September 8, 2020
President Theodore Roosevelt was simultaneously a man ahead of his time and a man of his time. To some he is considered a progressive environmentalist, and to others, a racist. We take a closer look at his legacy.
Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt gave a now famous speech on the intrinsic value of the land before him: “Leave it as it is. You cannot Improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Roosevelt did much to preserve and conserve America. As president, he founded the U.S. Forest Service, created 150 national forests, five new national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird preserves and four national game preserves, protecting roughly 230 million acres in all.
He was not progressive, however, in terms of race. During a speech in 1886, he said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”
More recently, a statue of Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of National History was removed this summer, because it “it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.”
Today we look at the whole history, from his presidency to conservation and racism, to understand the complex legacy of a man who helped shape America.
David Gessner, author of “Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness” and chair of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s creative writing department