Inside FDR’s Wild Obsession And Jefferson’s Passion For The Land
Historians Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster talk about the hold that the American landscape for two visionary presidents and how that affected US history.
Presidential historians Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster have each spent the past few years looking into presidents who loved the land of the free and the brave, with an emphasis on the land. Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America presents FDR’s personal approach to conservation. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed the Nation shows how Jefferson somewhat desperately used explorers to claim the west.
Fenster: I like a president who ends up with less money after his political career, than he had before. It seems to correlate with a person too busy with a vision to bother about business deals, especially sweetheart deals. And that was certainly Jefferson.
Brinkley: Well, neither FDR or Jefferson were motivated by financial success. They hobby-horsed things that they loved and I find them very similar that way. Jefferson with his myriad collections, his architecture, his gardens; FDR with his stamps, his naval prints, his sailing.
Fenster: And they were alike, what’s more, in that they were both worldly men who only wanted to stay home—on their beloved properties.
Brinkley: Whenever Franklin Roosevelt would fill out a form that asked his occupation, he would write “Tree Farmer.” I used to think he was almost being whimsical about that, but in truth, he thought of himself that way, referring to his family’s holdings along the Hudson River. He represented rural upstate New York constituents and the one thing he was encyclopedic about was forestry and soil erosion. It made him the perfect president to get us through the Dust Bowl years.
Fenster: That’s another similarity: Jefferson was obsessed with combating erosion. I think he loved his land so much, he couldn’t bear to see a particle of it wash away or blow away. Other farmers in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s figured there was so much land around for Americans that they didn’t have to take good care of it. TJ was unique.
Brinkley: And then he took in a massive amount of it, in the Louisiana Purchase.
Fenster: Nothing could have delighted him more. He foresaw a blanket of farmers out there, not unlike himself. First he had to get the Spanish out though, once and for all…
Brinkley: That’s probably where the two separate, despite their similarities. FDR is more about conservation; Jefferson more about exploration, due to the different time-frames.
Fenster: I remember a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, when a friend of the family came through the White House and wanted to know where to find FDR. Eleanor said, “Just follow the sound of laughter.” I kind of envy that little quote. Did you like Roosevelt more or less after working on Rightful Heritage?
Brinkley: Much more. I was a great admirer of his, but I didn’t realize how courageous FDR was. That Supreme Court packing case that shows a hubris that’s almost unfathomable, and that gets picked on because he didn’t pull it off, but he parlayed huge gambits that he was able to make stick—things like Social Security or Grand Coulee Dam, TVA. And so I’ve come away with a greater appreciation for him—and also more for Eleanor Roosevelt.
Fenster: I have a love/hate relationship with Jefferson. And I think he knows it. No, really, what frustrated me with him was that he was a wonderful agronomist and a conservationist ahead of his time, so I felt a kinship with him on that score, but I can’t understand the barbarity—a word not usually associated with Jefferson—but the barbarity with which he set an awful precedent for federal policy on Indian removal.
Brinkley: That’s a good point. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote the Age of Jackson and virtually didn’t deal with the Trail of Tears, and years later, I asked him and I know others did too, how did you just leave that out? And he said, basically, “I’m embarrassed to say it, but back when we were children, we didn’t think of Native Americans as people-people.” And that’s somebody writing after World War II and in the early Cold War period, not that long ago. I think that Native American history is just really in its infancy right now. I remember once you and I realized that there’s never been a book written about the presidents and their Native American policy, not a whole, in-depth book; you’d go from George Washington to President Obama and really understand the Indian removal and also Washington D.C.’s relationship to Indians and the land.
Fenster: With due respect, and a lot of it, I don’t give Schlesinger a pass, just because he grew up in the early 20th century. Even before that, in the late 19th century, there was a flowering, with meticulous social-studies of Indians on a nation by nation, tribe by tribe, often person by person basis. In fact, your book makes a point about FDR…
Brinkley: In FDR’s case, the Indian New Deal was probably the first time ever there was ever a real interest in trying to protect Native heritage and sacred sites and their history.
Fenster: My favorite person in Jefferson’s America is a Caddo chief named Dehahuit. He was an island of sense and keen intelligence, right when the Americans and Spanish were on the verge of violence. Dehahuit didn’t conquer other tribes; they actually requested to be part of his nation. I wish we knew a little more about him today.
Brinkley: I’m glad you found that much. It’s all about finding fresh material. Even though every year there are new books coming out on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt and FDR, there’s always new material. For example, where most books on FDR have only a page or two on the Civilian Conservation Corps, I was able to use all kinds of diaries and texts that every state is starting to search out and archive now. Every generation discovers new things. Same thing: there’s been a lot on Jefferson and slavery, and on the Jefferson presidency in general, but I’ve long felt that Jefferson and westward exploration and his interest in the natural world hadn’t been properly covered, before Jefferson’s America.
Fenster: Well, very few people realize that when TJ sent out Lewis and Clark, he sent an array of other expeditions, too, into the Louisiana Territory—and frankly, the one he sent to the Red River, right into the jaws of the Spanish army, was even more crucial at the time. Fortunately, I had the benefit of the journals of each of the explorers.
Brinkley: FDR just wasn’t a journal-keeper. He went to the Galapagos Islands in 1938—on a scientific expedition in conjunction with the Smithsonian—and nobody had ever written about it, because there was no journal, no record. The president just disappeared for weeks! Theodore Roosevelt wrote all the time, he wrote over 35 books and a hundred thousand letters; whenever he went on an outdoor adventure, he would write about it and document it, where FDR did not do that. So I was lucky that a guy named Dr. Waldo Schmidt of the Smithsonian had kept diaries of that trip. I discovered the Schmidt papers at the Smithsonian in Washington, and it was one of the best days I’ve had in a reading room!
Fenster: I don’t know off-hand which president was the most active letter-writer, but Jefferson may well top the list. That flow of letters gave him the strangest trait, an intuition, almost like ESP. It meant that he wasn’t surprised by much that happened. One thing that wouldn’t have surprised him at all is the state of politics today, sadly enough. In his1800 campaign, his opponents soberly predicted that he would establish schools throughout the nation to teach murder and rape. That might be a clump of mud that the candidates could use this year—although it didn’t succeed in defeating Jefferson.
Brinkley: It’s very, very hard to know what these presidents would think today. When the Reagan Library gave me Ronald Reagan’s diaries to edit, Nancy Reagan specifically warned me not to speculate on what her husband had been thinking or would do in the present day. She said he was a pragmatic conservative, and he couldn’t be put on somebody else’s line. That seemed right and I steer clear of surmising about any of the presidents, especially in relation to today’s problems.
Fenster: No W.W.R.D? I live on a farm—on a hill, in fact—and I often play What-Would-Jefferson-Do? “Build for permanence and take care of the land.” He tells me that all the time.
Brinkley: FDR had a gigantic love for Thomas Jefferson.
Fenster: I ‘m absolutely positive it would have been returned, certainly on a personal basis and in terms of conservation. There. I surmised.
Brinkley: That’s all right.