Friday, March 28, 2014

Roosevelt Storms Marquette

By John Fierst

Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party when he ran as a Progressive in the election of 1912. The split led to the Democrat Woodrow Wilson taking the White House. It was an unusual campaign, to say the least, which included an attempt on Roosevelt’s life. John Flamming Schrank, who shot Roosevelt as the candidate was leaving the Gilpatrick Hotel in Milwaukee, claimed the ghost of William McKinley had directed him to do so. Roosevelt shrugged off the wound as not serious (though the bullet remained in his chest the rest of his life). What he could not shrug off so easily were the many attempts at character assassination that dogged him throughout the campaign, especially the repeated charge that he was a drunkard.

Roosevelt finally decided to do something about the charge of drunkenness and to silence, once and for all, the libelous press. He made his stand in, of all places, Marquette, Michigan, where he brought suit against George Newett, an Ishpeming newspaper publisher. Newett had charged in the local paper, The Iron Ore, that Roosevelt lied, cursed, and drank to excess. Roosevelt gathered together a host of supporters, and they made their way to the small shipping port on Lake Superior. There, Roosevelt’s lawyer, James H. Pound, took command of the courthouse and overwhelmed the defense with character witnesses and expert opinion.

Pound began his defense of Roosevelt’s moral character by examining Roosevelt himself:
Q. Now, I wish you would describe in your own way to the jury, what, if any, use you make of liquors, spirituous or malt, since your manhood, in your recollection.

A. I do not drink either whiskey or brandy, except as I shall hereafter say, except as I drink it under the direction of a doctor; I do not drink beer; I sometimes drink light wine.

Q. Let me ask you right there, have you ever indulged in porter on any occasion?

A. I never drank liquor or porter or anything of that kind. I have never drunk a high-ball or cocktail in my life. I have sometimes drunk mint juleps in the White House. There was a bed of mint there, and I may have drunk half a dozen mint juleps a year, and certainly no more.

Then followed a train of twenty-five character witnesses. Among them were: two former Rough Riders; an admiral and an ex-secretary of the Nary; a member of the Associated Press; a naturalist from the Smithsonian; members of the United State Secret Service; the social reformer Jacob A. Riis; President Garfield’s son James, who had once served as Secretary of the Interior; Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the United States Forest Service; Dr. Alexander Lambert, Roosevelt’s family physician, and Dr. P.M. Rixey, Surgeon General of the United States; All these and many more either took the stand or, like Roosevelt’s butler and his former barber, submitted written depositions, testifying to TR’s abstemiousness.

Under this barrage of high-mindedness Newett was brought low—bully!—and he recanted. Roosevelt then waived his right to damages. He had waged this battle on moral grounds and had achieved his purpose before God and the electorate. Hence forward U.S. presidential campaigns would be free of gossip and slander.

One of the witnesses, the New York banker W. Emlyn Roosevelt, a cousin and close friend of Roosevelt, later had the transcript of the successful suit privately published. Recently the Clarke Historical Library acquired a copy of this publication: Roosevelt vs. Newett: A Transcript of the Testimony Taken and Depositions Read at Marquette, Mich. It is 361 pages long. A letter signed by Roosevelt and addressed to Dr. Albert Shaw, the editor of the “Review of Reviews” and one of the men who submitted a written deposition at the trial, is tipped into the front of the book, indicating that originally this was Shaw’s own copy.

Portion of the testimony of Jacob Riis
in Roosevelt vs. Newett
The book has value beyond being a description of the trial. Pound fashioned his questions to establish the credibility of the witnesses. He asked questions that explored their backgrounds and explained their relationships to Roosevelt. Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives was a great admirer of Roosevelt, and earlier he had praised Roosevelt in a campaign biography: Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. Riis’s firsthand testimony, given in Marquette, reveals more than his distant respect for Roosevelt. It makes clear the strength of the bond of friendship between the two men.

With the Clarke Historical Library’s interest in Michigan history and presidential campaign biographies, Roosevelt vs. Newett has found a welcome home in the Clarke collection.