Roger Nash Baldwin


edited by John Garraty,
copyright 1999
by the American Council of Learned Societies.
Used by permission
of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Roger Nash Baldwin Papers. Public Policy Papers. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library.
Roger Nash Baldwin Papers. Public Policy Papers. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library.

Baldwin, Roger Nash (21 Jan. 1884-26 Aug. 1981), civil libertarian and social activist, was born in Wellesley, Mass., the son of Frank Fenno Baldwin, a leather manufacturer who owned several companies, and Lucy Cushing Nash. The lines on both sides of the family went back to the Pilgrims. Baldwin attended Wellesley public schools. As a boy he lacked prowess in sports and developed interests in music, art, and nature. He was regarded as "different," which made him seek, early in life, "unconventional, nonconformist avenues of expression" consistent with the intellectual heritage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other New England icons. His family were free-thinking Unitarians.

Baldwin earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard University. He became a sociology instructor at Washington University in St. Louis in 1906 and worked in a neighborhood settlement house there. He soon became chief probation officer of the local juvenile court, where he achieved a national reputation in part through his book, written with Bernard Flexner, Juvenile Courts and Probation (1914).

In 1909, Baldwin attended a lecture by Emma Goldman, the anarchist, who later became an important figure in his life. Goldman opened up a new literature to Baldwin and introduced him to new sorts of people, who included not only anarchists but also, as he said, "some libertarians, some freedom lovers and some who had no label—like me." These people were bound together by "one principle—freedom from coercion," and many of them were committed to nonviolence.

In 1910, Baldwin became secretary of the Civic League of St. Louis, a reform group that addressed issues of municipal government. Baldwin said later that he got his "first impulse to civil liberties" during this period when the police denied Margaret Sanger, the birth-control advocate, the right to hold a meeting in a public hall. In St. Louis, Baldwin also had his first exposure to issues of racial prejudice. After failing to obtain approval of a special course for blacks at Washington University and after white voters approved a segregationist housing ordinance, he concluded, "In cases where minority rights are concerned, you can't trust the majority."

In April 1917, Baldwin joined the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), a New York organization of prominent reformers, writers, editors, church people and lawyers who opposed W.W. I. The next month, he organized the Bureau for Conscientious Objectors within AUAM to advise conscientious objectors and to help them receive favorable treatment under the new Selective Service Act. The bureau took a more aggressive stance than some AUAM directors could accept, and—after changing its name to the Civil Liberties Bureau—it became an independent organization. Its work broadened to include freedom of speech, press, and conscience and the defense of citizens who were prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, including members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who were accused of calling strikes to obstruct the war effort.

In September 1918, Baldwin was called to register for the draft. After he "respectfully declined to appear" for a physical examination, saying that he was opposed "to any service whatever designed to help the war," he was arrested. At a hearing, he made a long and eloquent statement in which he said:

"I regard the principle of conscription of life as a flat contradiction of all our cherished ideals of individual freedom, democratic liberty and Christian teaching. . . . I cannot consistently, with self respect, do other than I have, namely, to deliberately violate an act which seems to me to be a denial of everything which ideally and in practice I hold sacred."

After complimenting Baldwin for stating his position honestly, the judge sentenced him to a year in the penitentiary. Baldwin's stance earned praise from many liberal organizations, and Emma Goldman said he "has proved himself the most consistent of us all." The socialist leader Norman Thomas said that the hearing "was one of the rare experiences of a lifetime." Baldwin's time in jail was relatively pleasant, and he turned it to his advantage. He carried on an extensive correspondence, wrote poetry and, as a trusty, worked in the prison's kitchen and garden. He also found time to start a Prisoners' Welfare League and to befriend inmates, some of whom became lifelong friends.

After his release in July 1919, Baldwin married Madeleine Doty, a writer and lawyer who was a pacifist and feminist. Less than two months later, with his wife's encouragement, Baldwin left for the West with only a few dollars to see how he would fare as an unskilled laborer. He passed several months this way, joined both the IWW and the Cooks and Waiters Union, took part in a steel strike as a union spy, and felt the satisfaction of experiencing firsthand what he had previously known only theoretically.

In January 1920, after his return to New York, he and his allies transformed the Civil Liberties Bureau into the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The union's statement of purpose included reference to freedoms endangered by government repression, especially against labor—free speech, a free press, the right to strike, criminal justice, immigration equity, and racial equality. As executive director, Baldwin put together a diverse board of prominent liberal activists, including Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Scott Nearing, Norman Thomas, Helen Phelps Stokes, A. J. Muste, John Haynes Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, Oswald Garrison Villard, and his closest associates, Albert DeSilver (who acted as associate director) and Walter Nelles (who acted as counsel).

