TIME psychology

How Not To Assess Risk

Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 95 - 55 BC).
Spencer Arnold—Getty Images Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 95 - 55 BC).

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

It’s always good to re-read books and to dip back into them periodically. When reading a new book, I often miss out on crucial information (especially books that are hard to categorize with one descriptive sentence). When you come back to a book after reading hundreds of others you can’t help but make new connections with the old book and see it anew.

It has been a while since I read Anti-fragile. In the past I’ve talked about an Antifragile Way of Life, Learning to Love Volatility, the Definition of Antifragility , Antifragile life of economy, and the Noise and the Signal.

But upon re-reading Antifragile I came across the Lucretius Problem and I thought I’d share an excerpt. (Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher, best-known for his poem On the Nature of Things). Taleb writes:

Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called ​worst-case scenario ​and use it to estimate future risks – this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome​. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.

I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia.

Taleb brings up an interesting point, which is that our documented history can blind us. All we know is what we have been able to record.

We think because we have sophisticated data collecting techniques that we can capture all the data necessary to make decisions. We think we can use our current statistical techniques to draw historical trends using historical data without acknowledging the fact that past data recorders had fewer tools to capture the dark figure of unreported data. We also overestimate the validity of what has been recorded before and thus the trends we draw might tell a different story if we had the dark figure of unreported data.

Taleb continues:

The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse— and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent. Likewise, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Fragilista Doctor Alan Greenspan, in his apology to Congress offered the classic “It never happened before.” Well, nature, unlike Fragilista Greenspan, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

So what do we do and how do we deal with the blindness?

Taleb provides an answer which is to develop layers of redundancy to act as a buffer against oneself. We overvalue what we have recorded and assume it tells us the worst and best possible outcomes. Redundant layers are a buffer against our tendency to think what has been recorded is a map of the whole terrain. An example of a redundant feature could be a rainy day fund which acts as an insurance policy against something catastrophic such as a job loss that allows you to survive and fight another day.

Antifragile is a great book to read and you might learn something about yourself and the world you live in by reading it or in my case re-reading it.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

How the Legacy of Slavery Affects Black Americans Today

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
David Goldman—AP The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands as a pedestrian passes early on June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.

There is increasing evidence that repressing feelings associated with acts of white racism may be psychologically damaging

On July 22, in announcing the federal indictment of Charleston killer Dylann Roof, Attorney General Loretta Lynch commented that the expression of forgiveness offered by the victims’ families is “an incredible lesson and message for us all.”

Forgiveness and grace are, indeed, hallmarks of the Black Church.

Since slavery, the church has been a formidable force for the survival of blacks in an America still grappling with the residual effects of white supremacy.

This was eloquently illustrated in the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre. Americans rightly stood in awe of the bereaved families’ laudable demonstration of God’s grace in action.

But what about the psychic toll that these acts of forgiveness exact?

Events like Charleston put a spotlight on the growing body of literature that looks not only at the United States’ failure to have authentic conversations about slavery and its legacy but also at the mental health impact of forgiving acts of white racism and repressing justifiable feelings of anger and outrage – whether these are horrific acts of terrorism or nuanced microaggressions.

I am a social work educator and practitioner with 25 years of experience in the field of mental health. I teach at one of the nation’s leading schools of social work, committed to preparing its graduates to work with racially and ethnically diverse populations. It is time, I believe, to bring this new field of inquiry into the mainstream.

The church as buffer

In his seminal book, Mighty Like A River, the Black Church and Social Reform, sociologist Andrew Billingsley asserts that the Black Church is the only African-American institution that has not been reenvisioned in the image of whites.

His research illuminates the role of religion in building the resilience that allows blacks as a people to overcome the various forms of terrorism and oppression endured over centuries that sustain doctrines of white supremacy.

Indeed, in his analysis of the African-American family, Billingsley concludes that it is “amazingly strong, enduring, adaptive and highly resilient.”

But as we pay homage to church and family in buffering blacks against the full effects of white racism, we must not obscure or diminish racism’s impact on the mental health that few blacks – irrespective of educational, social or economic status – will escape.

There is increasing evidence that repressing feelings associated with acts of white racism may be psychologically damaging and lay the foundation for future mental health problems and behaviors symptomatic of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Evidence of racism’s impact on mental health

Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint asked why suicide rates among black males doubled between 1980 and 1995.

