Last week, a final decision was rendered to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The statue, on display since 1940, depicts the former president on a horse flanked by American Indians and African men at his sides.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858 –1919) was a committed environmentalist in a time when advocating for such a cause was rare. Roosevelt was integral in advancing the AMNH’s core conservationist values, fundraising, and political support throughout his life. As a result, his name adorns many rooms inside the AMNH – and outside the cultural institution - at Theodore Roosevelt Park.
While being “green” was an anomaly when Roosevelt lived, unfortunately harboring racist views - and in many cases acting upon them - was unremarkable. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It’s more important to tell the truth about the president — pleasant or unpleasant — than about anyone else.” Unfortunately, the truth is that Roosevelt’s moral compass was probably not above this regrettable norm in America’s history.
A Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers set up to examine sensitive city landmarks wrote:
“Height is power in public art, and Roosevelt’s stature on his noble steed visibly expresses dominance and superiority over the Native American and African figures.”
Coupled with some of Roosevelt’s viewpoints that would be interpreted as racist today, it is certainly understandable why some people would be offended by this monument.
The Left & The Right
Since the 1970s, the statue of Roosevelt on his horse has been defaced numerous times. At TQC, we reject defacing all public monuments as a form of protest. However, in some instances, we support removing monuments on public property if they are placed in an appropriate cultural institution for further historical study and reflection.
In our view, the left-wing protestors who deface & destroy statues - in some instances ripping them off their moorings, dragging them through the street, and tossing them into rivers or placing them in storage - are grossly misguided and doing the people they claim to be representing, a disservice. The right wing ideologues who argue that every statue on public land should stay put - not even moved to a historic institute - regardless of how abhorrent the subject’s past transgressions were, are insensitive and wrong not to consider other options for public viewing and education.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go
This week, The House voted to remove Confederate statues and other individuals who were unabashed racists from the Capitol. Said Congressman Steny Hoyer (D:MD), the sponsor of the bill “Symbols of slavery, sedition and segregation have no place in the halls of Congress.” We agree.
For example, a statue of the former Chief Justice Roger Taney is currently on display in the court’s old chamber. Justice Taney was a slave owner who penned the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion. Taney’s racist and self-serving landmark legal ruling excluded black people from citizenship. Of course, his opinion was reprehensible. The old Chamber of the Supreme Court is not an appropriate venue to remember this man.
Statues of Roger Taney and other prominent American’s who shared, practiced, and spread blatant hatred and anti-Semitic values should be removed from the halls of Congress and public lands. The monuments should be placed in a museum or other cultural institution for analysis and reflection so that we can learn from the most regrettable aspects of America's history. If we fail to do so, we risk repeating those atrocities in a different form.
Line In The Sand
For men like Roger Taney, in our view, to move his statue out of the halls of Congress and into a cultural institution to be studied is straightforward. But what about others? Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, who contributed many positive things to America that benefitted all citizens regardless of their color or creed, never partook in anything remotely as damaging as Roger Taney, but whose views on race, while consensus at the time, are extremist today. Where does one draw the line?
Nobody is perfect. Nobody has lived, does live, or will live, a flawless life. To cherry-pick an action or point of view from decades or centuries ago and apply it to today’s context is often ridiculous and unfair. Because sometimes what is considered appropriate in the past is frowned upon in the present.
In a few select instances, such as genocide, rape, slavery, or penning the Dred Scott v. Sandford legal opinion, historical figures - and monuments of them - should not get a pass. In other more nuanced instances, it’s essential to engage in thoughtful deliberation before deciding to remove a statue from the halls of Congress or other prominent public places.
In a recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal debating the merits of removing a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, physicist and author Lawrence Krauss wrote:
“Every major national leader in the 19th century instituted policies that would be unacceptable even to consider today. If we remove every Macdonald statue in Canada—and every holiday that is loosely associated with him— we might as well remove markers for every significant historical figure, so that we can limit such commemorations only to those who acted, governed and spoke in a manner that is consistent with today’s progressive sensibilities—which themselves may not live up to tomorrow’s.”
During his tenure in office, Teddy Roosevelt was considered by many to be progressive. He was a champion of liberal policies, many of which portended the New Deal. He was also a staunch advocate of labor reforms and workers’ rights, breaking up monopolies and oligopolies, and dedicated to preserving the environment.
Today, some liberals have taken aim at Roosevelt’s Eurocentric worldview. And many conservatives acknowledge that Roosevelt indeed harbored these views.
In 2019, during the deliberation about what to do with Roosevelt’s statue, the AMNH staged an exhibit called “Addressing the Statue.” The exhibition provided important context around the statue, acknowledged Roosevelt’s views on race and the AMNH’s own shortcomings. Here as an excerpt from the AMNH’s introduction:
“The statue was meant to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history…At the same time, the statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing…To understand the statue, we must recognize our country’s enduring legacy of racial discrimination—as well as Roosevelt’s troubling views on race. We must also acknowledge the Museum’s own imperfect history. Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue…”
Ultimately, a decision was made to remove the statue and move it to a cultural institution. At TQC, we think the statue should have been left standing but with the caveat that “Addressing the Statue” be made a permanent exhibit.
The AMNH is a cultural, tourist, and educational destination for millions of people every year. In 2019, ~6.5 million people visited. With a corresponding permanent exhibit, the statue would have educated the greatest number of people about its racial undertones, Roosevelt’s own view on race, his contribution to America, and aspects of our nation’s painful legacy that must not be forgotten or moved into storage.