The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

Article excerpt

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

by Douglas Brinkley

New York: HarperCollins, 2009

940 pages

$34.99

Portraying Theodore Roosevelt as a "wilderness warrior" and employing military imagery to describe his environmentalism and crusade for conservation, Douglas Brinkley provides a detailed study of Roosevelt's interaction with the natural world and his efforts to preserve it before and during his historic presidency. Brinkley's Roosevelt is a great, if sometimes contradictory, champion of the American wilderness, obsessively striving to protect American wildlife while frequently indulging in big game hunting. Brinkley credits Roosevelt with launching the modern conservation movement in the United States and confirms his status as the nation's first true environmental president.

The first 400 pages of the book examine Roosevelt's encounters with nature and his early conservation efforts during the period before his rise to the presidency. As a child with health problems, young Roosevelt found comfort in the fresh air of the outdoors and quickly became a naturalist and wildlife enthusiast. A devoted disciple of Charles Darwin, Roosevelt first read Darwin's classic work, On the Origin of Species, as a teenager and ultimately adopted Darwin's theory of evolution through competition and struggle as his philosophy of life. Often advocating what he called "the strenuous life," Roosevelt was convinced that true American manhood required an immersion in nature and the wilderness for ultimate fulfillment.

Perhaps the most formative experience for Roosevelt came in 1884 when, following the death of his wife and mother on the same day, Roosevelt temporarily abandoned his career in New York politic s and moved west to the Dakota Territory to live a rancher's life. This experience gave Roosevelt a new dimension to his character and public image--an elite and scholarly eastern politician, but also a frontier cowboy and big game sportsman. Roosevelt was equally comfortable in the aristocracy of New York society, the ultra-competitive world of New York politics, and the rough and pure masculine environment of the Dakota Badlands. Even his writings demonstrated this unique character. He was the author of a number of scholarly works on naval history and western expansion as well as ornithological studies, books on hunting, and accounts of his adventures in the Dakota Territory.

After completing his Dakota sojourn, Roosevelt continued to advance his political career, serving on the US Civil Service Commission, as police commissioner of New York City, and as assistant secretary of the navy. Roosevelt, in the words of naturalist John Burroughs, was a "live wire," full of energy and enthusiasm on a wide range of subjects including politics, urban reform, civil service, military affairs, conservation, history, and wildlife. Roosevelt was the force behind the establishment of the Bronx Zoo and used his social Darwinist theories to justify the Spanish-American War. Resigning his position at the Navy Department to become colonel of the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry unit, Roosevelt used his military service in Cuba to continue his observations in ornithology and natural history. Capitalizing on his wartime fame, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898. As governor, he sought scientific solutions to environmental problems, strictly enforced fish and hunting laws, incorporated geography and natural history into New York public school curricula, created forest reserves in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and replaced political appointees with professionally trained scientists for the New York State Fisheries, Game, and Forest Commission.

After briefly serving as vice president, he ascended to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Clearly recognizing the threats to the environment posed by industrialization, logging, overgrazing, excessive hunting, oil drilling, and population growth, Roosevelt built on the limited conservation efforts of his predecessors and made environmental protection one of the main features of his administration. …

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