Late last year the idiosyncratic literary journal Lapham’s Quarterly published an exchange of letters from 1908 between then-president Theodore Roosevelt and philanthropist William Kent. TR was writing to thank Kent for his recent donation of some three hundred acres of land to the federal government, land that would become the Muir Woods National Monument. Roosevelt, remembered as the first ‘green’ president, was unsurprisingly chuffed to bits over the gift. He thanked Kent “most heartily for this singularly generous and public-spirited action.” But in response to the businessman’s stated desire that the land grant be named after the Scottish-American conservationist John Muir, the President expressed some puzzlement. “I have very great admiration for John Muir,” Roosevelt assured Kent, “but after all, my dear sir, this is your gift. No other land than that which you give is included in this tract […] and I should greatly like to name the monument the Kent Monument if you will permit it.” Kent’s reply came the next week:
“Your kind suggestion of a change of name is not one that I can accept. So many millions of better people have died forgotten that to stencil one’s own name on a benefaction seems to carry with it an implication of mandate immortality, as being something purchasable.”
Kent went on:
“I have five good, husky boys that I am trying to bring up to a knowledge of democracy and to a realizing sense of the rights of the ‘other fellow’ […] If these boys cannot keep the name of Kent alive, I am willing it should be forgotten.”
Roosevelt’s reply was short and issued within a few days. “By George! you are right.” Kent understood something simple and profound about the sort of public culture needed to sustain democratic sensibilities. Public spiritedness requires more than simple generosity—rather it needs the redirection of adoration and attention towards persons and symbols of common interest. Philanthropy, inasmuch as it seeks to buttress this common good, must forsake its pretense to ‘purchasable immortality.’

Photo credit: US Department of State via / CC BY-NC