Under Baldwin's direction and with the aid of volunteer lawyers, the ACLU participated in a variety of controversial cases. These included challenges to the roundup and deportation of radical aliens; the defense of John T. Scopes in the famous Tennessee "Monkey Trial" in 1925, when the case was lost but the cause won; the Nicola Sacco-Bartolomeo Vanzetti murder case; a successful challenge to the banning of James Joyce's Ulysses; and the protection of the First Amendment rights of communists and socialists, union members and Henry Ford, the Ku Klux Klan and Jehovah's Witnesses. The common element, Baldwin said, was that the Constitution protected people you "feared as well as those you admired."

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Baldwin made two trips to the Soviet Union and wrote extravagant praise of that country, which he later came to regret. Although he joined no party, he worked closely with Communist and other left organizations during the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s. A few years later, after a change in mind, he acted decisively to remove Communists and their supporters from the board of directors of the ACLU.

In the most notorious case, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Communist leader who had been a board member from the founding of the ACLU, was removed after a celebrated "trial" at the Harvard Club of New York City. In 1940, Baldwin drafted, and the board of directors passed, a resolution that required ACLU officials to aver that they were not adherents of Communism or fascism and that they supported the civil liberties of all peoples, including those outside the United States. This resolution became, ironically, a model for government loyalty oaths that the ACLU challenged during the McCarthy period. (In the 1970s, the ACLU repealed the 1940 resolution and voted to restore Elizabeth Flynn to its board of directors posthumously.)

W.W. II did not provoke the same pacifist protests or government repression as W.W. I had. During the war, Baldwin was largely occupied with the legal challenge to the Roosevelt administration's decision in 1942 to round up Japanese Americans on the West Coast, many of them citizens, and send them to camps in the interior. The effort to declare these actions unconstitutional failed in the Supreme Court, although years later evidence appeared that the government concealed information that the program was not essential to national security.

In 1947, Baldwin went to Japan at the invitation of General Douglas MacArthur to help instill in the Japanese an understanding of democracy and civil liberties. The previous year, Baldwin was a founder of the International League for the Rights of Man (later the International League for Human Rights). After he retired, Baldwin was the ACLU's coordinator of international work, serving as a liaison to the United Nations and participating in discussions concerning U.S. possessions and territories. For many years he taught a civil liberties course at the University of Puerto Rico.

To appreciate Baldwin's contribution, one must recall the state of civil liberties in 1920, when the ACLU was founded. Post-W.W. I euphoria was yielding to "normalcy" and nativism, culminating in a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Palmer Raids, mass round-ups of aliens suspected of radicalism, which often ended in trials and deportation. The Supreme Court had yet to uphold a single claim of free speech; state criminal trials were virtually beyond constitutional protection; racial minorities, women, and other disadvantaged groups found almost no judicial support; workers were unable to organize legally; and sexual privacy was 45 years from constitutional recognition.

In 1950, when Baldwin retired as ACLU executive director, the modern foundations of the Bill of Rights were in place. Under his supervision, volunteer lawyers such as Clarence Darrow and Arthur Garfield Hays had, among other things, helped abolish the worst of company police forces, achieved initial victories for free expression and religious liberty, and assisted in laying the groundwork to end segregation in schools and other parts of American life.

Throughout his life Baldwin was an active outdoorsman. He spent weekends in a rustic house in New Jersey, where he watched birds, canoed, hiked, and observed nature. He was active in the Audubon Society as well as in the National Urban League and the National Conference of Social Welfare. Baldwin divorced his first wife in 1935 and in 1936 married Evelyn Preston, also a reformer. They had one child, and he adopted her two sons. He died in New Jersey.

That Baldwin was able to organize, lead, and put to work—for a pittance or merely a pat on the back—so many talented people speaks not only to the principles they shared but to his special character. He was cantankerous and obstinate. He was also vigorous, puckish, courtly, joyous, vain, determined, loyal, and tough. His qualities gave the civil liberties movement, in the words of one writer, "a special blend of passion and rationality, of biting dissent and tolerance for the beliefs and causes of others."

Baldwin did not consider himself an intellectual but rather a manager, a practical man, and above all an inspirer of others. But if he was not an intellectual, he certainly was a philosopher. He knew life and he knew people. He urged everyone to live as if each individual could make a difference in a complex, stubborn, and often cruel world. He believed that each person might save the world a little, and--perhaps more important--would be saved by the effort to do so.

Baldwin was not a religious man. Nevertheless, he viewed the Sermon on the Mount as an extraordinary declaration of humanity. He patterned his pacifism after Gandhi's, and, like Gandhi, he went to jail in witness to his beliefs. His life exemplified the high purposes of religion: to transmit a sense of generational continuity, of caring, and of love. He concerned himself with people not only in the mass but one by one. He genuinely cared about other people and, always with a sense of humor, gave them confidence in what they were.

Page created on 6/30/2004 4:46:18 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 4:14:32 PM

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"Roger Nash Baldwin's pioneering struggle for civil justice offers us a valuable lesson: One person's action can help change the world. So many basic American liberties we take for granted can be traced back to Baldwin's uncompromising recognition of humanity in practice. A life to be celebrated."