Baldwin, Roger Nash

views updated Jun 11 2018

Roger Nash Baldwin

Roger Baldwin (1884–1981) began his career as a social worker and, over the course of a seven–decade career, became one of the foremost figures associated with the protection of civil rights. Baldwin co–founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau in 1917, which grew into the American Civil Liberties Union three years later. Either personally or in his official position as head of the ACLU, Baldwin was associated with several high–profile legal cases focusing on civil liberties, including the well–known Scopes Monkey Trial.

Baldwin was born into a wealthy, socially progressive family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1884, the oldest of six children. His father, Frank Feno Baldwin, was a leather merchant, and his mother, Lucy Cushing Nash, a feminist. Their relatives included Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower, a general in George Washington's army, and the founder of the Boston Young Men's Christian Union. Baldwin was introduced to ideas on social reform through the Unitarian church his family attended as well as from his family and their influential friends, who included the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the celebrated attorney and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the educator and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington.

Turned to Social Work

Baldwin graduated from Wellesley High School and entered Harvard University in nearby Boston, Massachusetts, in 1901. There, he became even more immersed in progressive matters of the day, volunteering at the Cambridge Social Union, which offered adult education to workers, and helping to organize the Harvard Entertainment Troupers, which provided musical performances for the poor. Following graduation from Harvard in 1905, Baldwin returned to Harvard, at the urging of attorney and family friend Louis Brandeis, to pursue a master's degree in social work. Brandeis then helped Baldwin secure a job running a settlement house in St. Louis, Missouri, and helping establish a sociology department at Washington University there.

In 1907, Baldwin resigned from the university in order to serve as a probation officer in the city's juvenile court system. In 1910 he became involved with the St. Louis Civic League, an urban reform organization that fought for control over billboards and stricter air pollution regulations. There, Baldwin also worked to reform the ballot initiative, referendum, and recall process to give the public a greater voice in governmental affairs. He eventually became the group's director. In 1914, as World War I began in Europe, he announced his status as a conscientious objector and joined the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), an organization that viewed prosecution of those who refused to submit to the military draft as a violation of the United States Constitution's protection of the "sacred liberty of conscience."

Baldwin remained dedicated to reforming the juvenile justice system as well, and in 1914 co–authored a textbook, Juvenile Courts and Probation, which promoted "the training of the child to make him as good a member of society as possible. Every disposition should be based on the idea of what is best for the child's welfare," according to Robert C. Cottrell's biography, Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union.

While in St. Louis, Baldwin attended a speech by noted anarchist Emma Goldman, which affected him profoundly. "Here was a vision of the end of poverty and injustice by free association of those who worked, by the abolition of privilege, and by the organized power of the exploited," Baldwin recalled, as quoted by Cottrell. He developed a collegial association with Goldman and, based both on this affiliation and the onset of the war, began to supplement his reformist ideas with those based on more radical ideologies.

Jailed for Refusing Draft

Baldwin returned east in 1917, maintaining his association with AUAM in his new home of New York City. After the United States Congress issued a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, Baldwin became deeply involved in the AUAM's new Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), established as a clearinghouse for information on conscientious objectors. On October 1 of that year, Baldwin and the CLB officially split with the AUAM to form the separate National Civil Liberties Bureau. The new organization not only collected information on conscientious objectors, but provided them with legal counsel and fought for their constitutional rights.

The United States government kept a close eye on the NCLB, despite Baldwin's attempts to garner support for his work in president Woodrow Wilson's administration. On October 9, 1918, Baldwin was arrested for violation of the Selective Service Act after refusing to appear before the draft board. His one–year sentence drew significant media attention. Due to a clerical error and time off for good behavior, Baldwin served ten months, during which time he established educational and entertainment programs for inmates and lobbied prison official for physical improvements to the facility.

