The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier

Historian Lauds Roosevelt During Talk


September 26, 2016

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Pisgah National Forest. But Pisgah and other national forests in this country may never have existed it if had not been for Theodore Roosevelt.

Last Thursday night at Brevard College’s Porter Center, noted historian Doug Brinkley spoke on “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.” The speech was the tenth in the J.R. McDowell Speaker Series, which is sponsored by the Transylvania County Library Foundation and Brevard College.

Brinkley said Roosevelt is the person most responsible for wildlife and forest conservation in the United States. Roosevelt was born in 1858 in New York City. His father was a wealthy man from the Northeast while his mother from Georgia.

“He grew up with the Civil War for his background,” he said.

Since his mother defended the South and his father the North, Roosevelt saw the negatives of both sides: the high cost of slavery in the South and the hyper-industrialization of the North. As a result, he looked to the West as a “new Eden.”

During the Civil War photography became mainstream. Not only were people mesmerized by photos of the Civil War, but they were also taken by photos of the American West – places such as Yellowstone and Zion. The photos and pulp Western novels the young Roosevelt read “captured his imagination,” Brinkley said.

Roosevelt’s elders also influenced his love for being outdoors and nature. His father was one of the leading donors who helped start the American Museum of National History. His uncle Robert Barnwell Roosevelt was a leading naturalist and collected animals.

“He was Dr. Doolittle like, eccentric,” said Brinkley of Roosevelt’s uncle.

Theodore Roosevelt liked hunting and as a boy would shoot birds in New York’s Central Park. He also learned the fundamentals of taxidermy and mounted his birds.

The fact Roosevelt was asthmatic also contributed to his lover of nature and forests. When his family vacationed in the Adirondack Mountains, “his lungs cleared up,” said Brinkley.

As a youth, Roosevelt wanted to be a wildlife biologist. While in college, he wrote his first book, “The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks.”

Shortly thereafter Roosevelt wanted to head out West so that he could write a biological survey in that area.

Instead, he became involved in New York state politics and ran as a Reformed Republican to head the Forest, Fish and Game Commission for New York.

On Valentine’s Day in 1884, tragedy struck. While in Albany, N.Y, he was notified that both his pregnant wife and mother were very ill. He returned quickly to New York City and went from room to room to check on both beloved women.

“That evening they both died,” said Brinkley.

Even though the baby lived, Roosevelt became depressed.

In his diary he wrote, “The light has gone out of my life forever.”

Soon thereafter his sister said she would watch the baby and told him to go out West where she knew he had been the happiest.

Roosevelt went to the North Dakota Badlands where he began his wilderness years, stalking Grizzly bears and other wild game. His interest in wildlife conservation was sparked when he went hunting bison. Just a hundred years before, there were some 60 million bison in the Western U.S. When Roosevelt hunted bison, there were just 2,000.

Brinkley said the U.S. Army slaughtered the bison to get rid of the Indians’ food supply and make it easier to defeat them.

The railroad companies slaughtered them because herds destroyed rail lines and impeded rail traffic. The telegraph companies slaughtered them because they toppled poles while rubbing their backs against them.

“Lo and behold they disappeared,” said Brinkley.

Brinkley said Roosevelt was “elated” with his kill, but “sad” the bison was facing extinction. As a result, Roosevelt created the Boone and Crockett Hunt Club, which restricted hunting to its members and helped expand the herds, partly by shipping some of them to Bronx Zoo where they were bred. Bison from the zoo where eventually sent to Oklahoma and placed in the first federal game preserve.

After Roosevelt became Police Commissioner of New York City, he was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley. Roosevelt thought the U.S. should drive the Spanish out of Cuba, but McKinley was hesitant.

According to Brinkley, Roosevelt said, “McKinley has the spine of a chocolate éclair.”

Roosevelt quit the McKinley administration and recruited men in San Antonio, Texas to become part of the Rough Riders. Since Roosevelt was a collector of animals, the Rough Riders had three mascots: cougar, golden eagle and mutt dog.

