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Teddy Roosevelt Got Sued for Libel. He Said He ‘Enjoyed’ the Trial

May 15, 2019 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Author and legal expert Dan Abrams talks to HISTORY about his new book Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy.

It was the trial of the century. Or so it seemed in April 1915, when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt and one-time New York Republican Party boss William Barnes squared off in a Syracuse, New York courtroom. Barnes was the plaintiff, Roosevelt the defendant. The charge was libel, based on a written statement Roosevelt had released to the newspapers, accusing Barnes and his Democratic Party counterpart, Charles Murphy, of collaborating in an “invisible government” built on an “alliance between crooked business and crooked politics.”

Before the trial was over, Roosevelt would occupy the witness chair for eight consecutive days, 38 ½ hours in all, perhaps the longest time that the famously energetic ex-president ever sat still. But true to form, he played to the jury as if it was his audience at a campaign rally, becoming so animated on the stand that the plaintiff’s lead attorney objected to his “gesticulation” and asked the judge to restrain him. The judge, knowing that was probably impossible, declined. Newspaper reporters, meanwhile, filled column after column of type with his every word.

Little more than a century later, the case is all but forgotten. “Despite the fact that it made headlines everywhere for six weeks, the trial has somehow become a footnote to history,” marvels Dan Abrams, who, with coauthor David Fisher, aims to change that in the new book Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy.

Abrams, who is also the chief legal-affairs correspondent for ABC News and host of “Live PD” on A&E, recently talked about the case with History.com.’

HISTORY: As you point out in the book, lots of trials have been hyped as the ‘trial of the century’—including the O.J. Simpson case, which you covered. What made Barnes v. Roosevelt rise to that level?

Dan Abrams: When you have a former president of the United States testifying for eight days, I think that inevitably you’re going to get widespread attention. But this wasn’t just any president, it was Teddy Roosevelt. And Teddy Roosevelt, whether you loved him or hated him, was a character.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Teddy Roosevelt

Now that the 20th century is behind us, do you have a pick for the true trial …read more


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