On August 8, 1919, soon after his release from prison, Baldwin married Madeline Doty, a well–known journalist, lawyer, prison reform activist and feminist, in a civil ceremony in New York. Following a honeymoon in the Adirondack Mountains, the pair, who vowed to observe an equal partnership unbound by the constraints of monogamy, settled into an apartment in New York's Greenwich Village. Baldwin did not stay put long, however. Soon, he set out to better understand the common worker by serving as an itinerant laborer, an experience that helped bolster his increasingly radical–leaning political views.

Founded ACLU

Upon Baldwin's return from his sojourn, he met with the NCLB to discuss the organization's direction in light of the increased government pressures on communists and other left–leaning political activists during the ongoing "Red Scare." On January 20, 1920, the group was renamed the American Civil Liberties Union, charged with unflagging support of free speech, religious freedom, the right to a fair trial, the right to assembly, racial equality, and all other protections granted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Baldwin was named director.

The ACLU quickly aligned itself with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to condemn violence against African Americans perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1931, the organization published Black Justice, a report on the systematic denial of civil rights to blacks in the United States. Years later, the ACLU would draw criticism from the NAACP for defending the right of the Klan to assemble peaceably. Jewish groups expressed similar disapproval when the group defended the right of automaker Henry Ford to publicize his anti–Semitic views. In these and other instances, however, the ACLU championed open discourse as opposed to suppression or censorship.

Baldwin's position put him at the center of several high–profile trials centered on free speech. In 1925, the ACLU defended John Thomas Scopes, a science teacher in Tennessee who was arrested for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The case came to be known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, a moniker coined by journalist H.L. Mencken which, according to Cottrell, was based on Baldwin's observation that the trial pitted "the Good Book against Darwin, bigotry against science, or as popularly put, God against the monkeys." Although Scopes was eventually convicted and fined $100 (the fine was later overturned on a technicality), the case raised the public prominence of Baldwin's organization and helped solidify its mission. The organization was involved in several subsequent key cases, including the Dennett case, in which the ACLU challenged censorship of public discussions on birth control and sexuality, and a successful push to overturn the U.S. Customs Department ban on James Joyce's novel Ulysses. On the heels of these cases, Baldwin and the ACLU stepped up its fight against censorship of various forms of speech, including books, plays, radios, and films.

Baldwin also became personally involved in another highly publicized case, the trial of Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The pair was accused of committing felony murder during a bank robbery. While never certain whether they were associated with the crime, Baldwin was convinced the pair's prosecution was based on their nationality and political affiliation. His efforts were less successful in this instance. Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and executed on August 23, 1927. In the early 1930s the ACLU participated in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine young African American men accused of raping two white women on a train near Paint Rock, Alabama. Because the lead defense was provided by a communist organization, Baldwin and his organization were painted in much of the media as communist sympathizers. The convoluted trial resulted in the release of four of the defendants, the imprisonment of the rest and a damaged reputation for Baldwin and the ACLU outside of leftist circles.

Turned to International Issues

Since founding the ACLU, Baldwin attempted to promote a focus on international, as well as domestic, issues of concern. Unable to sway his group in that direction, Baldwin became personally involved in several international organizations, most notably the International Committee for Political Prisoners and the American League for India's Freedom, both of which he helped establish. In 1926, he took a leave from the ACLU, dedicating much of his time to the ICPP. He spent three months in Russia in 1927 and his positive observations of the country's communist government there were collected in his 1928 book Liberty under the Soviets.

At home, the ACLU entered the 1930s with an expanded agenda: increased support for African American and Native American civil rights campaigns; immigrants facing government harassment or deportation; and individuals facing suppression, intimidation or violence due to their race or religion. Police interrogation practices and compulsory military training also became more central concerns. The organization's work in these areas influenced public policy on police conduct, the rights of workers to unionize, and the restoration of tribal autonomy to Native Americans.

The Great Depression and the growing threat of fascism in Europe further cemented Baldwin's radical political views, and he became active in the League Against War and Fascism and several organization that supported the anti–fascist, revolutionary forces in the Spanish Civil War. Baldwin's personal life underwent upheaval during this time as well. He and Doty, long separated, divorced in 1935, and on March 6, 1936, Baldwin unofficially wed Evelyn Preston, a labor activist from a wealthy family. The pair lived in adjoining townhouses on West 11th Street in New York, along with Preston's sons and, later, the couple's daughter.