In his co-authored book, Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans, which takes its title from a Negro spiritual describing the hardships of the slave system, he argues that one of the reasons for this increase is that African-American young men may see the afterlife as a better place.

Terrie M Williams is a clinical social worker in New York. In her book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, she uses powerful personal narratives of blacks from all walks of life to illustrate the high toll of hiding the pain associated with the black experience on mental health.

Joy DeGruy, Portland State University researcher and scholar, has developed “post-traumatic slave syndrome” as a theory for explaining the effects of unresolved trauma on the behaviors of blacks that is transmitted from generation to generation.

DeGruy’s argument may be controversial, but the questions she asked are surely relevant as we try to make sense, for example, of research released this July that shows suicide rates among black elementary school pupils significantly increasing between 1993 and 2012.

Moving to the mainstream…slowly

The fact is that from my perspective at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, these publications have yet to move into mainstream literature. They have low visibility in the curricula and training programs for mental health professionals.

Nor have the questions these scholars and practitioners raised led to the kind of research that is needed to support race-conscious and culturally appropriate practices for the mental health programs and agencies working with African-American families.

At the same time, however, the original thinking of authors like Poussaint and DeGruy is very much in sync with the new emphasis on trauma-informed care in social work across all fields of practice.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a May 2014 research report, undiagnosed childhood neglect or trauma is widespread among American adults and is the root cause of mental health and behavioral problems in adulthood.

Indeed, it is now the recommendation of the National Council for Behavioral Health that trauma-informed care be integrated into all assessment and treatment procedures.

This emphasis on trauma provides a new lens for developing research into the impact of slavery – and its legacy of structural and institutional racism – on black mental health today.

A difficult topic of conversation

The problem is, no one likes to talk about slavery.

For blacks descended from slaves, the subject evokes feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with the degradations of slavery. For whites whose ancestry makes them complicit, there are feelings of guilt about a system that is incongruent with the democratic ideals on which this country was founded.

Cloaked in a veil of silence or portrayed as a benevolent system that was in the best interest of blacks, slavery – much like mental illness – has become shrouded in secrecy and stigma.

Associated emotions are pushed away.

Anger, however, is a healthy emotion, as even the Scriptures acknowledge.

The God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful. In the New Testament, Jesus vents his anger in driving the money changers from the Temple.

As research (including my own) has shown, when anger is internalized and driven deep into the unconscious, contaminated by unresolved pain, it becomes problematic.

So what happens to the anger felt by people discriminated against and, in extreme cases, physically targeted because of their race?

Not enough is known about the relationship between clinical depression and race. But there are extensive findings (including reports by the Surgeon General) that attribute racial disparities in mental health outcomes for African Americans and whites to clinician bias, socioeconomic status and environmental stressors (such as high rates of crime and poor housing). And there is evidence of a link between perceived racism and adverse psychological outcomes such as increased levels of anxiety, depression and other psychiatric symptoms.

The numbers tell a story. According to the Minority Health Office of the Department of Health and Human Services, black adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults and are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness than do their white counterparts.

And yet there continues to be reluctance to forthrightly confront the impact of racism on mental health. Some of my colleagues, for example, say that content on race and racism is the most challenging content for them to teach. Authentic dialogue on race is constrained by the fear of being “political incorrect.” It takes less effort to promote the more inclusive liberal view that we live in a “color-blind society.”

It may be easier to allow everyone to remain in their comfort zone. But today as the U.S. faces what would appear to be an epidemic of race-based attacks committed by whites, it is time to examine how our history of racism affects the mental health of African Americans as well as that of whites.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

Scientists Discover Identities of Earliest Founding Fathers

Chris Maddaloni—Roll Call Photos / Getty Images Melissa Mederos, 10, from Miami, Fla., looks at the Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

Their bodies were discovered by the church where Pocahontas and John Smith married

Smithsonian scientists announced Tuesday that they’ve discovered the identities of four bodies buried at the historic Jamestown church where John Smith and Pocahontas got married.

The men, Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Capt. William West, were all leaders who played a role in the Jamestown settlement.

Scientists identified the men by using historical records and chemically analyzing the bones to figure out what the men ate and where they were from. They used 3-D technology to locate the exact grave sites of the men.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Science

Scientists Identify Long-Lost Remains of Early Virginia Settlers

A stone cross marking the grave of a 17t
Mladen Antonov—AFP/Getty Images A stone cross marking the grave of a 17th-century British settler is seen at the archaeological site of Jamestown, Va., on November 22, 2011.

