The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I've been engrossed this summer in Edmund Morris' magisterial 3-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt (which, for some reason I can't quite reconstruct at the moment, I've read in order vol. 2 (Theodore Rex, on the presidential years), vol 3 (Colonel Roosevelt, the post-presidential years), and I'm now halfway through vol. 1 (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt)). Magnificent stuff, and a most worthy subject. For some reason, I had never quite taken T.R. seriously—it always seemed to me that he was the odd man out, up there on Mr. Rushmore ("what's he doing up there?"), but he surely deserves to be taken very, very seriously . . .
Among the many things I had not known about TR—his astonishing popularity as president and the near-religious fervor he induced in vast numbers of people, or the full depth and scope of his "progressivism" (the Bull Moose platform of 1912 reads like a rough draft for the New Deal, with a call for a national minimum wage, child labor laws, protection for union organizing, oversight over the securities markets, . . .)—the most interesting, for me, is that it turns out that he was a top-flight, world-class naturalist, beginning in his teens (and the publication of his first two books, on the birds of the Adirondacks and Long Island). Not just a dilettante, but a serious, and very skilled, practitioner of the naturalist's craft.
So that makes two of the four up there on Rushmore (Jefferson, of course, being the other)—two of our four greatest presidents who could hold their own (and even contribute something of real value) at a conference of practicing scientists. Could be a coincidence, I suppose, but I doubt it. I think there's a connection there—I've written about what I think is a very deep link between Jefferson's views of the natural and the social/political world, and I suspect there is some similar connection one could tease out for Roosevelt.
In any event, if you're in the market for a truly spectacular work of historical biography as you're heading for the beach or the mountains, this one gets my highest recommendation.