“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
I’m finishing up the last of a series of Presidential talks, closing with an examination of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President. TR’s formative years involved a great deal of outdoor activity, pursuing what he called the Strenuous Life. And that life dramatically shaped his later terms of office. Next to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, subjects of previous presentations, TR might be one of most thoroughly decent chief executives in the series.
Theodore Roosevelt liked to hunt, a lot. As a boy, while on holiday, floating the Nile, young “Teedie” bagged literally hundred of birds, picking them off along the riverbank. Toting a new shot gun, a gift from his father, and a new pair of glasses, he combed the grasses along the ancient river searching for winged prey. Back on board the family’s rented houseboat, he promptly performed amateur taxidermy on his take, as bewildered Egyptian servants and crewman stood silently by, watching. The finished collection eventually went on display in young Roosevelt’s own natural history museum, located on the top floor of the family’s elegant Manhattan home.
As a young adult, Roosevelt tracked countless paths through forested mountains, the prairies, and even the Great Plains, shooting and crating home countless pelts and game trophies. TR climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, returning to Long Island rowing and sailing near his home at Sagamore Hill. The Roosevelt fortune made for comfortable, and convenient travels.
However, TR, through his innate sense of fair play came to a more enlightened conclusion, scrutinizing the inequity of his privileged lifestyle. In 1903, after a two-week trek into Yellowstone National Park, America’s first park, President Roosevelt was requested to make remarks to a small crowd of local Montanans. He agreed and took the opportunity to extoll his new democratic philosophy of America’s natural wonders. TR told listeners that day:
“The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone Park has to give is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and by jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures . . . the Park is simply being kept in the interest of all of us, so that every one may have the chance to see its wonders
with ease and comfort at the minimum of expense. This pleasure, moreover, can under such conditions be kept for all who have the love of adventure and the hardihood
to take advantage of it . . .”
This world-traveling aristocrat spoke of the essential equality of America’s public lands–open places tourists can all savor equally, rich or poor. Grasping the finite dimensions of land and wildlife, TR changed his earlier approach to hunting and camping. He came to embrace a classless ideology to accessing our mutual bounty. In spite of his famous name, wealth, and public prominence, President Roosevelt realized that natural wonders were meant to inspire us all.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and at Amazon.com