Likely no one would accuse President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt of either anti-American or racist behavior. To do so would wreak trauma among fans of the Teddy Bear.
However, it cannot be said that folks who may admire TR and create memorials to him are sensitive to images they may ascribe to him. A search of the internet reveals no factoid indicating that TR is the object of historical revisionism. Notwithstanding, however, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City determined that a TR statue on its front steps was composed of images that conveyed values inconsistent with the museum’s educational mission.
The museum has an international and national reputation for its exhibits, its commitment to history and to historical preservation. That reputation sustains its primary mission as an educational and cultural institution. Recently, officials of the museum concluded that the TR statuary should be removed, issuing this statement:
The statue has long been controversial because of the hierarchical composition that places one figure on horseback and the others walking alongside. Many of us find its depiction of the Native American and African figures and their placement in the monument racist…. We recognize that more work is needed to better understand not only the statue but our own history.
A gentle, genteel acknowledgement by the institution of its public responsibility as well as the necessity to be faithful to its mission reflecting a continuing process of evaluation and consideration of issues in a social context. But … the Young Republican Club of NYC organized a demonstration at the museum to make its views known about history. In a Fox News interview, the club’s president said:
You’ll never be able to make a better future if you erase our past. And that’s something that happens in tyrannical regimes. I’ve never heard of a free society that wants to erase the past.
The club president waxed further to state that it’s about more than just Roosevelt’s statue, or any of the statues that have been taken down or defaced by riots and protesters. Perhaps carried by his own logic or the resonance of his voice or words, the young Republican offered a Shakespearean rebuke of Brutus’s “we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”:
They’re trying to judge people, premodern people, by postmodern standards of morality and by that rate we’ll have no future because we’ll have to erase all of human history. You have to look at the good people did. No one’s perfect. No one’s a saint. And you could find some flaws, especially in people from the past. But that should be no excuse to erase that, we need to learn from the past.
The term “premodern” as a criterion and contrast with “postmodern standards of morality” sounds like the ravings of a college freshman in a term paper on art. As usages in historical analysis, they are arguably juvenile and misplaced. These lyrics in falsetto produce mostly tinnitus to any within hearing range.
Even those most ignorant of history would not conclude that the removal of TR’s statute in front of the museum would erase history. The term “premodern” as a criterion and contrast with “postmodern standards of morality” sounds like the ravings of a college freshman in a term paper on art. As usages in historical analysis, they are arguably juvenile and misplaced. These lyrics in falsetto produce mostly tinnitus to any within hearing range.
However young NYC Republicans might be, one wonders at what stage of maturity these folks might be positioned to judge “premodern people.” Would the cohort of such premoderns commence after TR? After Barry Goldwater? After Ronald Reagan? After Newt Gingrich? One might further suppose that “postmodern standards of morality” are those of the current POTUS which, according to P45, exhibit no flaws.
Teddy Roosevelt’s accomplishments are rather well-known and bear little repeating. His stance on racial relations arose early in his administration as the first president to have a Black man, Booker T. Washington, dine with him at the White House.
Roosevelt also established an entirely Black cabinet of advisers, something no other president repeated until his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, organized a similar cabinet to help African-Americans during the Great Depression.
The make-shift debate engineered by the NYC Young Republicans is emblematic of the ideological blindness that infects radical right-wing rhetoric. These advocates prefer that science continue to teach that the world is flat because that’s what was said in history.
It may well be that the monument itself says more about the conceptions and perceptions of those who commissioned it than of the life of TR. To the broader point, removing statues is not by definition “denying or erasing history” but recalibrating what we as a society want to extol, which can change over time, such as when a consensus emerges that celebrating racism and the survival of slavery, upon which the Civil War was based, is no longer a high point in our history.
In this case, it may well be that the monument itself says more about the conceptions and perceptions of those who commissioned it than of the life of TR. To the broader point, removing statues is not by definition “denying or erasing history” but recalibrating what we as a society want to extol, which can change over time, such as when a consensus emerges that celebrating racism and the survival of slavery, upon which the Civil War was based, is no longer a high point in our history.
So much is invested in war memorials, and so little in “peace” memorials. The Statue of Liberty is perhaps the most prominent example of a memorial to an idea. Indeed, far too many memorials are representations of people rather than ideas. Memorials are intended to instruct successive generations and should therefore be representative more of values that all should share rather than testimonials to war. As Marc Anthony reminded us:
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.