Dear Straight Dope:
Why is Theodore Roosevelt included on Mt. Rushmore? I understand why the other three were chosen, but was Teddy really that great of a President? Are there other Presidents who were considered for this honor? And do you personally think a different President might have made a better choice?
SDStaff John Corrado replies:
Mt. Rushmore started as the vision of one man, a man with the desire to create a monument, the determination to move mountains, and the willingness to spend a hell of a lot of time writing letters begging for donations. This man was Doane Robinson, superintendent of South Dakota’s State Historical Society. Where others saw mountains — lots and lots of mountains — he saw the chance to carve giant statues to immortalize the heroes who had changed the history of South Dakota. Men like General Custer or Lewis and Clark. More important, a giant memorial would be a way to get some tourists up to South Dakota, because at that point the only people who bothered to go to there for vacation were geographically-befuddled souls who assumed that “South” in the name meant that the climate would be warm.
Robinson spent most of 1924 asking people to donate time and money to his cause and seeking a sculptor willing to undertake such a massive project. To that end, Robinson sent a letter to John Gutzon Borglum.
Borglum was — in one of my favorite quotes from The Presidents, Tidbits and Trivia by Frank, Melick, and Dobbins — “just the kind of person to drop the John and keep the Gutzon.” He was already a famous sculptor and painter when Robinson’s letter arrived, and at the time was carving portraits of Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis into Stone Mountain in Georgia. As work slowed on the Stone Mountain project — the Stone Mountain Confederate Mounumental Association was constantly suggesting changes, interfering with work, and generally making Borglum’s life a hassle — the sculptor became more and more enchanted with the thought of working on an even bigger, more national project. In 1925 Borglum destroyed the models being used for Stone Mountain and fled Georgia for South Dakota.
Once there, Borglum quickly explained to Robinson that the idea of Buffalo Bill or Sioux Indians being carved into the mountains was a small thought for a small mind — a better project would be one national in scope and timeless in subject matter. With that in mind, Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt were chosen to represent American dynasty and destiny. Washington had secured America’s independence; Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence and made the Louisiana Purchase; Lincoln had preserved the Union.
As for Roosevelt — well, the reasons given are many and varied. At the cynical end of the spectrum, we can point out that President Roosevelt had been a supporter and patron of Borglum, and that Borglum’s major work prior to Stone Mountain had been a bust of Lincoln that Roosevelt had exhibited in the White House. Borglum had returned the favor by campaigning for Roosevelt.
On the more idealistic side, Teddy Roosevelt is a powerful figure in American myth. Borglum saw the carving in Rushmore as a memorial to the United States’ Manifest Destiny, and Theodore Roosevelt — hero of the Spanish-American War, builder of the Panama Canal, explorer, rancher, naturalist, conservator, and athlete — certainly embodied all the good qualities we associate with those who “tamed the West.” It is also important to realize that when Borglum was beginning his work, Roosevelt had only been out of office for seventeen years, and had been dead less than ten. Imagine, for comparison, someone in the early ’70’s writing a list of “Great Presidents” and not including John F. Kennedy — it would seem bizarre.
Work on the project lasted from 1927 to 1941, though the actual carving only lasted six and a half years — the rest of the time was spent waiting for funds to be raised. Borglum did none of the actual carving. He created the initial model, then hired teams of drillers and dynamiters to remove the rock according measurements made from his design. All in all, over 450,000 tons of stone were removed from Mt. Rushmore, and not a single worker was killed doing it.
Borglum died before work was complete. His son Lincoln took over the project but made only minor “refining” touches out of deference to his father’s vision. Thus seven months after Borglum’s death he declared the project finished.
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