Save Roosevelt’s Monument: Save Our Republic
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s determination approving the American Museum of Natural History’s proposal removing Theodore Roosevelt, North America, and Africa from its entrance is vexing. One would think that a work of art such as this historic monument would have some presumption to exist, but modern cultural imperatives cancel any caution. Public opinion carries no mandate; The Smerconish survey showed nearly three-quarters of the respondents do not want the statue removed.
There is some confusion about the meaning of the statue. Presumably, it shows the international standing of Mr. Roosevelt. The figures of an African standing-strong represents the continent Africa, and the Native American stands for North America. Their height is on a different plane than Theodore Roosevelt’s and this fact is a problem.
Colonel Roosevelt is mounted. He appears to have a cartridge belt around his waist. Roosevelt entered the American stage leading soldiers up Kettle Hill in Cuba. The Rough Riders included in its membership Native Americans. African American Buffalo soldiers very prominently participated in the attack on Kettle Hill leading to the San Juan Heights. He was mounted, the troops dismounted. My father served with a soldier who went up the hill with Roosevelt. In paraphrase, he observed Col Roosevelt was bobbing around on his horse, moving onward in a withering fire, leaning forward; Not unlike his posture with the monument.
As I understand, the concern expressed is the representations of North America, and Africa are standing, while TR is mounted on a horse. I have read this difference in height makes the statue “racist.” Some of the commentaries also charges the monument is “colonial” in presentation.
The Museum’s defense is the removal is not about Roosevelt. In fact, a direct descendant endorsed the removal. In truth, it is about Roosevelt, and any statement otherwise is (in my opinion) a deception. If competent authority cared, they would separate the figures and replace them, or they would add another figure representing Europe moving all to the front, or they would endow another statue of Roosevelt. Instead, they added a room in his name, which is profoundly underwhelming.
Since TR is national character and a former American President, I believe the Museum has a responsibility to conduct an open review nationally. They need to be transparent about their rationale. Is it from a written code with specific standards? Is it based on complaints? Is it about threatened economic action or diminishing contributions? The Museum should indicate whether they recognize a historical presumption for the monument and whether they are willing to consider and expend for options recognizing the person without necessarily preserving the art in the monument. They should establish whether the art is worth preserving in another venue.
Theodore Roosevelt is a challenging personage. Out of personal tenacity, TR developed high strength though asthmatic, overcame profound grief after losing his wife and mother on the same day, and obdurately extended progressive tenets into American culture. Colonel Roosevelt was his age’s rock star and was not always a pleasant personality. However, he did establish the arc of our development into the Twentieth Century, setting the foundations for a resilient, wealthy, and powerful republic. We Americans should be proud, but all we can summon is shame.
By modern judgment, he was ambiguous on race. For example, he dined with Booker T. Washington at the White House and took hell from many commentators. TR refused the resignation and closed a post office to support Minnie Geddings Cox, the first African American woman postmaster. Colonel Roosevelt developed a close friendship with Holt Colier, an African American man based on hunting experiences. He appreciated the friendship so much he sent Mr. Collier an engraved 45-70 caliber model Winchester 1886, a gift that many in this era would likely disapprove but could have been helpful for Mr. Collier in the Jim Crow south.
While he was generally more progressive on the race issue than his contemporary public, he was not adequate by modern standards. Exemplary is his handling of the Brownsville affair involving Buffalo Soldiers serving in the 25th infantry falsely accused of killing and wounding individuals in a nearby town. Theodore Roosevelt unjustly ordered the discharge of 167 soldiers without honor, causing them to lose pensions and eligibility for federal civil service employment. Roosevelt maintained this position, although Booker T. Washington asked him to reconsider and reverse based on the evidence.
Theodore Roosevelt was not prescient to our modern values, nor did he care about our age. Instead, he was an affirmative, articulate, and progressive leader within his era. TR was a glowing waypoint along the arc of history. I believe he acted in an intensely political milieu both ardently and honorably. We fail to understand that there is an arc of history, and until Armageddon, no age has a lock on truth.
The march will always continue, and resilient action will affirm durable truth. We can best understand our current values when understanding them in the context of our past. We can read history in books and interpret it based on evolving values. Monuments, however, are visually compelling because they are extant — in our face.
Governments and private owners may legally remove monuments. While legal, such action, if transparently political, precluding deliberate full public engagement and not involving preservation options based on a historic presumption, may well encourage outlaws by greasing a slippery slope of disrespect energizing crowds to pull monuments down.
We usually find meaning in understanding what has come before and placing it in a modern value context. We have interpreted this as exemplified by the Boot Monument at Saratoga National Historical Park, New York. The monument commemorates Benedict Arnold’s heroic service and wounding at the battle, but does not name him – The monument recognizes him and his heroism but denies him an identity.
Similarly, there is a nameless plague to Benedict Arnold in the old Cadet Chapel at West Point. My understanding is the name was scratched out by cadets over many years though they never tore the plague down. Again, recognizing his history as an American general but denying him the identity is authoritative interpretation.
Though the public removal of monuments is disconcerting, crowds of outlaws pulling them down is culturally and potentially constitutionally dangerous. Since 2016 we have moved increasingly into a time when things happen because they can, initiatives are justified by slogans, and whatever action is necessary will occur to preserve and expand executive power.
At least in terms of methodology, some at our extremes are living the horrific and bigoted philosophy of Ragnar Redbeard. He wrote Might Is Right Or Survival of the Fittest. “We are tired to death of ‘Equality’. Gods are at a discount; devils are in demand. He who would rule the coming age must be hard, cruel, and deliberately intrepid, for softness assails not successfully the idols of the multitude. Those idols must be smashed into fragments, burnt into ashes, and that cannot be done by the gospel of love.”
His writing has inspired both object and methodology for a California mass shooter and white supremacists. Ironically, at least in terms of methods, he may well encourage the outlaws who topple our public monuments.
Though published in 1896 just before TR’s era, the book provides common ground in smashing the idols of different multitudes into fragments. On the one hand, the administration disrespects the rule of law, relies upon denouncement and threats, and is consistently mendacious. On the other hand, this cultural climate legitimizes for outlaws’ slogan-value-nihilistic action claiming righteous revenge upon our monuments.
Smashing into fragments our blemished ancestors has extended to pulling down a variety of monuments to patriots such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant from their pedestals, and desecrating with graffiti a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment that fought so bravely to liberate Battery Wagner.
The charge is often “racist” or “slaveowner,” or even “colonialist” but it really may be just disrespecting the arc of history and revenge on convenient, accessible objects in a sort of feeding frenzy. These actions are without any due process before a competent governmental agency or consultation with those who may disagree, listening, and respecting their perspective, or considering options.
It is the prevalent slogan-value-nihilism of this age that concerns me the most. A statue in my home California county with the rifle, helmet, and boots representing Vietnam War soldiers lost in combat was bashed and destroyed.
This is personal for me. I survived my Vietnam experience, but some of my high school friends did not.
Where does this nihilistic anger end?
Does it incubate the indifference to common American decency and American values and history sufficiently to energize a civil conflict and even a partial dissolution of our republic?
If so, wouldn’t that be the ultimate historical irony? If we cannot demonstrate decency, can we summon shame?