An appropriately vigorous and larger-than-life—but also detailed and carefully documented—biography of the visionary president who put so much land and so many resources in the public trust.
Brinkley (History/Rice Univ.; The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, 2006, etc.) makes an important contribution to our understanding of Theodore—never “Teddy” to anyone who knew him, Brinkley cautions—Roosevelt as conservationist and preservationist by providing both a personal and an intellectual genealogy. On the personal side, Roosevelt was descended from Dutch New Yorkers who worked the land and knew its ways. His father was a founding member of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where young Theodore logged considerable time. On the intellectual front, he was an ardent student of animal life. “At a very early age,” Brinkley writes, “Theodore Roosevelt started studying the anatomy of more than 600 species of birds in North America. You might say that his natural affinity for ornithology was part of his metabolism.” Certainly, his active interest in the outdoors and constant sojourns in wild places helped Roosevelt overcome youthful sickliness. Moreover, he became a vocal champion of evolutionary theory, then fairly new. Treading carefully, Brinkley suggests how Roosevelt’s understanding of Darwin’s contributions to biology figured in with his social-Darwinist notions of empire, manifest destiny and the white man’s burden. The author also shows us how, as president, Roosevelt brought so much of the public domain under the strong protection of the federal government, adding millions of acres to the national parks, forests and lands systems. He did this in part by building and working a network of like-minded preservationists. Brinkley highlights the work of long-forgotten congressional allies such as Rep. John F. Lacey of Iowa, who “did more to protect migratory birds than any other politician in American history besides Theodore Roosevelt.”
Magisterial and timely, given the manifold environmental crises facing the current administration.