The bodies were buried in the 17th century

Scientists used technology to identify the remains of four early residents of Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne and the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History announced on Tuesday that the settlers lived—and held high positions—in early English America as far back at 1608. About 100 people settled along the James River in what would become the first English settlement in 1607. The colony, however, was nearly wiped out due to conflict—with Native Americans in the area and with each other—as well as famine and disease. Among the identified remains were those of Rev. Robert Hunt, Jamestown’s first Anglican minister, and Captain Gabriel Archer, a leader among the early settlers and a rival of Captain John Smith. The remaining two, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captian William West, were relatives of the governor Lorde De La Warr.

Archeologists with Jamestown Rediscovery have been working to identify the remains since they were found in November of 2013. Scientists from both the Smithsonian and the Rediscovery Foundation examined artifacts from the graves, forensic evidence and technology like CT scans to determine who they were. (There’s a video explaining how here, on their website.) The discovery of the burial site, however, dates back to 2010 when Jamestown Rediscovery uncovered what the organization says is the earliest known Protestant Church in North America. Within that church— in the chancel, considered the holiest part of the building—scientists found the four burial sites that held the remains of these early settlers.

“This is an extraordinary discovery, one of the most important of recent times,” said James Horn, President of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, in a press release. “These men were among the first founders of English America. They lived and died at a critical time in the history of the settlement — when Jamestown was on the brink of failure owing to food shortages, disease, and conflict with powerful local Indian peoples, the Powhatans.”

The church they were buried in is significant, too. According to Jamestown Rediscovery, Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married there.

TIME psychology

How to Avoid Getting Tricked By the Past

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

The fact that new information exists about the past in general means that we have an incomplete road map about history. There is a necessarily fallibility … if you will.

In The Black Sawn, Nassim Taleb writes:

History is useful for the thrill of knowing the past, and for the narrative (indeed), provided it remains a harmless narrative. One should learn under severe caution. History is certainly not a place to theorize or derive general knowledge, nor is it meant to help in the future, without some caution. We can get negative confirmation from history, which is invaluable, but we get plenty of illusions of knowledge along with it.

While I don’t entirely hold Taleb’s view, I think it’s worth reflecting on. As a friend put it to me recently, “when people are looking into the rear view mirror of the past, they can take facts and like a string of pearls draw lines of causal relationships that facilitate their argument while ignoring disconfirming facts that detract from their central argument or point of view.”

Taleb advises us to adopt the empirical skeptic approach of Menodotus which was to “know history without theorizing from it,” and to not draw any large theoretical or scientific claims.

We can learn from history but our desire for causality can easily lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole when new facts come to light disavowing what we held to be true. In trying to reduce the cognitive dissonance, our confirmation bias leads us to reinterpret past events in a way that fits our current beliefs.

History is not stagnant — we only know what we know currently and what we do know is subject to change. The accepted beliefs about how events played out may change in light of new information and then the new accepted beliefs may change over time as well.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

Historian Asks New Mexico to Set the Record Straight on Billy the Kid’s Death

billy the kid
AP This undated photograph shows what is thought to be famed gunslinger Billy the Kid (William Bonney) near the age of 18.

SANTA FE, N.M. — A retired Arizona State University professor is taking his pursuit of a death certificate for Billy the Kid to New Mexico’s highest court.

Historian Robert J. Stahl filed a petition Friday with the New Mexico Supreme Court to order the state’s medical examiner to create the document for the legendary outlaw, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Stahl says he hopes the court will order the Office of the Medical Investigator to consider the evidence and determine whether William H. Bonney’s death can be certified.

According to most accounts, the Kid was fatally shot by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881. But some claim Garrett shot someone else and the Kid took up ranching or escaped to Texas under an alias.

Stahl is a member of the nonprofit Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang, an organization formed to protect the “true” history of the Kid. He wants to silence rumors that Bonney escaped the sheriff’s bullet.

MORE: Famous Outlaw Billy the Kid’s True Character Remains a Mystery

An official death certificate would end the attention that has been given to impostors claiming they were the Kid, like Ollie “Brushy Brill” Roberts of Hico, Texas, said Stahl.

No one in Fort Sumner ever denied that the Kid was shot by Garrett, said Stahl, and six members of the jury appointed to investigate the case knew the Kid and saw his body.

The jury unanimously found Garrett’s shooting of the Kid to be “justifiable homicide.”

