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Pinchot Politics

The 1911 prosecution of U.S. Steel was not the first occasion for friction between former President Theodore Roosevelt and his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft.  Most prominent was the firing of Gifford Pinchot in 1910.

Pinchot was the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service.  He had been appointed to this position by Roosevelt in 1905 and was retained by Taft at first.  James R. Garfield, son of assassinated President James A. Garfield, had been Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior.  He was replaced by former Seattle Mayor Richard Ballinger, who had recently served as head of the General Land Office. Pinchot and the outgoing Secretary of the Interior saw eye-to-eye on many issues, but Pinchot and his new boss clashed head-to-head.

Taft hoped to keep Pinchot as part of his Administration, but Pinchot deliberately and publicly opposed Ballinger, and by implication, Taft.  The only choice was to fire Pinchot for insubordination.  Pinchot made sure he spoke with Roosevelt long before Taft could say anything in his own defense.

Taft and Roosevelt had not communicated much since the 1909 Inauguration.  Roosevelt had deliberately gone on a safari.  He did not write to Taft because it would not have been good optics for the former President to do so.  Taft did not write either.  He felt it was necessary to put his own stamp on the Presidency before consulting with his mentor.

If Taft had been regularly consulting with Roosevelt, explaining himself all along, detailing how he was advancing a progressive agenda, he might have kept the former President’s support.  Perhaps Roosevelt would then have felt free to offer timely suggestions, and perhaps if Taft had followed some of those suggestions, he might have been re-elected in 1912.  But this was not to be.




The Colonel and the Judge

President Theodore Roosevelt had the temperament of a military commander and had done his political apprenticeship as state assemblyman and governor of New York.  His successor William Howard Taft had the temperament of a judge and had once been Solicitor General.  He also served as governor-general of the Philippines and as Secretary of War, doing a creditable job in these executive positions.  But he never dreamed about becoming President of the United States.  His dream was to become Chief Justice.

Each had a different leadership style.  Roosevelt micromanaged the departments and agencies of the executive branch.  Taft delegated and gave his cabinet latitude to carry out Administration policy.  Roosevelt’s interference enabled him to maintain a consistent message before the American people.  After all, if the Presidency is the “bully pulpit,” then the executive branch should be the amen corner!  Taft’s management style got him internal results, but it also needlessly divided the Republican Party.

A President cannot simply allow a subordinate to carry out Administration policy with no regard for the political consequences, but that’s exactly what happened when Taft instructed the Justice Department to prosecute U.S. Steel.  The special assistant to the Attorney General was preparing a formidable antitrust suit.  If politics had been a consideration, the Tennessee Coal and Iron aspect of the case might have been set aside in order to spare former President Roosevelt any embarrassment.  He had been deceived by the bankers who overstated the case for U.S. Steel’s acquisition of this supplier.  But the Attorney General was no politician.  Neither was his special assistant, the man who was the de facto prosecutor.  He wasn’t even a Republican!

Roosevelt was outraged.  He had already been disappointed by Taft’s handling of some other issues, and he was beginning to consider whether he should run against his hand-picked successor for the nomination.  Taft had lost the Congress in 1910.  How could he be expected to carry the slate in 1912?






The Bankers and U.S. Steel

President Taft and his predecessor both believed in progressive domestic policies, especially when it came to trust busting.  There were more anti-trust prosecutions during the four years of the Taft administration than during the seven-plus years of the Theodore Roosevelt administration.  Taft did his best to prosecute all businesses which were in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  Roosevelt often merely used the threat of prosecution in order get big business to comply with his wishes in other areas.  Such was the case with U.S. Steel.

During the autumn of 1907, while Roosevelt was still President, there was a financial panic on Wall Street.  Part of the bankers’ proposed solution was for U.S. Steel to save the Moore & Schley brokerage house by purchasing the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.  Since they feared Roosevelt would file an antitrust suit against U.S. Steel, they consulted him, putting the best possible spin on their plan.  Roosevelt went along with the plan and did not prosecute.

In 1911, two years after Roosevelt left office, he testified before Congress and declared in no uncertain terms that he had acted in the public interest regarding U.S. Steel’s purchase of Tennessee Coal and Iron.  But Roosevelt had been deceived by the bankers.  Roosevelt was a smart man, but he was no financial expert.  In a moment of candor he had told a friend: “Of course I can’t know all about everything.  I don’t pretend, for instance, to any technical familiarity with finance.  And I never take any important steps without consulting everybody available who I hope will help me by telling me what they think and why they think it.”

Unfortunately for Roosevelt and for the American people of 1907, the bankers had confused their own self-interest with that of the public.  It was up to Taft to correct the problem, but how could he do that without embarrassing his predecessor?




A Tough Act to Follow

Once, when President Theodore Roosevelt was out of the country and inaccessible, Secretary of War William Howard Taft took steps to reverse a decision Roosevelt had made just before leaving.  Taft did not intend to oppose Roosevelt.  He was responding to political sentiment and was acting in the President’s best interest by anticipating what Roosevelt might have decided if he had remained at hand.  But Roosevelt did not change his mind according to political sentiment.  Taft expressed solidarity with Roosevelt when he wrote: “It is quite embarrassing to me to have it thought that I differ with him on the subject.”

Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, but there was only one Theodore Roosevelt.  Few Presidents had served as long.  Cleveland had served two terms, but they were nonconsecutive.  Grant served eight consecutive years, but his second term had ended thirty-two years before Taft’s inauguration.  Roosevelt served from September 14, 1901 through March 4, 1909.  His energy and length of service had created a strong impression of how a 20th century President might present himself to the public.  People were bound to be disappointed by mere competence unaccompanied by fanfare.

Taft did not help himself by being indifferent to the media of his day.  He believed Roosevelt had spent too much time courting the press.  Was it really necessary to do so much self-promotion?  Why should the President do the media’s job?  Good policy should speak for itself.

Such was the thinking of a man with a judicial rather than a political temperament.  Taft failed to realize that he needed to explain how his policies were enhancing what Roosevelt had begun.  Meanwhile, offering a negative assessment of his policies, Taft’s political enemies were only too happy to speak with the press.




In 1931, two years after the death of 1st Sgt. Mingo Sanders and twelve years after Theodore Roosevelt’s passing, regarding the 1906 raid on Brownsville, author Henry F. Pringle wrote: “unknown Negroes of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry were, in all probability, guilty.”  In the 1940s, Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State declared: “ten or fifteen Negro soldiers… stormed through the city [of Brownsville].”  The 1963 edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia states: “In 1906 a group of Negro soldiers stationed at Ft. Brown… fired indiscriminately at townspeople and houses.”

Then, in the late 1960s, author John D. Weaver wrote The Brownsville Raid, a 300-plus page book which challenged the prevailing narrative.  Weaver’s father had been the official reporter for the 1909 court of inquiry which made the final decision regarding the 167 soldiers who had been discharged without honor.  The Brownsville Raid got the attention of Congress and the White House.

Among Weaver’s readers was Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins, a Democrat from California.  He introduced a bill to re-investigate the matter, and in 1972 the Army declared the members of the 25th Infantry innocent.  Republican President Richard Nixon granted pardons and awarded the men honorable discharges.  In 1973 there was only one man still alive who could benefit from this action, and he received $25,000 from the U.S. Government.  Dorsie Willis died on August 24, 1977.  He was buried at the U.S. Military Cemetery at Fort Snelling, Minnesota with full military honors.




Mingo Sanders

President Theodore Roosevelt had painted himself into a corner.  If he had known more initially, he might have made a different decision, but having made the decision to discharge the entire battalion of black soldiers, he found it impossible to reconsider.  He was instinctively inclusive, but he did not want any special interest to control the government: not big business, not labor, not white Southerners, and not even the blacks who so frequently voted Republican.  By looking at things that way he became blind to the real possibility that the black soldiers formerly stationed at Brownsville, Texas had been innocent of any wrongdoing.

Sentiment counted for nothing with President Roosevelt when a principle was at stake, and former 1st Sgt. Mingo Sanders discovered this to his chagrin.  In Cuba Sanders had saved the Rough Riders from starvation by sharing his men’s rations with Colonel Roosevelt’s men.  Perhaps the Colonel, now President Roosevelt, would grant him an interview to discuss the Brownsville situation.  But Roosevelt believed Sanders had shielded the perpetrators who shot up Brownsville on the night of August 13, 1906.  When Sanders came to Washington to apply for reenlistment, he was not invited to the White House.  When the court of inquiry made the final decision which caused Sanders and others to lose their military pensions, Roosevelt was no longer President.

1st Sgt. Mingo Sanders is buried at Arlington.  He never did receive his military pension.  He and the rest of Companies B, C, and D, 25th Infantry (Colored) were eventually exonerated, but that would not happen until long after most of them were dead.

Flashback to Brownsville

Around midnight August 13/14, 1906 a lot of bullets were fired in Brownsville, Texas.  One man was killed, and one was injured, losing an arm.  The black soldiers stationed nearby were assumed to be the perpetrators, but this was never proven in a court of law.  In fact, no one was ever indicted.

Major Charles W. Penrose, the white officer in charge of the fort, was court-martialed.  He was charged with failure to take measures that would have prevented his black soldiers from shooting up the town.  He was also charged with failure to conduct a proper investigation in order to discover the perpetrators.  Both charges were predicated on the notion that the black soldiers were guilty.  Since this could not be proven, Major Penrose was acquitted.  However, the logic of the situation did not change things in favor of the discharged battalion.

Brownsville’s young Democratic legislator thought it was “preposterous” to think that anyone else could have done the shooting.  Congressman John Nance Garner later became Vice-President of the United States for two terms.  The Republican President also assumed the black soldiers were guilty.  He believed that although only a handful of soldiers were involved, most of the battalion knew who had done the shooting.  When no one gave up the perpetrators, the investigators were ready to charge the entire battalion with violation of the military code of conduct.

But no one could tell what he did not know, and as further investigation would reveal, the timelines, physical evidence, and motivations of the black soldiers did not align with the prevailing narrative.  Some of the noncommissioned officers were men of the highest character.  Among these was 1st Sergeant Mingo Sanders, who had served in Cuba the same time as Colonel Roosevelt.  During that time Sgt. Sanders had done something for which his current Commander-in-Chief owed him a debt of gratitude.