Upon the assassination of William McKinley, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt (aka “The Bull Moose”) became our nation’s youngest president in 1901, serving in the office until 1909. He was considered a national hero with a robust personality.
Throughout his early life, Roosevelt overcame health challenges and eventually attended Harvard. In 1898, he resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to lead the First U.S. Voluntary Cavalry (known as the Rough Riders) during the Spanish American War. He later traveled the world exploring great rivers for scientific purposes and even wrote a popular book on the War of 1812, among others.
Prior to being president, Roosevelt was a member of the New York State Legislature and elected governor of New York. After his presidency, he traveled the Amazon region of Brazil, wrote essays and history books, toured the country for war bonds, and even won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1915, William Barnes, the well-known conservative head of New York’s Republican Party, astonished the country by suing Roosevelt (a progressive) for defamation.
The suit, which alleged $50,000 in damages — the equivalent of $1 million today — was based on a written statement Roosevelt had given to the press the year prior criticizing Barnes. It accused him and his Democratic Party counterpart, Charles Murphy, of collaborating in an “invisible government” built on an “alliance between crooked business and crooked politics.” Roosevelt asserted Barnes was corrupt and was working secretly to undercut the will of the people.
The high-profile trial was moved from Albany to Syracuse and began on April 19,1915. It lasted six weeks, stunning the nation and drawing hundreds of spectators to the courtroom. The Bull Moose testified for eight days, his ebullient and dramatic personality shining throughout.
John M. Bowers was lead counsel for Roosevelt, and William M. Ivins represented Barnes. They were both highly regarded trial lawyers. Counsel articulated their positions during opening statements. Ivins stressed on behalf of Barnes that the statements about him were blatantly false, seriously damaging his reputation and political status.
Roosevelt’s defense was truth, with Bowers’ opening statement emphasizing how Roosevelt fought for the common people and how Barnes stood for the organization machine. Counsel reminded the jury of known corruption and mismanagement in state government, and Roosevelt’s opposition to it.
To prove the libel statement was made by Roosevelt, plaintiff’s first witness was his private secretary, John McGrath.
Q: Did you hand this statement to the newspaper reporters?
A: I did.
Q: At whose direction?
A: At the direction of Theodore Roosevelt.
Ivins then entered into evidence a long list of newspapers that published the statement. Surprisingly, counsel then rested the plaintiff’s case, but then decided to call Roosevelt to ask whether he had written the statement. Roosevelt promptly responded yes, causing laughter among the spectators.
It was up to the defense to prove the statement was true. Van Benschoten, co-counsel with Bowers, explained how the evidence would show corruption and mismanagement in state government involving Barnes. The trial judge, Judge Andrews, interrupted to remind counsel not to present his closing argument.
Bowers then began his direct examination of Roosevelt. Over numerous objections, the jury heard Roosevelt testify about his relationship with Barnes and the disagreements they had.
Q: Did you intend in that article to make any charge of corruption against Mr. Barnes?
A: No. I intended to state there was corruption and rottenness in the state government and that it was due to the dominance of the methods in political life typified and represented by Barnes and Mr. Murphy and by the way the two machines … had worked together at certain points where their interests were in common and adverse to the interests of the public as a whole.
During the trial, defendant’s distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt testified about a disagreement he had with Barnes. Stepping down from the witness chair, he heartedly shook hands with the defendant. At one point, defendant Roosevelt testified about conversations he’d had with Barnes regarding corruption in politics. The judge permitted Roosevelt to explain his state of mind when he made his allegedly defamatory statement to the press.
Closing arguments were stirring, and it was not obvious at the time which party would prevail. Ivins attacked Roosevelt whom he described as testifying “not only with his mouth, but also with his teeth, his hands and his head.” Moreover, the defendant often would respond, “I don’t remember.” Bowers focused on the truth of the statement based on testimony of the witnesses, including the two Roosevelts.
The jury took several ballots over two days, eventually returning a verdict in favor of defendant Roosevelt. The public was jubilant.
(Source and recommended book: “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense,” Dan Abrams and David Fisher, Hanover Square Press, 2019.)
Paul Mark Sandler, trial attorney and author, can be reached at [email protected].