The retired professor also wants to correct the coroner’s report on Bonney’s death. Stahl has been researching frontier topics since 2003 with help from his wife and sister and believes the date on the report is wrong.

An English translation of the coroner’s report says the Kid died minutes after being shot, around midnight on July 14, 1881. But Stahl believes the Kid actually died at about 12:30 a.m. on July 15, citing an account by George Miller, who was staying in Fort Sumner that night.

Miller wrote in the Las Vegas Optic on July 18 that the shots woke him and he immediately checked his watch.

Stahl’s previous efforts to get the Office of the Medical Investigator to create a death certificate have failed. He submitted a written request that was denied earlier this year.

Stahl was told he’d need a court order for a death certificate to be issued.

The medical investigator did not return calls seeking comment on Stahl’s latest efforts.

TIME Internet

Today’s Google Doodle Celebrates Journalist Ida B. Wells’ Birthday


She was a journalist, newspaper editor and civil rights activist

Today is Ida B. Wells’ 153rd birthday, and the Google Doodle is celebrating her accordingly with a sketch of the famous journalist and activist sitting at her desk working at a typewriter.

Wells was a journalist and newspaper editor at the turn of the 20th century who documented civil rights abuses and worked toward women’s suffrage. She was editor of two papers in Memphis by the time she was 25, and later moved to Chicago where she ran the Chicago Conservator.

Calling her “fearless and uncompromising,” Google explained its choice to honor her in the Doodle: “We salute Ida B. Wells with a Doodle that commemorates her journalistic mettle and her unequivocal commitment to the advancement of civil liberties.”

TIME society

When Rioting Is the Answer

The Boston Boys throwing tea from English ships into Boston harbor in historic tax protest (a.k.a. the Boston Tea Party).
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images The Boston Boys throwing tea from English ships into Boston harbor in historic tax protest (a.k.a. the Boston Tea Party).

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

From the Boston Tea Party to Ferguson, Americans have employed violence to improve their lot. But does it work?

America was founded on riots. From as far back as the days of tar-and-feathering British tax collectors, citizens have resisted power by fighting back, using fists when their voices weren’t heard.

This violent tradition lives on in the country, boiling up at times in our cities. In places like Los Angeles in 1992, and Ferguson and Baltimore in the past year, urban tensions—often the result of racial and economic inequalities—have exploded into a mess of arson, looting, and police brutality.

What sort of progress is made in these periods of unrest? Do they actually make conditions better? In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA event “Can Urban Riots Cause Change?” we asked people who study, write about, and are deeply engaged with sometimes-violent protests: Have urban riots ever improved the lives of a city’s residents? If so, when and how? If not, why not and what happened?

Sherry Hamby — They work sometimes, but aren’t great solutions

From the Boston Tea Party to the Los Angeles riots to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, violent resistance has sometimes led to positive social change. Most often, rioting has drawn attention to oppressive authoritarian rule (sometimes by kings, sometimes by police). In some cases, it has also spurred investigations into law enforcement or other government systems. Occasionally, it has even forced corrupt or incompetent leaders to surrender or resign.

But rioting—or other violent resistance—does not always make people’s lives better. The 2005 French riots surrounding Paris led to deaths, injuries, car burnings, and arrests. The aftermath was a crackdown on immigration and blaming of musicians instead of a frank assessment of ethnic and religious tensions.

Nonviolent resistance is a relatively new path to social justice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., were some of the first to convince large groups of people to protest without physical fighting. Gandhi accomplished something that the early Americans did not; he got rid of British colonial rule through peace, not war.

Riots are not great solutions, but riots are usually caused by real injustices. Thousands of people do not take to the streets for no good reason. That was true during the American Revolution, and it is true today. Riots are often the desperate response of people who feel they have no other recourse. We can reduce rioting by providing better access to justice for everyone.

Sherry Hamby is editor of the journal Psychology of Violence and director of the Appalachian Center for Resilience Research. Her most recent books are Battered Women’s Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know and The Web of Violence.

Lawrence Grandpre — Their value depends upon whom you ask

If one had asked the white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 whether urban riots improve the lives of a city’s residents, they likely would have responded with a resounding “yes.” Fresh off burning down the town’s thriving black business district (the so-called “Black Wall Street”) in retaliation for alleged black criminality, residents would have described the event as necessary for the safety and stability of their communities. As might have the rioters in 1860s New York who attacked more than 200 black men in anger over being drafted to fight for the Union, or the pro-Confederacy rioters in 1860s Baltimore.

