Michael Patrick Cullinane’s fascinating new book Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon contains an interesting and insightful historical anecdote from the mid-1920s about the unavoidable practicalities of fundraising, and that which can result from the necessary concerns about them.
“Mount Rushmore’s design started and ended in the minds of three men,” according to Cullinane, a reader in modern U.S. history at the University of Roehampton in London. The three men were South Dakota historian and local politician Doane Robinson; sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who carved Robert E. Lee on Georgia’s Stone Mountain; and U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota.
While most of us can picture the South Dakota attraction and its four particular presidential visages—of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—it was far from a given whose faces it would feature before Mount Rushmore’s construction began in 1927. It was not even initially clear that only presidents would be carved into the stone; military heroes John Frémont and Lewis and Clark were considered, Cullinane recounts.
Eventually, Robinson supported only a two-man memorial, with Washington and Lincoln. Borglum then pushed to include Jefferson. “In a flurry of excitement, Borglum even floated the idea of adding Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley, a second tier of presidential greats,” writes Cullinane. “If the donations and workload permitted, he hoped to add their faces to the mountain.”
Norbeck very much wanted to feature T.R., whom he greatly admired. “Enshrining Roosevelt also served a practical purpose for Norbeck. He believed each man represented on the monument would elicit patronage from particular regions, projecting that Pennsylvania donors would fund Washington’s likeness because ‘Washington did so much, suffered so much and is tied up with the Keystone State,’” according to Cullinane, quoting a 1926 letter from Norbeck to Borglum.
“Funding for Jefferson would come from ‘a southern group of fine men’ Norbeck recruited to ‘look after’ the Virginian,” Cullinane continues. “‘I want Chicago Illinois to take care of Lincoln,’ [Norbeck wrote] … and as for Roosevelt, ‘[Elihu] Root, [William Boyce] Thompson, and [Gifford] Pinchot,’ the leaders of the Roosevelt Memorial Association, would contribute: ‘Theodore’s old friends will take care of him.’” Roosevelt had died merely seven years earlier, in 1919.
Of Robinson, Borglum, and Norbeck, then, only Robinson needed to be convinced on Roosevelt. “Robinson, who feared the local South Dakota community could not fund the project, was reassured by Norbeck’s confidence that Roosevelt’s friends would underwrite some of the construction,” Cullinane writes.
Robinson imagined Mount Rushmore as a thing of value, a means of encouraging a tourist industry and stabilizing the volatile agricultural economy of his state. He cared considerably less about the artistic and interpretative rationale of the project. Roosevelt’s popularity and Norbeck’s conviction that his presence would attract wealthier patrons persuaded Robinson to go along with the plan.
Understandably, none of this fretting about funding is cited on the National Park Service website’s page high-mindedly explaining how the august first, third, 16th, and 26th presidents were so carefully chosen for carving into the majestic mountainside of the Black Hills.
While the already-inundated Roosevelt Memorial Association actually went on to decline supporting the project – for which substantial federal-government support was then successfully sought – the funding fretting of Robinson, Borglum, and Norbeck, and their project planning on the basis of it, will be quite familiar to those nonprofit board members and directors of development among us today. They should be comforted in knowing they are not, and probably never have been, alone in history. And all of us should perhaps do them the favor of noting the results of such practical concerns.
Whether good or bad, they can be monumental.