Where Racism and Naturalism Meet

Douglas Brinkley's new biography of Theodore Roosevelt tries to reconcile the controversial U.S. president's interest in nature conservation with his condescending social Darwinism

"The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America," by Douglas Brinkley, HarperCollins, 940 pages, $34.99


Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, did not arouse indifference or equanimity. During his presidency (1901-1909 ), and even more so afterward, neither admirers nor opponents had any problem calling him someone who represented all that was good and beautiful or, alternately, all that was ugly and repulsive, about America. Each side had its own reasons.

Liberals and sharp critics of U.S. belligerency call the president - famous for advising his nation to follow what he called an ancient Indian proverb, to "speak softly and carry a big stick" - the founder and prominent representative of American imperialism. If you want to understand the secret of the conduct of former president George W. Bush in Iraq, wrote historian Simon Schama about a year ago, read Roosevelt's biography and you'll understand everything.

Incidentally, we'll use his full name, Theodore, here. It turns out the president was not fond of the nickname "Teddy," or of all the stories about the bear cub he saved. I learned all this from Douglas Brinkley's wonderful and complex book. One of its high points is the chapter about the bear and the story of how the myth was born.

Roosevelt's colorful personality, his adventurous spirit and his impressive writing have attracted many biographers. It would seem everything is already known about him, and therefore the decision by Brinkley - a popular historian said to be a confidant of U.S. President Barack Obama - to write another biography of the "first" Roosevelt did not raise many expectations. But Brinkley knew what all his readers knew: If he wanted to focus on Roosevelt's policies, his war against capitalism and his aggressive imperialism, he would have trouble breaking new ground.

Brinkley's predecessors paid attention to Roosevelt's love of nature and his early adoption of Charles Darwin's theories. They also mentioned his adventurous hunting trips - how could one pass up such picturesque images? But in "The Wilderness Warrior," Brinkley's innovation has been to write in the spirit of our times and relate to current issues. No other biographer has focused so much attention on the president's environmentalism. In so doing, the author has written an important chapter in the history of the American landscape.

While others delved into international politics, the war with Spain or the campaign against the so-called robber barons, Brinkley goes to the books of flora and fauna, telling us about the hundreds of horned creatures that Roosevelt hunted but also preserved, about the fish in the rivers and lakes that he caught, and mainly about the many winged creatures he loved and whose calls he could identify.

As portrayed in the book, the president was the great conserver of nature, of animals and plants. Had it not been for this courageous and energetic persona, "swinish" economic interests would have taken control of the great outdoors, leaving nothing behind for posterity. Roosevelt's main role during his presidency, then, was to take the initiative in legislating, categorizing and preserving the natural wonders of the United States. No other president, either before or after, left as large a mark on the environment, by saving hundreds of creatures from extinction, and preserving so much land in national parks.

Brinkley is aware of the apparent contradiction in this portrait: How does the story of tireless hunting accord with nature preservation? The basic argument is that Roosevelt saw no contradiction between the desire to mount the stuffed head of an impressive horned creature in his library, and the recognition that animals had to be protected so they wouldn't be driven into extinction. Hence, when a hunter went into the mountains to confront the black bear and killed only one, he was obeying the rules of sportsmanship and decency, but when greedy capitalists hunted thousands of rare birds, for the sole purpose of using their colored feathers to decorate the hats of high society women in Washington and New York, they had to be fought to the end. And Roosevelt knew how to fight. His biographer even notes that as he got older his appetite for hunting diminished somewhat, and the desire to preserve and safeguard became stronger.

But the most profound explanation for the apparent contradiction was Roosevelt's deep and very fundamental belief in Darwin's ideas. Brinkley reports that Roosevelt read the great scientist's books as a young man. His first attempts to collect animals were also greatly influenced by Darwin's adventures in distant and exotic places. And he was also inspired by members of his own family who were known as conservation pioneers.

Brinkley paints a convincing picture of Darwin's influence on Roosevelt. But he is wrong in not revealing the limits of that influence: Roosevelt and others like him often cited the famous scientist's name and doctrine, while sometimes entirely ignoring his ideas and intent.

Contemporary scholars would consider Roosevelt a purveyor of "social Darwinism," a movement whose followers most notably included the British scientist and social scientist Herbert Spencer. And in order to illustrate the difference between Darwin and many of his disciples, many would say that according to social Darwinism, Darwin himself was not even a Darwinist, just as Karl Marx was not a Marxist.

Like many social Darwinists, Roosevelt did not hesitate to apply Darwin's biological principles (which he studied and formulated in the wake of his own observations of the natural world ) to human society. Given the rest of his beliefs, we begin to understand the major contradictions in his personality and behavior.

Many white imperialists in Great Britain concluded from the theory propounded by Darwin - without asking him if he agreed - that they had a sacred duty, and must assume the "white man's burden," to use their role as nature's chosen beings to educate the ignorant darker peoples of the world, to protect them from being destroyed by the laws of nature.

For his part, Roosevelt was convinced of his absolute righteousness when he worked to dispossess imperialist Spain of Cuba and the Philippines, since the Spaniards were deteriorating, losing their racial "potency," and would be best replaced by Americans, the people of nature and of the future.

Roosevelt protected beavers, deer, buffalo and birds, but he did not bat an eyelash at dispossessing the Native American tribes to make room for the spreading pioneer enterprise. As a Darwinist he also presumed to decide which of the tribes were worth preserving, and which could disappear, since their fate was sealed in any case in the general fight against the forces of nature. After the Native Americans were moved, Roosevelt exhibited a degree of compassion and generosity, qualities that stemmed from the obligations of the strong. The "good Indians," who gave in after being forced to give up their lands for the American pioneers, would be invited to join the American people.

Roosevelt was only partially racist. He believed the strong, glorious American race had the power to absorb the Native Americans who wanted to join it. Those who refused, those who wanted to preserve their uniqueness and continued to demand their rights, would be destroyed in the end, because only the ignorant - i.e., the victims of the laws of nature - would fight against nature's edicts.

Roosevelt, adds his latest biographer, was not a religious man in the accepted sense, but believed in a kind of divine, natural supervision that imposed unavoidable obligations.

Brinkley's charm lies in his description of the complex figure Roosevelt was. Clearly he does not conceal the disturbing aspects of his behavior, but he is in love with the naturalist, the hunter, the adventurer. As a biographer he is very careful to make sure the biography suits its subject. After all, we will never be able to understand Roosevelt's love for the grizzly if we haven't read a very detailed, colorful and realistic description of his attempts to trap it. When we read this chapter and others in this big book, we are drawn into the adventure, and sometimes feel like we should be especially quiet, in order not to expose the hunter and send the bear fleeing - to Roosevelt's chagrin.

Love of nature and the desire to preserve it are a far more complex issue than we thought, Brinkley writes: It starts with a thorough and profound study of nature's secrets and components, and ends with a kind of almost religious duty to preserve it for future generations. Roosevelt's story is exciting, because it combines two apparently contradictory elements, which can be reconciled through some interpretations of Darwin's philosophy.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and is the editor of the nonfiction Ofakim series published by Am Oved.