Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Hanover Square Press
Copyright 2019 by the authors
Even after his failed campaign to retake the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was not one to retire quietly like other former presidents. Even when age kept him from the “strenuous life” that he had long championed, he was still writing and speaking out against corruption in government.
In 1914, Roosevelt came out in support of Harvey D. Hinman, a progressive Republican, for the governorship of New York. Party boss William Barnes Jr. supported his opponent, Charles Seymour Whitman. In July, Roosevelt published a screed where he accused – in no uncertain terms – Barnes and Tammany Hall boss Charles Francis Murphy of corruption and conspiring to thwart the will of the people.
Murphy let the attack go – either he was used to such criticism, or perhaps he felt discretion was the better part of valor given his opponent. Barnes, however, took the attack seriously. He sued Roosevelt for libel.
Abrams and Fisher, fresh off the success of Lincoln’s Last Trial, dive headlong into the massive press coverage of Barnes v. Roosevelt and do something amazing: they make a libel trial fascinating! Well, OK, given who the defendant was, it shouldn’t have been too hard. But they still manage to weave in a bit of biography of Roosevelt, a look at the history of libel laws, and a bit on how civil trials like this one are conducted.
The trial came down to the traditional matter of “It’s not libel if it’s true”. So everything turned on being able to persuade the jury that the preponderance of evidence showed that yes, Barnes was indeed corrupt. The trial quickly focused on two charges: Did Barnes really and improperly persuade a legislator to change his vote on one particular bill? And did he really benefit from a deal about a government printing contract? Fairly minor stuff, actually, and the sort of things we always expect politicians to be doing. But can you convince twelve ordinary men that it’s a big deal?
Abrams and Fisher sorted through the reams of press reportage on this “Trial of the Century” to put it all into a clear and exciting narrative. Newspapers all over the country reported on it; somehow it did not become a circus. The legal teams refrained from theatrics (with Roosevelt’s outsized personality in the courtroom, nothing else was needed), and the judge did his best (the authors question some of his procedural decisions, but do not fault him for anything they disagree with) to keep things moving along with all due decorum. The authors keep it moving along as well, without getting bogged down in legal minutiae.
I didn’t get much sense as to how this trial was a “battle” over Roosevelt’s legacy. Other than a potentially ruinous financial penalty, it doesn’t seem like he had anything to lose with this trial. True, Barnes was alleging that the attack was partly revenge for his not supporting Roosevelt in his presidential bid in 1912, and also that Roosevelt was equally guilty of the same sort of corruption that he was accusing Barnes of having done. There was no way any of that was going to stick, though. Perhaps it’s just the fault of the authors for not stressing it enough, or the publisher overdoing things with the title. It’s pretty much a given at the outset that Roosevelt was going to win, so there’s little real suspense involved on that end. Abrams and Fisher still tell the tale well enough to keep you riveted.
Getting into the details of Barnes’ political shenanigans gives a great look at the inner workings of state level politics at the time – and how politics is still a lot like that. Reading this account of the trial, one has to wonder what Theodore Roosevelt would have to say about today’s political climate. My guess is that he would not be pleased.