Changed Views on Communism

By the 1940s, with the Soviet government becoming more closely allied with the Nazis in Germany, Baldwin and the ACLU began to distance themselves from communism. In February 1940, the organization passed a resolution barring communists and members of other totalitarian organizations from its board. During World War II, the ACLU became one of the few organizations to lobby for the rights of the 110,000 Japanese and Japanese–Americans forced from their homes and placed in U.S. government–sponsored relocation camps. The ACLU also continued its steadfast defense of free speech of all stripes, even as fascist and Nazi rhetoric reached its height.

As his tenure as ACLU director neared its close, Baldwin finally made inroads with the presidential administration, then under Harry Truman. In 1947, General Douglas MacArthur, head of the U.S. War Department, invited Baldwin to advise the administration on civil liberties matters in post–war Japan. Baldwin was invited to conduct similar work in West Germany the following year.

Baldwin retired as ACLU director in November 1949, although he remained active in the organization and continued to work tirelessly for the protection of civil rights for the rest of his life. He took an active role in one of the ACLU's most controversial cases, a 1977 defense of the American Nazi Party's right to stage a march in Skokie, Illinois. A federal court ultimately found the city ordinances designed to prevent the march unconstitutional. He also conducted international civil liberties work through the United Nations and from 1950 until 1965 served as chair of the International League for the Rights of Man. Jimmy Carter recognized Baldwin's efforts with a Presidential Medal of Honor in 1981. The citation stated, according to Cottrell, "Roger Nash Baldwin is a leader in the field of civil right and a leader in the field of civil liberties. He is a national resource, and an international one as well, an inspiration to those of us who have fought for human rights, a saint to those for whom he has gained them."

Baldwin died of heart failure on August 26, 1981, at the age of 97. Before his death he prepared a statement to be read at his funeral in which, according to Cottrell, he succinctly summarized his achievements: "If I have stood for anything distinctive it is for my consistency in sticking to the principles I so profoundly believe in—nonviolence, freedom, equality, law, and justice."


Cottrell, Robert C. Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia University Press, 2000.

The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981–1985, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.


Notable American Unitarians, Harvard Square Library, (November 16, 2004).

"Roger Nash Baldwin," Biography Resource Center Online, (December 10, 2005).

Baldwin, Roger Nash

views updated May 29 2018


Roger Nash Baldwin spent his life crusading for civil rights and liberties and was one of the principal founders of the american civil liberties union (ACLU).

Baldwin was born January 21, 1884, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, into a comfortably well-to-do Boston Brahmin family. His ancestral roots reached back to what he once referred to as "the inescapable Mayflower." His father, Frank Fenno Baldwin, was a conservative businessman. His mother, Lucy Cushing Nash, instilled in her children a love of art, literature, and music. Baldwin's parents raised their six children with all the privileges and advantages their wealth could provide, but they also emphasized service to others. The family attended the Unitarian Church, where an emphasis on helping others sowed in Baldwin the seeds of a social work career.

Baldwin was an unconventional boy who was not interested in competitive endeavors and shared his mother's interest in literature and art. He was a nonconformist who was influenced by Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance. Although his parents were conservative, the young Baldwin was introduced to many progressive leaders at the home of his uncle and aunt, William Baldwin and Ruth Standish Bowles Baldwin. His uncle was president of the Long Island Railroad, director of the National Child Labor Committee, and a trustee of Tuskegee Institute. He also worked to end prostitution. His aunt supported the fledgling labor movement and was a founder of thenational urban league, a trustee of Smith College, and a member of the Socialist party. The couple often entertained the social reformers of the day, and Baldwin was influenced by his exposure to their somewhat radical ideas.