In 1898 he led the historic charge up San Juan Hill. With his newborn fame, Roosevelt ran for and won the governorship of New York that same year.

Brinkley said people were “shocked” that conservation, which included the regulation of factories and business, was a priority for Roosevelt. Wall Street financiers and the Republican establishment decided the way to ease Roosevelt out of power was to make him William McKinley’s vice president “with nothing to do.”

When McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1901, Roosevelt was climbing Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York.

From the time Roosevelt took office in September of 1901 until he left office in 1909, he preserved some 234 millions acres in the United States. Brinkley said Roosevelt created several major mechanisms for land management and preservation. One was the promotion of national monument designations. Roosevelt did this through executive orders.

Once certain areas were designated national monuments, he would then wait until Congress was in favor of making the monument a national park.

Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service. He also appointed Gifford Pinchot, who was like a son to Roosevelt, to be the first chief forester.

“They hiked and wrestled each other,” said Brinkley. “They both shared this love of the outdoors.”

Both men wanted the Grand Canyon to become a national park. But when Roosevelt went before Congress, they denied the request because some members wanted it to be mined.

Roosevelt circumvented Congress by using the Antiquities Act. Europeans had been coming to the United States and extracting dinosaur bones to take back home. The Antiquities Act was passed to protect the taking of any historical artifacts. It allowed the federal government, for scientific reasons, to declare certain grounds such as burial grounds, not to be disturbed.

Most politicians perceived the Antiquities Act as applying to rather small tracts, such as 30 acres. But Roosevelt applied it to the more than 600,000 acres in Grand Canyon, saying it was the best example of erosion one could find.

Brinkley said Roosevelt also was “the father of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.” State laws protecting birds were typically ineffective because birds migrate across state lines. Birds protected in New York could be killed in Florida.

At the turn of the 20th century, nearly all women wore bonnets and those bonnets were adorned with bird feathers. Millions of birds were killed by the “feather Mafia” just to obtain a few feathers from each bird. As a result, many of the waterfowl in Florida were in danger of becoming extinct.

Roosevelt was a Darwinist and wanted to protect all species, especially those on the verge of extinction. To protect several bird species, he created the first federal bird preserve, Pelican Island, in Florida. Not only could those birds not be hunted, but no one could go on the preserve without a federal permit.

All did not go smoothly. Two of the four preserve protectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent to the preserve were murdered by the “feather Mafia.” But over time the concept became accepted and more lands were designated as preserves.

Roosevelt also preserved land with the creation of national forests. Brinkley said some members of Congress considered Roosevelt a “conservation maniac” and wanted to rein him in. But exactly 10 years after his famous charge up San Juan Hill, on July 1, 1908, Roosevelt established 120 national forests.

Brinkley said Roosevelt could have run for president in 1908 and been re-elected.

“He was amazingly popular in 1908,” said Brinkley, noting that he won in a landslide in 1904.

Based on a cartoon of Roosevelt with a bear, a woman named the toy bears after him and “Teddy bears” became another testament to his popularity. William Taft promoted tried to follow that popularity by promoting his Billy Possum, but Brinkley said, “It went nowhere.”

When Taft, who was Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, became president, Taft began to side with Wall Street and big business. Coal mining companies wanted access to the Tongass National Forest. Pinchot blew the whistle on Taft, calling negotiations a “sweetheart deal.” Taft then fired Pinchot, which infuriated Roosevelt.

As a result, Roosevelt took on Taft to become the Republican presidential nominee in 1912. Roosevelt was more popular with the people, but Taft had the banking of the financial industry.

“They give it to Taft,” said Brinkley of the nomination.

Roosevelt then decided to make a third party run, creating the Progressive Party, better known as the Bull Moose Party. While campaigning in Milwaukee, he was shot by a would-be assassin. Roosevelt, bleeding, continued on with his speech.

“It will take more than a bullet to kill a Bull Moose,” Roosevelt reportedly said.

Brinkley said Roosevelt became a “a folk figure” and had the most successful third party campaign in American history. He lost to Woodrow Wilson, but came in second ahead of Taft.

