Let Teddy Stay

Navigating the current political waters can seem not only difficult but pointless. In our times, leadership has failed in almost every sector of society: families are broken, schools are in need of desperate aid, governors and senators vow false promises they know they will not keep, and mob rule appears to be replacing the ethical and civilized dialogue our governance is founded upon.

Theodore Roosevelt’s statue outside of the Museum of Natural History in New York City presented the newest case to forego discussion in our democracy. They resolved simply to dismantle a historical image that has been present for sixty years. Roosevelt rides a horse while beside him stand a Native American and an African American. The mob claimed that the position of these two representative groups next to the president is racist and derogatory, and that therefore the structure must be removed. The white affluent politician is not above the native or African American, and so this is seen as a threat to justice.

Never mind that the point of the statue is to honor a man above other men. That’s why they’re usually larger than the subject was in real life. It’s why they’re raised on pillars and podiums. The Native American and African American in the Teddy Roosevelt statue are not refused horses because their skin is a different color: it’s simply because they’re not Teddy Roosevelt.

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But let’s also get to know the man behind the statue. When it comes to politics and history, there is no one who goes unscathed morally. There are some, however, who clearly fought the good fight as human beings, and who forged a better path forward for the rest of us. Teddy Roosevelt is an example of an imperfect and ordinary man who called upon society to strive for greatness.

Roosevelt was one of the most tremendous figures in American history. Aida Donald’s Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt portrays the validity of this hypothesis. Teddy was no stuffed animal; he was known for his outdoorsman persona (hence the horse in the statue) and ability to command the attention of a room. What separated him politically was his capacity to control the stage during his speeches. At a time when civil leaders were much more accessible to the public, these were golden opportunities for a candidate to show that he was authentic. Roosevelt always shone in these moments.

One newspaper reported how he spoke with a powerful and moving demeanor that captivated the crowd: “He spoke about ten minutes—the speech was nothing, but the man’s presence was everything. It was electrical, magnetic.” The power of his voice, the eloquence of his message, and his evident care for the community poured forth for all to witness.

Despite the political pew you reside in, this respect shown to a politician is unlike anything in our present age. With rampant cell phone addictions and the largely anti-social nature of most attention spans, the majority of people only stick with a speaker for a few moments before they get lost in their phones and thoughts. When an authority figure carries a presence like this, we must pause to ask why.

Intelligent, strong, and blessed with a spirit that would never give up, Roosevelt rose among the people of his time as an example of all that is great about this country. After his stint as assemblyman in New York, he ran for governor of that same state and gained victory at the polls. There are several memorable speeches that were made on that tour that have been lost to time. The few that were preserved, however,  serve as messages uniquely applicable to our current events.

Roosevelt called for government leaders to be honest and to show a good portion of common sense rather than simply be brilliant and buried in their books. Honesty and integrity were his greatest tools because Roosevelt knew that words were weapons to be used to set right what was wrong in the world.

In Chicago, he stated: “In speaking to you, men of the greatest city of the West, men of the state which gave to the country Lincoln and Grant, men who preeminently and distinctly embody all that is most American in the American character, I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but The Doctrine of the Strenuous Life; the life of toil and effort; of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires more easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

The then-governor’s speech sounds more like a sermon than a plea for a vote by an elected official. At this pivotal time in his campaign, he desired to preach a doctrine that would speak to the depths of every American, namely, that we are defined by the resilience we bear during the trials we must endure. American lives are ones woven with much labor and little ease. These difficult avenues of life are ones that we are called to embrace, not retreat from. Roosevelt was not attempting to be pious and poetic. Much research has proven that some of the most successful men and women have had to trek through seemingly insurmountable odds.

In our country today, the strenuous life is paved by men and women who decry the seemingly insurmountable opponent of mob rule and its cry to dismantle our history and determine for itself that discussion and dialogue aren’t necessary for advancing justice. When we advocate for these, however, we will endure hardship, but triumph is on the side of the truth, whether it’s acknowledged or not. So let us embrace the strenuous fight for the preservation of the qualities of civility that make us America, and then the statue will stand, no matter what the mob rules.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Thomas Griffin

    Thomas Griffin is the chair of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and two sons. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Empty Tomb Project: The Magazine.

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