In 1894, with his Cornell law degree in hand, Sherman Moreland returned home to Van Etten, in northeastern Chemung County, poised for a career as a country lawyer.
Not for long.
The political bug bit and by 1903 he held a seat in the New York State Assembly, the first stop in a whirlwind career that took him to the Philippines, a near miss at a presidential cabinet appointment and a major role in one of the 20th century’s most celebrated trials.
Moreland was born in 1868, the seventh of eight children of Chauncey and Nancy Simpson Moreland. She claimed ties to Hannah Simpson Grant, mother of Ulysses Grant.
Chauncey worked as a mason and died when Sherman was 5.
“They lived in a log cabin and Granddad worked at a nearby bark mill while attending local schools,” recalled Sherman Moreland III, 75, a recently retired attorney living in Horseheads.
Moreland tended furnaces for Cornell President Andrew White and later added law school professor Charles Evans Hughes as a client. Hughes would have a profound influence on Moreland’s future.
“People encouraged my grandfather to enter politics because he could leave an audience spellbound, and in those days being an accomplished orator was a major plus for a young politician,” Sherman III said.
Moreland also came to the attention of J. Sloat Fassett of Elmira, a former state senator and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1891, who represented Chemung County in Congress from 1905 to 1911.
With Fassett’s backing, Moreland won an Assembly seat and served from 1903 through 1907. Moreland’s Republican colleagues elected him majority leader for his final two years in Albany despite his inexperience.
A Mover and Shaker
Hughes, Moreland’s former law professor, was now governor and the pair teamed up to give the young legislator his first shot at notoriety. Hughes ran on an anti-corruption platform, building on his work as counsel to a legislative committee investigating New York’s insurance department.
In April 1907, Moreland introduced a bill authorizing the governor “at any time…to examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission of the state.”
Moreland’s proposal gave the governor subpoena power, enabling him to question witnesses under oath. The legislation also applied to local governments and required the governor to appoint investigating boards at least every three years.
In his 1946 book, The Moreland Act – Executive Inquiry in the State of New York, Brooklyn College Professor J. Ellswerth Missall writes that foes attacked the bill because it “modified the traditional pattern of governmental procedure. The power to investigate was formerly delegated only to the Legislature…”
Moreland deleted the three-year requirement and the “what and when to investigate” and the bill passed the Assembly without opposition. In June 1907, the Senate voted 30-4 for passage and Governor Hughes signed the Moreland Act.
“The essence of the original legislation is its simplicity,” Moreland told the New York Globe. “The new bill is due more to a desire for proper bookkeeping and accounting methods than to any wish to expose anything in the way of departmental scandals.”
Through the years, Moreland Act Commissions have probed an array of government activities from harness racing to bingo to prisons to the state Liquor Authority.
Moreland’s prominence sparked a “boomlet” for governor that fizzled when the campaign “couldn’t come up with the dough,” Sherman III said. “After that, he didn’t think he’d go anywhere in the state so he left politics.”
More Political Ambitions
Moreland soon traded the state scene for the international stage.
Theodore Roosevelt appointed Moreland to the Filipino Supreme Court in the closing months of his presidency in 1909 and the country lawyer, wife Mary Ellen and sons Henry and Sherman Jr. journeyed to Manila.
An American on the Filipino Supreme Court?
The United States acquired the Philippines following the Spanish-American War and in preparing the islands for eventual independence, Washington decided the court should contain an equal number of American and Filipino associate justices with a Filipino serving as chief justice.
Moreland also served as acting dean of the University of the Philippines College Law for three months in 1911.
By 1916, Moreland began looking homeward. His mentor Hughes had resigned from the U.S. Supreme Court to run for president against Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson.
“Grandfather learned he was on Hughes’s short list for secretary of state,” Sherman III said.
It was not to be. Hughes lost California by fewer than 4,000 votes and with them went the 13 electoral votes he needed to defeat Wilson.
Historians believe that California Governor Hiram Johnson’s “disaffection” for Hughes cost the GOP candidate the presidency. Johnson had been Roosevelt’s running mate on the Progressive ticket that split the Republican vote in 1912 and allowed Wilson his first term. Hughes, although an earlier Roosevelt backer, stood with the more conservative Republicans.
“Johnson and Hughes had tremendous egos as well as philosophical differences,” Sherman III said. “Johnson held court in the penthouse of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and Hughes was on a lower floor. Well, Hughes thought since he was the nominee, Johnson should come down to see him. But Johnson felt that Hughes should come up to his rooms. They eventually did meet, but Johnson didn’t campaign very hard for Hughes and California was lost.”
How might Moreland have fared as secretary of state during the World War I and post-war eras?
“He was a progressive thinker,” his grandson said. “A smart man…he picked things up quickly. He taught himself Spanish on the boat to the Philippines because the court opinions were in that language.
“With his experience in the Philippines, I think he’d be less apt to be prejudiced on the basis of ethnicity and that was a different outlook for his time. Hughes was an internationalist, maybe not as insular as a lot of people were in this country, and I think he and grandfather would have meshed very well.”
Ironically, Hughes became secretary of state under Presidents Harding and Coolidge and later served as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Moreland left the Philippines in 1918 and accepted a commission as a major in the army judge advocate general’s office in Washington. He earned promotions to lieutenant colonel in 1919 and colonel in 1920 when he headed the administrative law division.
The Trial of Billy Mitchell
In 1925, the army began court martial proceedings against Colonel Billy Mitchell, who accused army and navy leaders of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense” for not fully recognizing the potential of airpower.
As judge advocate, Moreland directed the army’s prosecution of Mitchell. Moreland wanted to limit the evidence to the charge of insubordination but correctly predicted that the court would bow to political pressure and allow Mitchell to introduce his views on airpower and the army’s and navy’s alleged negligence.
Moreland left much of the prosecution to his assistant, Major Allen Gullion, but delivered a powerful closing statement.
Described as bespectacled and gruff voiced in “The Billy Mitchell Affair” by Burke Davis, Moreland told the court: “…for every moment since the war we have had the ablest general staff in the world as far as I can read history…How is Colonel Mitchell going to be left in the army?
“I do not believe that this court has any right to send out into the army again an officer about whom there can be any question as to loyalty, as to subordination. As to his complete dedication to the best interests of the service, and if the court itself does not feel that that would be the proper thing to do…nothing can be permanently helpful to any people except the spirit that is in their own hearts, when dedicated by their love for their native land. That is what makes a patriot; that is what will expel from your midst every man who does not meet these requirements.”
The 13-judge panel, which included General Douglas MacArthur, found Mitchell guilty of insubordination, and suspended him from active duty without pay for five years. Mitchell resigned his commission Feb. 1, 1926 and died a decade later.
Moreland retired from the army in 1929 and returned to Van Etten where he practiced law until the mid-1940s. He died at 83 on Dec. 27, 1951 and is buried in a rural cemetery near his boyhood home.
Four years later, Otto Preminger directed Gary Cooper, Rod Steiger and Elizabeth Montgomery in “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.” Veteran character actor Fred Clark portrayed Colonel Moreland.
Hollywood followed the lead of most Mitchell biographers by treating him as a heroic figure.
“Grandfather was a villain in the movie,” Sherman III said. “It was another Sergeant York-type role for Gary Cooper…the big hero. To me, though, my grandfather was a hero. We talked often and he always played down his accomplishments. Cornell wanted to honor him, but he felt he hadn’t done anything to deserve any special attention. He never tooted his horn.”
by Mark Fleisher
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Mark Fleisher is a freelance writer living in the Chemung County town of Big Flats.