But the recent black urban uprisings aren’t seen in the same way. Even though they show a historical continuity between America’s past and present, the constant reality of drug raids, pat downs, and “jump outs” is often not taken seriously as a justification of violence, because these violations of bodies usually aren’t violations of law.

It’s presumptuous to assume those who have not experienced 400 years of anti-black violence have a right to moralize on the black community’s expressions of grief and rage. As such, to the extent to which urban rebellions help expand the range of askable questions and speakable thoughts on race in America, these actions have value.

To debate whether riots help blacks win the proverbial “game” of politics ignores that the existence of such conditions should be proof enough that the game itself is not just rigged, but broken.

Lawrence Grandpre is the director of research of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based social justice think tank. He is co-author of The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots.

John Hope Bryant — They signal the need for change

Can urban riots cause change? It’s a bit of a paradox. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1968, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Sometimes it takes a riot to bring attention to needed change. Unfortunately, the new action often comes as a reaction to old pain.

As a witness to the riots sparked by the Rodney King beating some 23 years ago, I chose not to be driven by blind rage, but by a determination to change the very chemistry of this volatile brew of anger, recrimination, and recoil. The difference to my approach is that I was looking for the problem that lay underneath the problem. I wanted to unpack power and money and prosperity and repack it with poor people in mind, because it dawned on me that middle-class neighborhoods no matter their racial makeup didn’t riot; only poor ones did.

In the wake of the Rodney King riots, I founded Operation HOPE, a plan to empower the financially ill-equipped and struggling in America to participate in the only system we have: capitalism. The path I chose was based on the power of free enterprise to change lives—no different from what President Abraham Lincoln did in 1865 after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, when he called forth the Freedman’s Bureau, which created the Freedman’s Bank, chartered to teach newly freed slaves about money.

I subscribe to the simple premise that rainbows only come after storms, and I see a shining light of opportunity emerging from the dark night of tragedy and tears. Let us resolve to erase the impediments to equal economic opportunity, and strife will subside, tempers will cool, and a clearer morning of hope will break through the clouds of animosity and rage.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. He is a member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Youth for President Barack Obama.

Noche Diaz — Rioters do what’s necessary

After 1967’s “Long Hot Summer” with Detroit’s 12th Street riots, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders found that (surprise!) blacks are systematically mistreated. After 100-plus rebellions following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, additions to the Civil Rights Act passed.

Was it right for Baltimore youth to rise up? Or Ferguson youth before that? Will it be right the next time people are sick of police killing them off?

Yes, yes, yes!

Eric Holder has said, “peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations… have led to the change that has been most long lasting and the most pervasive.”

Get real. Tell that to police committing illegitimate violence on the regular—murder and brutality that destroys lives, futures, and whole people. Holder, and the system he represents, care more about CVS and broken cop cars. They greenlight police terror. A black president, a black attorney general, and still no federal prosecutions of cops killing unarmed black people!

Baltimore rises, suddenly six cops are charged. A light was shined on generations living under police crosshairs. Everyone is now forced to relate to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” This is improvement.

A Baltimore teenager said to me, “I know Freddie [Gray]’s family didn’t want rioting… and people don’t want us destroying our community… but we don’t want police killing us. If they won’t stop, we do what we have to.”

Society was shaken. Lines got drawn. Where this goes is on us.

Noche Diaz is freedom fighter who splits his time between Baltimore and New York City. He is currently facing jail time for protesting killings by police.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

The Christian Roots of Modern Environmentalism

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.
Time Life Pictures—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Presbyterianism inspired Teddy Roosevelt's conservationist zeal

Like only a handful of presidents, Theodore Roosevelt lives in our memory and popular culture. He is the bespectacled face gazing from Mount Rushmore, the namesake for the teddy bear, and the advice-giving Rough Rider, played by Robin Williams in the movie Night at the Museum. We remember him, too, as the trust buster who broke up monopolies, the avid outdoorsman and conservationist who preserved parks, forests, and wildlife, and the politician who crusaded for a “fair deal,” a just and equitable society that works for everyone.

