Last updated: August 3, 2022
“When we save nature we save up an un-diminishing hoard of peace and joy for millions who will never hear of us. If we have enjoyed let us pass the joy on. For our debt to the past can be paid in no other way.”
William Kent’s early life was spent in Chicago and Marin County. His father, Albert, came from a prosperous farming family in Connecticut and attended Yale. He built a family fortune, with businesses scattered from New York to St. Louis.
After the great Chicago fire of 1871, the elder Kent moved his family to Marin County. There, young William learned to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded him. William continued the family tradition of a Yale education. Which impacted his life in many ways. The most important being it is where he met his wife, Elizabeth Thacher.
After graduation, Kent moved his family to Chicago to oversee his father’s business interests. There, he became the candidate for alderman of the Municipal Voters League to fight corruption in city politics. A Republican, Kent joined the “Progressive” wing of the Party. Which consisted primarily of men like himself: wealthy, well-educated professionals
The Kent's traveled to Marin in 1903 after an economic downturn impacted the family's fortune. While there, a friend took them to Redwood Canyon, urging them to buy the grove and protect the majestic trees. At the time, much of the surrounding land was being plundered for timber and commercial use. Hesitant, the couple did buy all 611-acres for $45,000, “the lowest possible price… for preservation and not for exploitation.”
In 1907, Redwood Canyon was under threat again – this time from a company that sought to exploit it for water. Arguing the resource was more important than tourism. To preserve their land, Kent went to Gifford Pinchot. President Theodore Roosevelt had appointed Pinchot head of the newly formed Forest Service. The Kent's sought to save the pristine redwood grove by donating it to the federal government.
Invoking the Preservation of American Antiquities Act, Pinchot brought the conflict to Roosevelt’s attention. In 1908, the President accepted the land and named the grove Muir Woods National Monument. After the Kent's requested it be named for family friend and conservationist John Muir.
Due to Kent's experience fighting corruption in Chicago, he was recruited in to the San Francisco Good Government League. By 1910, he decided to run for Congress. A member of the Progressive party, his political allies strongly supported him, and he went on to represent California in the House of Representatives for three terms.
In 1915, Kent took thirty Congressional members and their wives to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. He served them lunch in the gorgeous natural setting of Muir Woods. By the next session of Congress, he had authored and secured the passage of the National Park Service Act.
He also supported the Nineteenth Amendment. Likely influenced by his wife Elizabeth, a suffragist. William stated in Congress “all people should have the right to vote, and a woman is a person.” Although they agreed on suffrage, the couple disagreed on approach. William was supportive when she was lobbying, and organizing Congressional hearings for women’s right. But he did not appreciate Elizabeth's use of militant tactics, protesting, and frequent arrest.
Along with suffrage and conservation, Kent carried racist views into the halls of Congress. During his campaigns, he ranted against Asian Americans, proclaiming: “We must exclude Asiatics.” Backed by the Oriental Exclusion League, many whites-only labor unions and headline driven newspapers. In a quote to a local newspaper Kent proudly states: “I have been writing and talking about the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country for the last 30 years.”
Once in Congress he helped push through policies that barred Asian immigrants from owning land, becoming U.S. citizens and entering the country. Although the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was already in place, Kent supported the law’s extension.
After serving three terms, Kent left Congress to pursue a U.S. Senate seat. During his campaign speech, he stated:
“We who happen to be of English descent are proud and happy in the fact that the country from which we came was not overrun by successions of peoples yellow and black and indiscriminate in their breeding.”
He ultimately lost that Senate race. But he did not disappear from political life. President Woodrow Wilson, whom he had campaigned for, appointed Kent to the National Tariff Board in 1920.
Though marked by some great environmental achievements, William Kent's initiatives centered whiteness. Educated and prosperous, Kent felt entitled to the privilege's society provided for him and his family. He believed in – and indeed, helped create – a world, in which whites of European descent were superior.
Some may wish to dismiss or excuse his racism; asserting he was merely a product of his day. But that perspective ignores the prominent leaders and politicians of the time who scorned his xenophobia. And diminishes the impact Kent's policies had on vulnerable communities both then and now.
Kent died on March 13, 1928 in Kentfield, California from pneumonia. He was survived by Elizabeth, five sons, two daughters, and ten grandchildren.