Who knew that FDR was a budding oologist at age 10? Not only did he collect birds’ eggs and nests (oology), the young Franklin Roosevelt (burdened during his Groton years with the nickname “Feather Duster”) was a fairly serious ornithologist and naturalist. These lifelong pursuits, along with a deep and abiding appreciation for his Hudson River home, would help shape and define his conservation legacy during his presidency.
Bestselling author and Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley is no stranger to the Roosevelt family. His 2009 book, The Wilderness Warrior, celebrated Theodore Roosevelt’s love of the outdoors and his vision to protect more than 200 million acres of wild America. In this new work, Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, Brinkley brings his masterful research and storytelling skills to the life of Theodore’s cousin Franklin. But this is not simply a narrow examination of one aspect of the president’s interest in the outdoors. Instead, Brinkley uses FDR’s love of the natural world as a biographical lens, offering readers new insights into this complex national figure.
From Roosevelt’s boyhood in the Hudson, Brinkley traces his marriage to Eleanor and subsequent political career. He explores New Deal Conservation (1933-1938) and the ways in which Roosevelt married conservation goals to economic policy to combat the unemployment of the Great Depression. Anyone who has hiked on an old trail has probably been reminded of the enduring legacy of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which as Brinkley reveals, had a dual purpose. “If the primary selling point to Congress was work relief, the long-term vision was nothing less than to heal the wounded American earth.”
Roosevelt, asserts Brinkley, was nothing less than “America’s landscape planner.” The president made his mark in a variety of ways, from his efforts to establish local and regional park systems, to his campaigns to preserve national resources, working alongside leading environmental visionaries of the era.
Even if you’ve read other Roosevelt biographies or seen Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts, there are surprising insights in store here, as Brinkley masterfully chronicles Roosevelt’s strengths and weaknesses and the progress of the environmental movement itself during his years in office. For anyone interested in the history of our natural treasures, or who thought they understood the Roosevelt presidency, Rightful Heritage is a must read.