Yet Roosevelt’s colorful life and accomplishments distract us from an essential part of him: the profoundly moralistic worldview that fired his progressive zeal. Some recent biographers go so far as to overlook this element of his character completely, but Roosevelt’s friends and colleagues recognized in him, in the words of one friend, “the greatest preacher of righteousness in modern times. Deeply religious beneath the surface, he made right living seem the natural thing, and there was no man beyond the reach of his preaching and example.” As Senator Henry Cabot Lodge mused, “The blood of some ancestral Scotch Covenanter or of some Dutch Reformed preacher facing the tyranny of Philip of Spain was in his veins, and with his large opportunities and his vast audiences he was always ready to appeal for justice and righteousness.”

Lodge astutely singled out the Calvinist traditions in Roosevelt’s ancestry: the Dutch Reformed Church on his father’s side and the Scottish Presbyterian Church (whose Covenanters fought the tyranny of England’s Charles I) on his mother’s, not to mention his own upbringing in New York’s Madison Square Presbyterian Church. How significant Roosevelt’s religious origins were really struck home to me when I realized how many national leaders of the Progressive Era shared them. I had been looking at the denominational origins of major American environmentalists and already knew how dominant people raised Presbyterian, often with ministers in the family, were during its rise. Still, when I turned to progressivism I was unprepared for the extent to which Presbyterians ran the show. Non-Presbyterian presidents held office a mere eight-and-a-half years between 1885 and 1921. Of those born in the church, —Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—two, Cleveland and Wilson, were sons of ministers. Only two Presidents before Cleveland were raised Presbyterian, and none after Wilson has been.

I wondered what all this Presbyterianism could mean for progressivism, a movement that included people of all faiths, and what this religious strain in politics meant for crusades that these days might be typically colored strictly “red” or “blue.”

Progressives grew up in an era in which big money corrupted politics, large corporations dominated the economy, and environmental crises threatened the natural world – forces that might rouse the ire of those on the “blue” side of the spectrum today. But the situation was a call to arms for those who were steeped in the Calvinist demand for a righteous society, a kind of moralizing that might be more considered on the “red” side of the current spectrum.

At this time in history, though, it was the progressives who were the evangelicals out to spread righteousness in the nation. Censorious Presbyterians attacked greed and avarice with a special vengeance, as the sins that prompted Eve to reach for the forbidden fruit and exile us all from the Garden.

I realized how easily Presbyterian evangelical righteousness translated from church pulpits to political podiums. This church imbued Roosevelt and his fellow progressive leaders with the moral courage to take on the concentrated wealth that corrupted American democracy and dominated the economy. When in 1901 Roosevelt found himself with “such a bully pulpit,” in his famous phrase, no wonder that he impressed people as a preacher of righteousness.

This same moral courage was necessary to drive American environmentalism. Calvinist churches fostered a particularly strong interest in nature and natural history; John Calvin himself regarded nature as a place where God drew nearest and communicated himself and he spoke of the natural world as the theater of his glory. To many Calvinists, nature study had an aura of sanctity as a moral occupation for men, women, and children alike. God, they said, gave natural resources to humans to use for the common good, but not sinfully to waste or turn to greedy or selfish purposes.

Under Harrison, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson, national government made dramatic strides in conservation. They expanded National Parks from one to two dozen, organized the Park Service, created millions of acres of National Forests, established the Forest Service, and named and promulgated conservation. They had essential assistance from their Secretaries of Interior (parks) and Agriculture (forests), who during the heyday of conservation between 1889 and 1946 were Presbyterians in three years out of four. For Wilson, a Southerner little interested in conservation, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane was prime instigator of major parks expansion and organization.

Roosevelt was the unexcelled exemplar of this passion for nature and moralism about its use. As a boy, he created a zoo in his home and learned taxidermy to preserve specimens. At Harvard, he originally intended to study natural history. After he chose a career in politics, he was an unusually knowledgeable ornithologist and published books on natural history, hunting, and his wilderness adventures. Aptly, as vice president, Roosevelt was climbing Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks when he learned William McKinley had died and he was now president.

Roosevelt believed government must protect nature and natural resources against the rapacious forces of self-interested avarice. “Conservation is a great moral issue,” he asserted. “I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.” As president, he added five National Parks, created the first 18 National Monuments, quadrupled the acreage of National Forests, established the first 51 bird refuges and four game refuges, oversaw the first irrigation projects and several major dams, and made the new term “conservation” the cornerstone of his political agenda.

