A Trial in Syracuse

Apr 19, 2011

On April 19, 1915, a libel suit long in the making finally began in Syracuse, New York. Boss William Barnes had sued Theodore Roosevelt for libel, because a year earlier Roosevelt had publicly called Barnes “a political boss of the most obnoxious type.” The trial was moved to the Supreme Court in Syracuse to give both men an impartial jury as it was feared if the trial were held in Albany County, the jury would be skewed in favor of Barnes.

The trial began badly for the former president. The judge placed the burden of proof on Roosevelt to prove his innocence. He believed the burden should have fallen to Barnes. While Roosevelt admitted to his son Kermit that the judge was fair—if a bit legalistic—he was frustrated by the proceedings as a whole and surprised when, on May 22, 1915, the judge ruled in his favor.

It is clear from his letter to Kermit that the trial took its toll on Theodore Roosevelt coming, as it did, on top of Edith Roosevelt’s health problems and the worsening situation in the European war.

(An entire transcript of the letter can be found below the image)

Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 2002), 454-456.
“Roosevelt-Barnes Trial on Tomorrow,” New York Times, April 18, 1915, accessed by ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007) on April 11, 2011.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, May 27, 1915, MS Am 1541 (251), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, May 27, 1915, MS Am 1541 (251), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.

Transcript of the Letter:

May 27th, 1915

Dearest Belle and Kermit:

Well, the utterly unexpected happened and I got the verdict. The jury stood 11 to 1 in my favor, the one man hanging out that the costs ought to be divided between Barnes and myself; but after twenty four hours further time they came in unanimous for me. It took over five weeks. The judge was a man of entire integrity and honesty but of a legalistic turn of mind and he ruled out most of my evidence; but he finally did send us to the jury. The jury evidently decided primarily upon the estimate it formed of me during the nine days I was on the witness stand and of Barnes during the four days he was on the witness stand. They were five weeks of great strain and even though I have won it will cost between thirty and forty thousand dollars. But the result was a great triumph, and I am bound that there shall be no more libel suits as far as I am concerned, and for the present at least no further active participation in politics for me.

As I wrote to a friend, in politics I have now become like an engine in a snow storm; I have plowed my way through until I have accumulated so much snow on the cow catcher that it has brought me to a halt. If I can get at men personally, as in the case of this jury, for a sufficient length of time, I can get most of them, if they are decent men, to come to my side; but the consistent and vicious attacks made upon me for many years have had a cumulative effect; and the majority of our people are bound now that I shall not come back into public life. They would welcome Barnes or Murphy, Wilson or Bryan, Penrose or anyone else rather than me; I am writing this at length to some of my friends. I am sending you a copy of a piece by a man who is a real friend of mine in the Times, which to my mind puts the facts as they ought to be put.

As I wrote you, the Wilkinsons were simply trumps. I was their guest all the five weeks and it was a very great thing to me to be in their house and not at the hotel. Toward the end both Barnes and his counsel, Ivines, began to show the strain and they did not wait to hear the verdict, I think from sheer nervous breakdown. I was pretty nervous myself but I stayed in the court room, for I was going to take the gaff without flinching if I had to.

Ethel and Ted and Dick met me at the train when I came back and Lee drove me out home, where Mother and Eleanor were waiting for me. Eleanor is here with both the babies and Ted usually comes out in the evenings and spends the night.

I got home late Saturday. Mother and Archie had purchased a magnificent horse for me. But, alas, they had failed to realize that a horse I would have liked thirty years ago and that you or Ted or Archie would like now would not be a horse that I could handle at present. Lee and Howard combined were wholly unable to keep him down for me to mount when he was brought to the front door and before I could get my right foot into the stirrup, as I move slowly and clumsily, I was pitched off and broke two ribs. Lee could not get on him himself at the front door, even with Howard holding him, and has to mount him some distance down the road. I shall not be able to ride for a month and then I shall have to try to get a horse that will let me get on him, and not this one – really fine animal though he is.

I am sending you two or three letters that I think may amuse you, one by Copley Amory, who is having a very stirring time in North Siberia; one by Mason Mitchell, who was wounded in my regiment and who is American Consul in Samoa; and one by Lewis Einstein, who is at Constantinople. You might return them to me when you are through. How I wish I could see you both!

Your loving father,


P.S. Since writing the above two letters of yours have come; each is absolutely innocent of a date; you do not even go as far as darling Mother used to when she would write me to Africa under the date of some such date as “Tuesday” or “Thursday”. In your case I should think that for business reasons it would seem worth while to put the date on – but perhaps South American business manners are different!

These are the letters about Bailey and what he said to you concerning the Sao Paolo Bank. Naturally I am as pleased as Punch. I understand perfectly that nothing may come of it; and I shall only speak to Mother and Ted about the matter. But it does seem to me that it would be an ideal arrangement. You ought to have at least six months more under Allen, so as to get thoroughly acquainted with the inside work of the bank; they you would be fit to do work under the best possible conditions at Sao Paolo. I hope Vanderlip will accept Bailey’s view; and I am extremely glad that Allen seems to approve. Really nothing could be better and I do hope the plan works out well.

If I were President, this country would not be at war with Germany, unless Germany had completely backed down, which, as a matter of fact, I think she probably would have done. Whether Wilson and Bryan will gradually drift us into war, simply because they are such abject cowards that they cannot keep us out of it, I do not know and nobody else does. After the attacks I made on the management of the Navy last November, Daniels was forced to wake up and there has been some maneuvering of the Navy recently. The ships have done badly and it has been made evident that our Navy is not at all in the condition it should be; but the very conditions of the blunders shows that we are learning our lesson and so the Navy is being put in somewhat better shape. But, thanks to the incredible weakness and folly of Wilson – a weakness and folly of which the bulk of our people approve, as is but natural when they are misled by the President – not one step has been taken toward rendering our land forces more efficient. Just think of the fact that Wilson and Bryan have announced or let it be announced that they won’t take any steps to do so for fear Germany may think that it means that we are going to war with her. They are the most contemptible creatures that within my memory we have had in the White House. They are not any more foolish than Taft and no more amenable to bad suggestion than Taft was. But Taft was also amenable to good suggestion; and these two are not. The very fact they have stronger characters than Taft make them at present rather more dangerous, Inasmuchas they have the same folly and timidity and shiftiness.

Posted by Krystal Thomas on Apr 19, 2011 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (2)  |  Share this post

janice stone said,

My grandfather Ray Tanned was on jury.

Joseph Fielding said,

My grandfather, Edward Burns, was on the jury and was initially a holdout.

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