One of the more interesting studies of Theodore Roosevelt is his initiative, the biggest arena for which was the natural world.
In 1866 when he was eight years old and couldn’t see much past the edge of his fingertips, he started a nature museum in his bedroom, studying what was close up: animal skulls, bird nests, and insects. With two cousins he expanded the collection, which eventually included 1,000 specimens.
Then, at sixteen, he began a club for his friends who were by that time hunting and stuffing birds. They met mostly at his house, and he was the one that was mostly there. Minutes which survive tell of boyish expeditions and research papers; Theodore wrote to his mother, who was away visiting, “Last night we had a group of fellows over, and made a considerable amount of noise, but did not break anything.”
After his freshman year in college he published a small book, the official first of thirty-five, which catalogued species of birds in the Adirondack Mountains. He gave an upstart report to the established Nuttall Ornithological Club, saying that house sparrows, a species from England, were threatening native songbirds. His first job was in the New York State Assembly where he was not afraid to initiate bills he thought would benefit the people, in spite of criticism by the establishment. He was sideswiped for a time when his young wife passed away, but a few years later, with a new life partner, Edith, resumed making his ideas tangible.
TR and George Bird Grinnell, editor of Field and Stream magazine, were responsible for forming the Boone and Crockett Club, with the purpose of protecting big game animals on the western plains and in the Rocky Mountains. A letter Theodore wrote to a fellow member in 1894 is telling: “Grinnell…seemed to think your proposal to found a New York Zoo was a very good one, but he also seemed a little doubtful as to whether I should appoint a committee when I have no explicit authority to do so. However, I think I’ll go ahead and do it…” As a result of that zoo and a buffalo family to which it came, a herd was moved west, and eventually repopulated their old home.
As a governor of New York in 1900 his conservation plans included a public park in the Palisades and a fish and game program. These were among 500 measures initiated in his two-year term. Some of them infuriated political boss Thomas Platt so much that he kicked him “upstairs” to the vice presidency, saying, “He’s not going to raise h— in my state anymore.”
In 1903, as TR sat at a table with his cabinet, he asked the person next to him, “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island (about four acres off the east coast of Florida) a federal bird reservation?”
“No, Mr. President,” was the answer.”
“Very well, then I so declare it.”
TR makes a speech in New England in 1902. (www.loc.gov)
An event during his second term would reach far into the future, for the children of all Americans, “and their children’s children.” Before Congress could pass a bill to prevent it, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot helped him put aside 16,000,000 acres so they could not be touched by loggers, miners, or developers.
The Theodore Roosevelt Association has totaled the amount of land he used his authority to protect, in our national parks, monuments, and preserves: 230,000,000 acres. You can see the list broken down on their website, http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org.
Some say he was power-happy, foolhardy, or even a fool. He created the Rough Riders volunteer unit to fight in the Spanish-American War. He attacked monopolies without fear. He used creative measures to settle a potentially disastrous coal strike, and later deal with leaders of Japan and Russia. Instead of discussing Panama’s independence with Congress, he said, he helped free them first and let them talk about it later. When Theodore Roosevelt set his sights on the path he thought was the right one to take, he followed through.
I second the ending of Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography of our twenty-sixth president. Among stacks of letters and ephemera, he found that a student had written: “He was a fulfiller of good intentions.”
TR and Davy Crockett had more than a few things in common. We can probably include this motto: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”
While his level of initiative is unmatched by most, we can all take a lesson and try to make things better for somebody — without having to be pushed.
Quotations and other facts from Theodore Roosevelt: The Making of a Conservationist by Paul Russell Cutright; Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh; and letters in The Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard University.