“He punished all those money Republicans,” said Brinkley.

Later, Roosevelt traveled to the Amazon River in Brazil, the “River of No Return.” He contracted malaria and thought he would die there. But he survived and returned to America.

During World War I, one of his sons was killed in the war, and Roosevelt became depressed. He died in 1919.

“It’s amazing he lived to 60,” said Brinkley. “He burned the candle at both ends most of the time.”

Brinkley explained that “exuberance” can be a form of manic depression. A person may be incapable of bearing a loss, so they, like Roosevelt, look to the future and fill their lives with non-stop action.

“In addition to that, he could not sleep. He had insomnia,” said Brinkley.

He said Roosevelt often drank a gallon of coffee a day and took long hikes to exhaust himself so that he could sleep at night. Brinkley also said that Roosevelt was unusual in that he was honest and sought confrontation.

“He relished taking on his enemies every day,” said Brinkley. “He would never lie.”

Brinkley said Roosevelt would note that Europe had its manmade monuments, such as Westminster Abbey and the Louvre but that American had preserved its natural monument – the Tetons, the Smokies, etc.

“We owe President Roosevelt a great thanks,” said Brinkley.

Question and Answers

After his hour-long presentation, Brinkley entertained questions for about 15 minutes. The initial question focused on why Roosevelt became a reformer.

“He had a very, very loving father,” said Brinkley. “His father had a huge amount of integrity.”

Roosevelt also loved America and its people.

“His love of country was off the charts,” said Brinkley, explaining that he did not believe in categories such as Italian-Americans. “You’re either American or you’re not.”

When he first went to North Dakota, Roosevelt never shirked his working responsibilities and participated in manual labor, such as fixing fences and shoveling manure.

He gained the respect of working people and “never talked down to them.”

Roosevelt concluded that the problems America faced were due to the financiers and businessmen of Wall Street, “not the people.”

“He hated corruption and lies,” said Brinkley, adding that he did not like dishonest people, even if they were in his political party, and personally arrested people when he was police commissioner in New York City.

“He was a tough hombre,” said Brinkley.

One audience member asked how things might have been different if Roosevelt had run for office in 1908.

Brinkley said Roosevelt would have taken action against Germany much sooner and would have been prepared for World War I in 1911 or 1912.

The Navy, which Roosevelt loved, also would have been stronger.

He had the Panama Canal built not only to help commerce, but also to allow U.S. ships to move from the East Coast to the West Coast quicker.

Brinkley said Roosevelt “had an absolute love for the country of Japan.” He admired the Japanese culture, their love of nature, and their ability to protect themselves. As a result, the U.S. probably would have had closer relations with Japan.

“He thought that they were a great power that mattered,” said Brinkley.

When asked about the impact of millions of visitors on today’s national parks, Brinkley said some of the congestion is “unbearable.” He relayed a joke about Zion National Park being renamed Zion National Parking Lot.

He said overcrowding, lack of money for maintenance and invasive species are problems facing public lands today. He said that people “can still get lost in the wild” if they venture away from the most popular paths and destinations on public lands.

In response to a question about what other countries have significant public lands, Brinkley mentioned Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries.

“They’ve all been good custodians, stewards of the land they own,” he said.

He noted that countries that preserve their forests and use them properly are countries that are also more prosperous. He compared the Dominican Republic, which has some lush forests, with adjacent Haiti, which has been recklessly deforested.

“They’ve scorched the earth,” he said of Haiti.

He said Americans should be proud of being the first country to establish public lands and preserve large tracts of lands and leading the way for other countries.

When asked if Roosevelt did not remarry and have children, Brinkley said Roosevelt did remarry and “had a brood of children.”

“He was a fantastic father, in that he had fun,” said Brinkley.

Some criticized Roosevelt because he never seemed to grow up and he told people he went to the Amazon late in his life because “It’s my last chance to be a boy.”

Brinkley said that while Roosevelt’s image is hyper-masculine, he was a proponent of women’s suffrage and equal rights for women in general. He even questioned women relinquishing their surname when they married.


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