of TR, who enrolled at Harvard in 1876 believing that he would become a professional naturalist. Fraser might have sculpted the boy Teedie, who fell in love with natural history after happening upon a dead seal displayed on a slab in front of a shop on lower Broadway. That would have had the added advantage of inviting generations of young people into the museum and to consider taking up a career in natural history. He might have been depicted leaping from his horse in Yellowstone National Park in April 1903, when he spotted a vole that he believed might be new to science. The remains of that vole now repose in a specimen cabinet at the Smithsonian Institution. He might have been sculpted standing next to John Muir on a precipice in Yosemite National Park, the subject of one of the most famous photographs of Roosevelt. Fraser’s sculpture depicts Roosevelt the imperial anthropologist, Roosevelt the big game hunter, Roosevelt the “civilizer,” but not particularly Roosevelt the naturalist.

This is the view of TR descendant Theodore Roosevelt IV: “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice. The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the statue and move forward.”


Roosevelt himself was not very eager to be memorialized. He had a stark and fatalistic view of the place in historical memory of any public figure. While he was still serving as the 26th president, Roosevelt wrote:

“I am not in the least concerned as to whether I will have any place in history. … It does not seem to me that after a man is dead it matters very much whether it is a little longer or a little shorter before the inevitable oblivion, steadily flooding the sands of time, effaces the scratches on the sand which we call history. As the ages roll by in the life of this globe, small indeed does the difference seem between the few weeks’ remembrance of the average hard-working, clean-living citizen, and the few years, or few hundreds of years, or few thousands of years, before the memory of the mighty fades into the dim gray of time and then vanishes into the blackness of eternity.”

If you were not sure this was an authentic Roosevelt document, and you happened upon it in a book of quotations, you would never attribute it to Roosevelt. Nor is this statement necessarily definitive. After studying TR for more than 20 years, I can say, with confidence, that in most moods he was concerned about his place in history; it did matter to him whether he was remembered for a shorter or longer period following his death; he did not class himself with the “average hard-working, clean-living citizen,” though he worked very hard and lived a remarkably clean life; his hope, surely, was for at least a few hundred years of historical importance and he almost certainly wanted to be remembered as long as America had a history.

Still, Roosevelt was a deep student of history (he read a book a day) and he knew that virtually every human being who has ever lived has been swallowed up in the “dim gray of time,” including individuals who were important in their time. For every Caesar or Pompey, for every Napoleon or Marlborough, there were hundreds of thousands of people who played a significant role in the course of events whose names are known only to a handful of scholars and historians.

Roosevelt’s immediate family was not very supportive of proposals to erect statues to celebrate or commemorate the life of TR — even into the early 1960s. Roosevelt himself, in dedicating Roosevelt Dam in Arizona in 1911, said modestly that he regarded that — a realization of his purposes rather than a tribute to him personally — as a suitably impressive monument to his life’s work.

The Roosevelt statue vandalized prior to the decision to remove it from the museum.
The Roosevelt statue vandalized prior to the decision to remove it from the museum.

The problem with any statue of Roosevelt is that it freezes a hyperkinetic man, a Renaissance man, and a complicated man who won the Nobel Peace Prize but also enjoyed punching out drunken gunslingers in Western saloons, a man who wrote 40 books but also climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, a man who knew Finnish Saga but who waded into a circle of snarling dogs to kill a mountain lion with a knife, into a single moment of a dizzyingly hectic and varied life.

The only successful statue to Roosevelt would have to be a wildly gesticulating animatronic cowboy-statesman, riding a feral horse at breakneck speed over the Badlands while dictating letters to one of his frenzied secretaries. Roosevelt is impossible to capture in a single avatar: soldier, reformer, explorer, author, big game hunter, cowboy, politician, family man. The colonialist and big game hunter in front of the Museum of Natural History no more captures Roosevelt than a statue of Buffalo Bill Cody reading a ledger.

It was the supervising architect of the American Museum’s post-Rooseveltian remake project, John Russell Pope (1874-1937), who conceived of the statue group featuring equestrian Roosevelt and the two “accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African.” Pope wanted the statue group to celebrate Roosevelt for “the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator.” The statue group was then sculpted by the distinguished American artist James Earle Fraser (1876-1953). Fraser is best known for his sculpture End of the Trail and the Indian (buffalo) nickel. If Fraser was aware that his sculpture belonged to the “white man’s burden” school of commemoration, he did not make public mention of that theme. “The two figures at (TR’s) side,” he wrote, “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” We no longer choose to read the statue group in that way.

Still, it is important for us to try to understand that there was a time in American history when the TR statue group was seen (by white people, at least) as a positive depiction of the man and his purposes. Awareness of that should make us pause. For one thing, it should remind us of how deeply racial hierarchies and unconscious racism are woven into the social fabric of American life. Most Americans have had to be awakened to the recognition of the subtler oppressions of our history, economy, judicial system, politics and social structure.

It is an ongoing process. It is often painful, because people of good will and generosity of spirit often find it hard to learn — and worse to be told — that they embody forms of racism and structural oppression, caricature and exploitation that they do not even recognize in themselves. It seems to me that we should all try to be as understanding as we can of the unconscious ways our fellow citizens (and we ourselves) inadvertently perpetuate discrimination, of the distance we as a nation have come on questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, conquest, colonialism and the legacy of slavery and the distance we still have to travel. As a humanities scholar, I am more interested in trying to understand the evolving dynamics of American life than in judging our forebears and shaming them in their graves.

I support the removal of the Roosevelt statue group from the entrance of the Museum of Natural History. I think the national conversation that the problematic representation of Roosevelt has generated has been healthy, even essential. I’d rather wrestle with the character and achievement, the blindness and the weaknesses, of Roosevelt (or Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson or Ulysses S. Grant) than drag their statues down like Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. I’d prefer to explore and contextualize that which we now find objectionable than to attempt to erase the iconography of the unenlightened past. (And I worry about what future generations will say of us!)

I applaud the American Museum’s recent exhibition, “Addressing the Statue,” on the Roosevelt statue group, but I also support contextualizing signage, counter- or corrective- or compensatory-statuary on the same site(s), nuanced conferences and symposia, blogs, websites, documentary films and protest rallies. As a humanities scholar, I would prefer these controversies to become learning moments for the American nation rather than public cleansings born of passion, righteousness, and enthusiasm.

I believe that the American Museum’s decision to remove Roosevelt has greater legitimacy because it came at the end of a long and careful deliberative process in which a wide range of viewpoints were heard. There may be times when street action is the right remedy to the legacies of oppression, but in a nation straining toward democracy and due process, and in danger of losing both, I would prefer to see all the stakeholders gather to make these decisions in the free marketplace of ideas rather than at the end of a rope or a flaming torch. Street action is often a very imprecise tool of social justice; the collateral damage can have the effect of discrediting an otherwise-laudable public expression of rage. But I speak as a privileged white male, and I know others will find my views complacent.

Theodore Roosevelt’s complicated legacy is not impaired by the loss of one objectionable statue in New York City. Roosevelt, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. His legacy can be found in virtually every national park, especially at the one named for him in the Badlands of the Little Missouri River Valley in western North Dakota. The Panama Canal is not coming down. Nor is Sagamore Hill, one of the few presidential homes that really gives you the essence of the man. In my opinion, Roosevelt’s legacy is enhanced rather than degraded by the removal of James Earle Frazer’s superbly sculpted statue group at the Museum of Natural History. Of all the ways the 21st century might wish to memorialize Roosevelt, that statue was the least representative of the whole man, his staggering achievement and his largely untarnished place in American memory.

For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book, “Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics is available at Amazon.com.

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