After he died in 1919, Roosevelt inspired many to carry on with his work. One was the fervent progressive Harold Ickes, who said of the moment he learned of Roosevelt’s death, “something went out of my life that has never been replaced.” Unsurprisingly, Ickes was a Presbyterian who once intended to go into the ministry. One friend even called him “furiously righteous.” Among his many acts as Secretary of Interior in the administration of Roosevelt’s cousin Franklin, he desegregated the National Parks and added the first four parks intended to remain as undeveloped wilderness: Everglades, Olympic, Kings Canyon, and Isle Royale. His career was a fitting capstone to the great era of progressive Presbyterianism.

Mark Stoll is an associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He is the author most recently of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

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TIME History

What It Was Like Growing Up at Gettysburg

My family's antique shop by the historic battlefield has helped customers—and me—connect to our nation's history

“Do you have the kind of bullet that killed Lincoln?” asked a tourist buying a Derringer pistol, wearing a God Bless America t-shirt. I looked up from the counter a bit confused. I’d come in late after watching Steven Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 149th Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address. I was cold and my coffee had only begun to wake me up.

“It should be the size of any pistol bullet,” I said. “I’ll look up the caliber on my phone and see if we can find one that matches.” It was a strange request, but it didn’t faze me the way it would have years earlier. I had been working in my family’s store, The Horse Soldier, for a little over six full months after graduating college in that year of 2012. I had promised my grandmother, who still worked at our front counter every day possible until retiring this year, that I would stay at our relic and antique store through the summer of 2013. We were preparing for the deluge of tourists that would be drawn by the 150th commemoration of America’s bloodiest battle; this was no time to be squeamish.

I picked up a U.S. Minié ball from hundreds of bullets stashed in front of our counter and wondered whether my grandfather knew what he was signing us up for when he found his first one.

My family’s business started as my grandfather’s hobby. Chester “Chet” Small, a U.S. Marine, came home to Gettysburg after he and his brothers had served in World War II. While trying to move on from the war he fought in overseas, he kept finding relics and bullets from another war in his backyard, as he and his brothers had in their childhood, over the road from Pickett’s Charge. The harvest of such deadly memorabilia was tragically bountiful.

My dad, Maurice, is named after one of his uncles, the one killed in action in France and buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Most shop customers call him Sam. My aunts tell me my uncle Wes couldn’t pronounce his name when they were little so that’s what everyone calls him. My grandfather started trading the bullets and relics he had found with his old military friends. Sometimes he’d sell dad and Wes bullets for a penny so they could sell them for a nickel to earn money for ice cream at the stand past Devil’s Den.

At some point, my grandmother Patricia put her foot down, insisting that these strange bearded men stop bringing big rifles into her living room. So Sam, Wes, and Chet built a shed out near the side of the Emmitsburg Road in 1972 and hung up a sign that read “Civil War Relics.”

My dad and his brother went off to college and returned home in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with other jobs, they began to build the business and moved the operation into town. The park – like many famous Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg is part of the National Park Service – purchased my grandparents’ battlefield property and tore down their wooden house to restore the land to its state in 1863. Too bad they tore down the house: information later revealed that the house was a witness to the battle after all. It had just moved from its original foundation across the road, transported by horses pulling logs.

Piecing together a network of collectors, relic hunters, and researchers, my family would encounter an endless stream of Americana’s holy grails. By attending trade shows with vendors, growing up with families that ran Gettysburg’s museums, and distributing a catalog worldwide twice a year for nearly 20 years, my family built a reputation for the honest art of appraising Civil War authenticity. We’ve handled some impressive artifacts over the years; Ulysses Grant’s coat, a set of the Lincoln White House chinaware, signal flags from Little Round Top, a pike from John Brown’s raid, fabric from Jefferson Davis’s chair, Frederick Douglass’s signature.

Most recently, we handled the belongings of General John Fulton Reynolds. Reynolds was shot on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg in McPherson’s Woods and died in the building next door to our store’s current location. His descendants, the Scotts, had passed down the items generation to generation. The family relinquished some of the artifacts—the kepi, belt, sword, corps badge he wore on July 1, 1863–to the National Park Service. A photo of Reynolds ended up in the National Portrait Gallery, and some daguerreotypes and presidential commissions promoting him remain in our store; a commission signed by Lincoln will go for $35,000 to the right buyer someday.

