OUR OPINION: Roosevelt’s flaws don’t disqualify ‘Roughriders’ as UND nickname
Franklin Roosevelt authorized the forced incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. As Supreme Allied Commander in that war, Dwight Eisenhower presided without protest over a rigidly segregated U.S. Army. "I am not...
Franklin Roosevelt authorized the forced incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
As Supreme Allied Commander in that war, Dwight Eisenhower presided without protest over a rigidly segregated U.S. Army.
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” said Abe Lincoln in 1858.
George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and likely fathered a child with one of them.
What’s the point of this litany?
The point is that if we’re looking for perfection in our leaders, we’re going to be looking for a long, long time. Exactly none of the great figures of American history was a saint. All of them “sinned” - and when some of their “sins” are measured against modern sensibilities, the misdeeds can seem awfully hard to forgive.
That’s especially true when it comes to matters of race. For if we start holding figures from history to modern standards where race is concerned, then besides changing the name of the nation’s capital and demolishing the Jefferson Memorial, we might as well start sandblasting the faces off of Mt. Rushmore.
After all, none of those four figures thought, spoke or acted fully in line with today’s sensibilities. And just as a reminder, the four include Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington …
And Theodore Roosevelt.
In North Dakota, this issue is not an academic one. For Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy is at issue as currently as this week, when a UND committee will consider whether “Roughriders” belongs on the list of finalists for a new nickname for UND.
In our view, the committee should unhesitatingly decide “Yes, it does.” For while Roosevelt’s isn’t a perfect legacy, and Roughriders isn’t a perfect name, there is no perfection where historical figures are concerned, in America or anywhere else.
It’s true that Roosevelt showed unvarnished prejudice toward “savages,” as he termed American Indians. It’s also true that many American Indian tribes killed women and children and tortured prisoners with abandon - and not only during their wars with the shockingly brutal U.S. Army, but also across intertribal conflicts of centuries before.
So, does that mean the sandblasters should move on from Mt. Rushmore and deface the great Black Hills sculpture of Crazy Horse, too?
Of course not. It simply means that we of today must make some allowance for the times - for the times in which people lived, and the cultures in which they were raised.
Mind you, this doesn’t call for the forgiveness of all sins. There are historical crimes that participants knew or should have known were wrong at the time. The Holocaust is one.
But the past was a violent and prejudiced place. And we moderns must take that into consideration, lest we be left without any heroes or figures of admiration at all.
Teddy Roosevelt was steeped in the biases of his age, and he failed to transcend some of those beliefs. But he did transcend a great many other deep-rooted prejudices - and helped America do so as well, as his presidency led to profound changes in our approach to poverty, public health, industrial cartels and especially the natural world.
That’s not perfection. But it’s a whole lot more than the rest of us mortals can hope to achieve. That’s about as close to greatness as human beings can get. And where figures from American history are concerned, it’s enough.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald