The Press vs. Theodore Roosevelt

February 12, 2024
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"President says Mr. Joseph Pulitzer is to be sued for libel by government" December 16, 1908, Library of Congress

On Thursday, March 4, 1909, half an hour after President Theodore Roosevelt departed the White House and shortly before President-Elect William Howard Taft was sworn in, fourteen indictments from a grand jury in the state of New York were issued in a case of the United States Government against the Press Publishing Company: Theodore Roosevelt was suing Joseph Pulitzer for libel. Roosevelt was using his executive privilege to shield an outgoing president (himself) and an incoming president (Taft) from allegations of corruption by Pulitzer’s newspaper The World over his most esteemed achievement, the Panama Canal.  How did the president best known for availing himself of the power of the press – curating news for the American public and cultivating his image and legacy – end up suing the most famous journalist in a doomed case that went all the way to – and was ultimately dismissed by -the Supreme Court? 

The lawsuit, in fact, was the final salvo in a battle that had locked Roosevelt and Pulitzer into a decades-long feud. Since at least 1895, Roosevelt had expressed his desire to take down Pulitzer, who had consistently used his ever-growing media empire to promote anti-Roosevelt rhetoric. After earlier faltered attempts to imprison his nemesis, Roosevelt, in the twilight of his presidency, exploited his presidential power; instead of suing Pulitzer for libeling his character, Roosevelt shrewdly sued Pulitzer’s company on behalf of the United States Government.

The Democratic Pulitzer and the Republican Roosevelt had been exchanging spicy insults throughout the years such as “humbug,”  and “communist,” over small things like the blue laws, and more important issues, such as labor laws.{1} In truth, they agreed more than they disagreed, and their similar visions of a Progressive America would have made them an excellent team had they been able to set aside their egos. There was, however, one irreconcilable difference between Roosevelt and Pulitzer, and it cut to the core of the Panama Canal issue: Imperialism. 

Roosevelt grew up wistfully imagining his uncles’ service in the Confederate navy (though he rejected the Confederacy and worshipped Lincoln), and was eager to prove himself a warrior. He would later go on to be America’s greatest advocate of imperialism, openly glorifying war, from the Spanish-American War to annexing Hawaii, to urging the United States to enter World War I. Pulitzer, on the other hand, was a Hungarian Jew, born a year after the Revolutions of 1848,  whose consciousness was shaped by the recurring wars and violence that seemed to roil Europe constantly. Moreover, Pulitzer had visited and reported on Germany during Bismarck’s reign, where he was appalled at the militarism, as well as the demagoguery and populism that then swept Germany, and appeared to be making its way into American culture. At every opportunity, Pulitzer harshly criticized the jingoism – he called it “Rooseveltism” – that was on the march under Roosevelt’s tenure.

Pulitzer was not the first man in America to grasp the political power of the press, but he was certainly the first individual who succeeded in harnessing it. He was essentially a kingmaker, and his paper not only predicted which way the political winds were blowing, but they impacted them. Politicians understood how much weight Pulitzer’s editorials carried with the American public, and as a result, Pulitzer was often courted but always feared. Pulitzer’s relentless criticisms of America’s wealthy industrialists created prominent enemies for him, including J.P. Morgan, who brokered the Panama Canal acquisition.

Ahead of the 1908 election day, Pulitzer’s paper, The World, revived the earlier corruption rumors that initially followed the 1902 purchase of the Panama Canal. Roosevelt’s Republican successor, Taft, was expected to win: and Pulitzer’s Democratic newsroom decided that the public should know about the alleged Republican corruption surrounding the Panama Canal. 

The reported allegation was that, while the American government had paid $40 million for the rights to the Canal Zone to the French Government, half the money actually went to a syndicate of private American citizens who comprised the New Panama Canal Company. {2} Adding fuel to the conspiratorial fire, the New Panama Canal Company stockholders’ names were withheld in a Senate hearing, and the payment record between the American and French governments had supposedly been destroyed. All of the members of the American syndicate were Republicans and many gave exorbitant donations to the party. 

When the story resurfaced in The World, Pulitzer, who was by now mostly blind and in failing health, was on his yacht halfway across the world. To his horror, his staff had no proof of the rumors that had dogged the Canal project since 1902. Ironically, Roosevelt had equally as little of a case against Pulitzer. He launched a two-pronged legal offensive against Pulitzer – one in New York, the other in Washington, D.C. – above the protestations of his Attorney General and the New York District Attorney. Roosevelt dashed off a lengthy special message to Congress in which he accused Pulitzer of “blackening the name of the American people” and called it a “high national duty” to bring to justice the man who betrayed both his government -and the private individuals it comprised- by accusing it of corruption.  

The case was thrown out by the state of New York and was appealed by President Taft and so went to the Supreme Court in October of 1910, which suited both Roosevelt and Pulitzer’s appetite for drama and public vindication. Eight weeks later, the case was thrown out on the grounds that federal libel could not be substantiated solely because a newspaper critical of the government had circulated on federal property. Roosevelt’s grand design had failed, and Pulitzer’s fashioning of his Supreme Court victory as a triumph of the freedom of the press was writ bold in his headline “The World Cannot be Muzzled.” 

Pulitzer died nine months later, and both the case and the drama were soon forgotten. What should not be forgotten is that Pulitzer’s embodiment of the American dream is just as much a testament to his achievements as to the country itself. That a seventeen-year-old could arrive on the shores of the United States alone and empty-handed to become one of the great shapers of the American political landscape is impressive by any metric. But the fact that he could continuously face off against a scion of one of the establishment’s most storied families with the legal system ultimately siding with him speaks to why a young man would leave everything behind to build a life in his adopted country.

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  1. [1]
    During Roosevelt’s tenor as New York Police Commissioner, he was tasked with enforcing the blue laws, which restricted the serving of alcohol in public taverns on Sundays. This highlighted a class discrepancy: private clubs, such as Roosevelt and the city’s elite attended, were permitted to serve alcohol. Pulitzer pilloried Roosevelt’s “nagging and exasperating activity in preventing the hard-working laborer from getting a pitcher of beer for his Sunday dinner,” and went as far as to compile statistics of the crimes committed during Roosevelt’s tenure as Police Commissioner in order to insinuate that the preoccupation with the blue laws came at the expense of the public well-being.
  2. [2]
    Peirce, Clyde. “The Panama Libel Cases.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 33, no. 2, 1937, pp. 171–86. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Jan. 2024.