Like many Americans feeling fatigued by this year’s relentless political news cycle, I’ve found myself longing for a presidential candidate who wasn’t a brash political caricature—for someone who seems motivated by something beyond the power grabs and petty squabbles.
Some people think of Theodore Roosevelt in these sorts of larger-than-life terms, but, approaching the Central Park West entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was reminded that he also occupied and molded a sphere nobler than certain Washington circles: that of museum naturalism. Moving quickly past the outsized bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback that guards the museum’s front doors—that’s the bullish leader we popularly associate with the 26th presidency, the one I’m less interested in these days—I spent my time with the parapet wall surrounding the terrace instead. Carved into the granite there are inscriptions of the many hats TR wore: Ranchman, Scholar, Explorer, Scientist, Conservationist, Naturalist, Statesman, Author, Historian, Humanitarian, Soldier, Patriot. Roosevelt could rightly claim to have been all these things, and yet (with the sole exception of statesman), none tie a direct line to his political life.
When the American Museum of Natural History was founded, the charter was signed in the front parlor of Roosevelt’s boyhood home (Roosevelt Sr. was a founding trustee). But even before he witnessed this important milestone in the history of museum naturalism, TR had decided to become a naturalist. It was a conclusion he arrived at when he was only eight years old. His particular interest was in a naturalism that combined rugged outdoor adventure with nature study. This is museum naturalism, the brand of natural history that sent expeditions out into the world to shoot and collect specimens for their exhibit halls and scientific collections alike.
As a boy, Roosevelt studied taxidermy, amassing a natural history museum all his own—the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. While today we tend to think of him as a hard-charging big-game hunter, his early interest in guns developed out of the necessity to stock his museum. This drive to collect specimens continued, through family trips abroad and summers in Oyster Bay. Roosevelt was so dead-set on pursuing professional naturalism that he decorated his Harvard dorm room with bird specimens he stuffed himself. But in his classes there, he was disappointed to find that this intrepid kind of naturalism was no longer being taught. Even though the lack of tutelage meant he abandoned a career in museum naturalism, that passion continued to shape him throughout his life—a life that has been largely overshadowed by the fruits of his political career.
We often forget how dedicated TR was to this particular interest of his. He lamented how, as his political career advanced him from the New York State Assembly, to Governor, to the White House, he found it more and more difficult to spend time in the quiet of nature. The press wouldn’t leave him alone, chasing him even into the deepest wilderness. It is significant that immediately after leaving the White House, at a time when Roosevelt could have done practically anything, he chose to lead a nearly 10 month long scientific collecting expedition in East Africa under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, he spent the last weeks of his presidency engrossed in its planning; this was no mere hunting safari, despite how the popular imagination often casts it today. It was serious scientific inquiry. Critics may balk at the number of big game species he shot in all those months, but Roosevelt collected these with a full understanding of their scientific value, insisting that they be deposited in the collections of the museum for the advancement of human knowledge.
We remember Theodore Roosevelt for many things, as the epigraphs at the AMNH parapet illustrate. But the very location of these inscriptions tells us that natural history was at the core of his varied life, a biography that in his own estimation culminated in the Smithsonian African Expedition. To really understand Roosevelt—or any president, really—we need to locate him in the world that so deeply defined him. Much of Roosevelt’s greatness, in fact, comes from his direct and often adventurous involvement with nature.
As we enter the home stretch of primary season, we might pause to consider the multifaceted life of this one president. Much of what TR was able to accomplish was rooted in the fact that he saw himself as more than just a politician—he was a guardian of the natural world. Although he often played the role of nature’s conqueror, he never lost sight of his insignificance compared to the awesome vastness of it. When was the last time we had a presidential candidate who could rightly claim to share this same perspective?
Darrin Lunde is the author of The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History. He is a Supervisory Museum Specialist in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Previously, he worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and he has led field expeditions throughout the world, collecting specimens in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Lunde has named more than a dozen new species of mammals and shed light on hundreds of others. He lives in Maryland.