The Last Bear

Teddy Roosevelt, race suicide and the killing of Orange County's last grizzly

Herbert's ideas did not catch on until after the Civil War. Then they found a receptive audience in young men of the upper classes, who lived for the most part in major cities. Nature, for them, was theoretical in ways it wasn't for people who actually depended on the meat they got by hunting to survive, so Herbert's ideas about the morally enhancing power of hunting seemed plausible. Most prominent among these new sportsman hunters was Theodore Roosevelt, who, at the age of 29, helped found New York's Boone and Crockett Club, the most prestigious of nation's elite hunting clubs.

In addition to giving wealthy young men a hobby they could consider both morally uplifting and manly, the Boone and Crockett Club took a leading role in the new wildlife-conservation movement. And it was a "conservation" movement, not a "preservation" movement. The sturdy young hunters–who often referred to themselves as "Nimrods" after the mighty Old Testament hunter (Genesis 10:8-9)–were not interested in keeping their prey alive in the name of aesthetics or biodiversity. They simply wanted to ensure there would be enough animals to shoot from one year to the next.

Roosevelt preached the gospel of the sportsman hunter incessantly, championing its morally enhancing qualities in speeches, magazine articles and books. So it was natural for readers outside Mississippi to assume that famous cartoon referred to the sportsman code of not shooting trapped prey when they saw it in 1902. It was just Teddy invoking the old morals of the hunting elite. But by 1902, hunting had taken on a whole new moral urgency for Roosevelt –one that was hinted at in a cartoon that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Heraldthe next year.

In May 1903, Roosevelt visited California for the first time. On May 8, he arrived in Los Angeles for a one-day visit. The Herald's cartoonist, R.K. Culver, imagined the sights that awaited the president. In the cartoon, a large Roosevelt is surrounded by some of LA's attractions. The president appears to be waving to one of them: a group of children labeled "Members of the Anti-Race Suicide Club." Culver must have thought that addition would please the president because in the spring of 1903, Roosevelt had made "race suicide" a fashionable term.

Although "race suicide" hadn't been coined until 1901, race was always at the heart of Roosevelt's moral and philosophical world-view. Roosevelt's views on race were never simple. Describing what he called "the divided character" of Roosevelt's thought, Gary Gerstle writes that on the one hand, Roosevelt belonged to "a powerful civic tradition that celebrated the United States as a place that welcomed all people . . . as long as they were willing to devote themselves to the nation and obey its laws." On the other hand, "Roosevelt's nationalism expressed itself as a combative and unapologetic racial ideology that thrived on aggression and the vanquishing of savage and barbaric peoples. From the perspective of that ideology, it is vital that 'Americans' cultivate their racial superiority and expel or subordinate the racial inferiors in their midst." Roosevelt used the terms Americans (or old-stock Americans), Anglo-Saxons, Aryans and whites interchangeably and conceived as life as a sort of racial struggle. So it was only natural he interpreted the social upheavals of the late 19th century as the signs of a racial crisis.

In the last decade of the 19th century, America was going through a series of wrenching social and economic transformations. Among other things, the number of self-employed men shrank with the rise of big business. The rural population was drifting into the big cities. At the same time, the great cities were filling with a new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, people very different from the Anglo-Saxons who made up the stock of what men like Roosevelt regarded as "real Americans." Equally worrisome, women were beginning to demand social and political equality with men. From Roosevelt's point of view, something had clearly gone terribly wrong.

Roosevelt laid the blame for all these changes on what he perceived to be the growing decadence of the white race. Men were losing their vitality, their manliness; women were developing interests outside the home–a sign of their growing selfishness and a failure to appreciate the importance of motherhood to the health of the race. Roosevelt saw a society in crisis, one in which whites were in danger of losing their dominant position and being overwhelmed by their inferiors.

This is what Roosevelt meant by race suicide. And, true to his nature, he acted to head off disaster. On the political level, he allied himself with the Progressive movement, which in its early years stressed the importance of government regulation in creating a stable society, in which those with the greatest intelligence and ability would benevolently guide those less accomplished. On a social level, Roosevelt prescribed a course of action for each sex. Women were to rededicate themselves to motherhood and raise as many healthy children as possible. More was required of men. They needed to dedicate themselves to "the strenuous life" (the title of a book Roosevelt published in 1900). A program of sports, outdoor activities and avoidance of the feminizing influences of city life would restore vitality and manliness. Of course, for Roosevelt, the ultimate form of the strenuous life was war, but decent wars could be hard to come by. Fortunately, there was a substitute almost as good. "Hunting big game in the wilderness," he wrote in 1893, "is, above all things, a sport for a vigorous and masterful people."

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