Columbia Library columns (v.42(1992Nov-1993May))

(New York :  Friends of the Columbia Libraries.  )



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  v.42,no.2(1993:Feb): Page 23  

Scandal in the Headlines
Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal


In 1908 a political scandal unfolded in American newspapers.
Journalists questioned the United States government's finan¬
cial and military role in the acquisition of the rights to the Pan¬
ama Canal, and accusations of corruption in the Roosevelt adminis¬
tration flew. At the center of this scandal was William McMurtie
Speer, a forty-three-year-old editorial writer for the New York

On December 8, 1908, Speer wrote an editorial that infuriated
President Theodore Roosevelt and shocked the nation. In this
"history-making editorial," Speer all but calls Roosevelt a liar and
suggests a full-scale congressional investigation of the Panama Canal
acquisition. Speer writes, "... the fact that Theodore Roosevelt as
President of the United States issues a public statement about such
an important matter full of flagrant untruths, reeking with misstate¬
ments, challenging line by line the testimony of his associate...
makes it imperative that full publicity come at once through the
authority and by the action of Congress."

Roosevelt was so angered by the VV&rW editorial and articles in the
Indianapolis News that a week later he read a special message before
Congress recommending the government sue the New York World
and the Indianapolis News for libel. The legal battle that followed
became a blot on Roosevelt's political record and a champion cause
for First Amendment freedom of the press.

Speer's notes and records of the Panama libel case were recently
acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. A gift from
Mrs. Ann Satterthwaite, the collection totals eleven thousand items
relating to Speer's many-faceted career: journalist, public official,
lawyer, inventor, businessman, publisher, and author. The papers
pertaining to the Panama libel case clearly show Speer to have been

  v.42,no.2(1993:Feb): Page 23