The libel trial of Theodore Roosevelt

June 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

Imagine a libel trial featuring an ex-president as the defendant and a future president testifying on his behalf.

That happened in 1915, more than six years after Theodore Roosevelt had left the office that he loved more than any other. He spent most of his energy, which was considerable, and his waking hours trying to regain that position, running as the Bull Moose Party candidate in 1912 and losing to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt had a battering-ram personality, and while many people loved him for his dedication to reform and his fierce hold on his beliefs, others saw him as an arch-enemy, including some within his own Republican Party.

One of those was William Barnes, chairman of the New York State Republican Party. Barnes and Roosevelt had known each other for years and had worked together on some issues when Roosevelt was a state legislator. But Barnes had built a political machine in the New York capital city of Albany. Roosevelt saw machine politics as corrupt by nature, and he saw no reason to withhold judgment about William Barnes.

Roosevelt and Barnes found themselves on opposite sides in 1912 when Roosevelt tried to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from his former protege, William Howard Taft. They also opposed each other by backing different candidates in the 1914 gubernatorial election in New York. Roosevelt accused Barnes of being corrupt and working with the Democratic Tammany Hall organization to block progressive reforms that people wanted.

Barnes’ candidate won the election, but Barnes wasn’t satisfied. He decided to go after Roosevelt himself. He should have left well enough alone.

At that time, the burden of proof in a libel trial rested on the person who was being sued. In his testimony, Roosevelt never denied that he called Barnes corrupt. Instead, he set out to prove that what he had said about Barnes was true. He and his legal team provided unsavory details about some of the deals that Barnes had made with the boss of the Tammany organization. Roosevelt also asked his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, then Under Secretary of the Navy, to testify on his behalf. Franklin Roosevelt had served in the New York State Senate and had firsthand knowledge of Barnes’ wheeling and dealing.

The jury took two days to return a verdict, but that was only because one juror believed that trial costs should be evenly divided. All of the jurors voted to acquit Roosevelt.

The trial essentially ended Barnes’ political influence and career. For Roosevelt, it did the opposite. The trial, which was covered by newspapers around the country, put him back in the national spotlight. He declined the Progressive Party’s presidential nomination and campaigned for Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, who barely lost to Wilson.

Roosevelt died in 1919. Many believed that had he lived, he would have been nominated for president by the Republicans in 1920.

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