To most Horse Soldier customers, that overpriced stuff is for eggheads. Why pay five figures for a piece of paper when you can buy an 1861 Springfield musket, original Colt pistols, cartridge boxes, an Ames Cavalry sabre, daguerreotypes, a Sharps carbine, artillery shells, a tourniquet, bayonets, a canteen for a lot less? Most collectors aren’t about the big names; they’re about connecting with the historical moment. Civil War fandom is very democratic that way.

Customer nostalgia – if you can be nostalgic for a past you didn’t experience first-hand – is triggered by all sorts of associations. Many come searching for a relative’s possessions or just an emblematic piece of state pride. A lot of our customers are veterans, communing with the artifacts (and sacrifices) of their predecessors.

The word nostalgia is a compound marrying the Greek words nostos (“homecoming”) and algos meaning “pain, ache.” Along with the other quack solutions you read about in Civil War medical texts, doctors believed that the homesickness variety of nostalgia could be cured by exercise and battle or would issue discharges and furloughs to treat more severe cases at home. Musicians, meanwhile, indulged the sentiment, pumping out songs about longing for home – from the hurrahs of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to the forlorn ballad of “Lorena.”

The Civil War is a big draw for the nostalgic set longing for a time of purpose and moral clarity. And battle re-enactments offer adults a rare, if not last, chance to dress up and pretend. The combination of solemn respect and child-like play seem as contradictory as the Blue and the Grey.

The Horse Soldier provided the backdrop to my childhood. It’s where I best remember my grandparents. And everyone remembers the tree that grew right inside the front of the shop where Grandma used to feed acorns to squirrels. Around the corner you would find my grandfather, whom I knew only as Pop-Pop, rooted firmly on a green vinyl Steelcase chair next to the saloon doors and a row of rifles. Eventually, the tree was torn down, replaced with a panoply of cannons and Gatling-guns aimed at anyone who dared to enter.

My grandfather passed away five years ago. As his health declined, some of my relatives, high school friends, numerous Horse Soldier employees, and I boxed up every last item to move down the street to our new location. It was a strange exercise, tearing down something that seemed so permanent, accounting for every piece before I went back to my sophomore year of college.

That winter, I was deeply moved by an old poem entitled “My Childhood Home I See Again,” about the bittersweet mixture of remembrance and loss felt in returning home. Its author, Abraham Lincoln, submitted the poem to Illinois Whig in 1847:

O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise. . .

Lincoln’s poem goes on to describe the feeling of returning home “after 20 years have passed away,” and his sentiments rang true with me only after a couple of years removed from Gettysburg. We often take the places that nurture us into the world for granted. Having grown up surrounded by battlefields, I used to dismiss the reverence people displayed for this American shrine.

After my grandfather’s passing, I began to read Civil War history to coincide with the epochal 150th anniversaries being commemorated. I read Carl Sandburg’s tomes about a home-spun, rail-splitting dark-horse Republican candidate from the frontier that won the presidency that fall, assembled a “team of rivals” halfway during my junior year winter break, and was sworn in just a couple days before my 21st birthday in March. As I geared up for finals in April, South Carolina fired shots at Fort Sumter.

As I returned to Gettysburg in 2012, I knew the buildup to the battle would be long, so I made a daily habit to check the period newspapers—The New York Herald, The New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated— in “real-time.” I also went on a serious history-reading bender, taking on a challenge from Horse Soldier employee, John Peterson, who offered a Bob Dylan poster as bait. Before I read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, “Lincoln freed the slaves” was a platitude. Before I read Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg, the battlefield was a nice place for a picnic, not a three-day ordeal through the crucible of hell that took place during one July’s opening days.

After you actually learn the true history, rather than the ghost story, you can’t escape the grasp of shared humanity. I gained a greater appreciation of what it means to preserve history. Touring where I had spent my childhood, a Horse Soldier regular, Jerry Bennett, breathed life into the past, pointing out buildings and recounting diary stories from housewives describing my hometown under siege.

So much has changed since Lincoln transformed the war from an inexplicable horror into a global struggle for honor in his dedication of these fields. While many Americans have some personal connection to the Civil War, I’m struck by how many people from outside the country are drawn to where Lincoln declared our country would have a “new birth of freedom.” Lincoln was a wise man ahead of his time, but I am not sure he could have imagined little kids far into the future dressed like him with stovepipe hats and beards.

As for me, I am still pitching in at the store then and now, while pursuing a career in DC. But I am pretty sure I will be behind the counter in July of 2063, helping to commemorate the big bicentennial.

Andrew Small is a journalist living in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

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