Theodore Roosevelt: A Man for the Modern World

Reviewed by Kathleen Dalton

“Theodore Roosevelt: A Man for the Modern World” greets visitors in the entrance as they enter the Old Orchard Museum to buy tickets to visit his house, Sagamore Hill. The current exhibit, on view until December 2019, is a temporary addendum to Sagamore Hill’s extensive permanent exhibit on Roosevelt’s life  and argues that TR was “A Man for the Modern World” who embraced new technologies in order to communicate better with the public. Born into a world of the horse and buggy, he became president at a time when telephones, movies, radio, and automobiles were changing daily life for average Americans. However, the actual central theme of the exhibit is broader than the idea of TR as technologically modern; the exhibit also gathers in moments that exemplify TR as a modern political thinker and reformer.

The exhibit supports the general idea of TR as a modernizer when it shows him with miners and mediating the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. Today many labor historians view his stand in the Anthracite Coal Strike and his later defense of the right of workers to unionize as a departure from the pro-employer position of previous presidents. Then we come to a picture of TR and Booker T. Washington with an explanation that TR was the first president to invite a black man to dinner and afterward “southern criticism” broke out over the episode. Exhibits by their very nature cannot always explain the context historians want to see beneath such pictures, including the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the nadir of African-American history in south and north. For historians familiar with the debates about TR’s racial views, especially his reprehensible judgment against black troops without adequate evidence in the Brownsville Incident, the story of TR and race is a complicated and not altogether admirable one, and this is something the exhibit doesn’t address sufficiently.

At times, the curators allow particular artifacts to shape the exhibit’s narrative in a slightly misleading way. Presenting TR as a modernizer of football is plausible, as he did urge teams to save lives by paying more attention to safety, but the exhibit also shows TR’s tennis racket, which doesn’t exemplify an important part of his life. Tennis was not a part of TR’s modernizing project, just part of the strenuous life he led and preached that other people should lead. He also modernized the White House and parts of the executive branch, which the exhibit could have explored further. In this case it seems that exhibit planners were tempted by good artifacts to digress from the central theme. The challenge for the National Park Service staff at Sagamore Hill is not any easy one: to construct an introductory exhibit that a legion of elementary school children from all around Long Island and a widely varied national and international group of tourists can grasp as they walk through the building. Simplification is essential in any visual invitation to learn history, and Sagamore Hill’s talented and well-informed guides work hard to meet the needs of their visitors.

The “Man for the Modern World” exhibit includes TR as a foreign policy modernizer (winning the Nobel Prize because of his peacemaking after the Russo-Japanese War), as well as the more artifact-driven panels on his refusal to shoot a captured bear on a bear hunt, his setting a Guinness World Record for the number of hands shaken in a single day, and the use of TR to advertise products such as Maxwell House coffee. The exhibit comes closest to following up on the theme of TR as a modernizer who embraced new technology when it portrays his embrace of sound recording, photography, film, and his special relationship with the press. He had a press room built in the White House and cultivated a close relationship with magazine and newspaper writers, feeding them human interest stories and news on slow days in order to build a favorable image of himself with the American public.

TR certainly welcomed new technology whenever it would help him reach voters, and the exhibit shows him chatting up reporters. These panels were, in fact, the most useful for portraying TR as a man of the modern era: he welcomed the arrival of the camera, the airplane, the gramophone, and the submarine. Though TR grew up in the horse and buggy era he finally learned to drive and proved to be a terrible driver. Visitors can understand how unsettling technological change can be and TR is an example of a person who most often greeted it with an open mind. Though not all of the exhibit tied into its stated modernizer theme, it does succeed as an appetizer before the larger biographical permanent exhibit and it raises key issues about TR and his moment in history.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had nothing to do with the “Man for the Modern World” exhibit, but many years ago I was hired to consult with the staff at Sagamore Hill and the National Park Service about the revision of their mission statement and wrote essays for their Historic Resource Study. I was impressed then and am now with how much the staff does with keeping up to date with new research on TR and his times, and how well they do guiding massive numbers of people through a museum and a historic house day after day. The historians who work with the NPS recognize that their public history charge pulls them into different territory than traditional academics inhabit. Historians believe in considering the source of information and using a variety of interpretations to reach their conclusions. We believe in providing a deep historical context, but we also recognize that historic houses can be used to teach history and to spark visitors’ further interest in history in the same way that great documentaries shown on TV have done. Material culture and artifacts fascinate visitors in a way that lengthy texts do not.

The challenge in revising the presentation of TR’s life and times at Sagamore Hill struck me as one that involved the question: which people matter in a historic house? I argued at the time of the Historic Resource study for less great man history and more emphasis on family relationships and the servants and staff who ran the farm and house. But it was also legitimate to ask, as others did, what kind of use did this family make of the land? Other consultants urged the NPS to bring the working farm into the interpretation, and they have done a remarkable job of showing visitors much more about the daily life TR’s children enjoyed playing in the barn and being taken on TR’s strenuous hikes across the fields and runs down Cooper’s bluff. He taught his children to swim by throwing them in the Long Island Sound and he showed them how to play football. TR urged his children to study animal life by collecting the animals they found in the woods. As young people TR’s niece Eleanor and TR’s distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt visited Sagamore Hill separately, and saw a wild, loving, outdoor family life neither of them had known. FDR watched fireworks with TR, and Eleanor heard her uncle read her poetry and for the most part enjoyed the rough and tumble play of Sagamore Hill family life.

Today, thanks to the wonderful new NPS side panels around the grounds, visitors can see where the Roosevelts’ black servants and Irish servants lived and learn something about their lives from the audio guide. Along the path you can see the side panel “Helping to Feed the Family” which explains how the Roosevelts used their land as a working farm, raising vegetables, flowers, chickens, hogs, cows, and rabbits which the children loved. Conservation and nature study are newly represented in the side panels, too.

As TR himself said, “There are many qualities which we need in order to gain success, but the three above all—for the lack of which no brilliancy and no genius can atone—are Courage, Honesty and Common Sense.” Successful historic interpretation at Sagamore Hill requires the courage to reevaluate past narratives, the honesty to think critically about the “great man” model of history, and the common sense to present this updated information engagingly to as broad a public as possible.Overall, the volunteers and the NPS staff have done a remarkable job of modernizing the interpretation of Sagamore Hill, and even though professional historians always want more context from popular exhibits we have to live with the fact that historic sites have to entertain and offer fun and discovery as well as educate.

Kathleen Dalton is the author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (Knopf 2002) and has taught at Boston University and Phillips Academy. She is currently writing a book about a dinner club during World War I which included Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and other officials with a dual loyalty to TR and Wilson.

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