Baldwin was educated at Harvard, earning both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree there. In 1906, he left the East and headed for St. Louis to be a social worker. He directed a social settlement house for poor people and taught the first sociology courses offered at Washington University, in St. Louis. He became the chief probation officer of the St. Louis Juvenile Court in 1908. While in that position, he and Bernard Flexner coauthored the first textbook on the juvenile courts. Their book, Juvenile Courts and Probation, set out professional standards for juvenile practice and was the standard text in the field until the 1960s. In 1910, Baldwin became the secretary of the St. Louis Civic League, an urban reform agency supporting civic causes.

While working in St. Louis, Baldwin met and became friends with the anarchist emma goldman. His first defense of free speech came in 1912 when he spoke in support of margaret sanger, an early crusader for birth control and reproductive rights, whose lecture was shut down by the police. Through the social work profession he was attracted to the reform movement and the labor movement. He organized the Division on Industrial and Economic Problems at the 1916 meeting of the National Conference of Social Work, and wrote a report calling for cooperative production and distribution systems to replace competitive labor systems.

In 1917, when the United States entered world war i, Baldwin organized the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), which was later replaced by the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). In its early days, the AUAM was concerned with defending those who refused to be drafted to serve in the war. Baldwin was among the conscientious objectors opposed to the draft, and he was sentenced to a year in jail for his refusal to register. In a speech to the court before he was sentenced, he explained that his reason for opposing the draft was his "uncompromising opposition to the principle of conscription of life by the state for any purpose whatever, in time of war or peace."

After his release from prison, Baldwin worked as a common laborer around the Midwest and joined the radical International Workers of the World (IWW) union. He returned to New York in 1920 to help reorganize and reconstitute the NCLB with two conservative lawyers, Albert DeSilver and Walter Nelles, who shared his passion for championing the rights of the oppressed. Baldwin agreed to head the new organization, named the American Civil Liberties Union, and carry out its unique mission to impartially defend the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens, regardless of their affiliation or activities. Baldwin was launched in what would be a long and vigorous struggle to create "a society with a minimum of compulsion, a maximum of individual freedom and of voluntary association, and the abolition of exploitation and poverty."

"[Our goal is] a society with a minimum of compulsion, a maximum of individual freedom and of voluntary association, and the abolition of exploitation and poverty."
Roger Nash Baldwin

Perhaps it was inevitable that Baldwin would become associated with leftist causes, since the people most in need of free speech protection during the 1920s and 1930s were often political liberals and radicals. He once told an interviewer that during this time he was heavily influenced

by the Marxist theory that "the real center in society was the organized underdog in the trade unions," which he believed was true although only part of the whole picture.

Baldwin came to realize that the civil liberties of right-wing groups were just as likely to be infringed as those of left-wingers. Bewildered and frustrated by liberal groups who opposed the ACLU's support of free speech rights for the American Nazi party or the ku klux klan, Baldwin said, "[T]hese people can be just as great tyrants as the other side … helping them get freedom didn't help the cause of freedom." Referring to the wide variety of causes the ACLU defended over the years, Baldwin said, "I always felt from the beginning that you had to defend people you disliked and feared as well as those you admired." Although not a member of any party, he supported the causes of Communists, Socialists, and other leftist organizations during the 1920s and 1930s. However, in 1940, when he began to realize that the Communist label was being used by totalitarian governments, he wrote a resolution that resulted in the removal of all the Communist members of the ACLU board. Ironically, Baldwin's resolution became the model for government loyalty oaths, which the ACLU later attacked in court.

Although he was a card-carrying Wobbly, as members of the IWW were called, Baldwin could not be categorized as liberal or conservative. He was active in the National Audubon Society, the American Political Science Association, and a number of other organizations on both ends of the political spectrum. The only label Baldwin accepted for himself was that of reformer: "I am dead certain that human progress depends on those heretics, rebels and dreamers who have been my kin in spirit and whose 'holy discontent' has challenged established authority and created the expanding visions mankind may yet realize."

During the years of Baldwin's leadership, the ACLU, using volunteer lawyers, was involved in a wide variety of civil liberties cases, especially involving free speech and assembly. One concerned a 1925 Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. The ACLU defended a science teacher, John Thomas Scopes, charged with violating the law (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 [1925]; 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 [1927]). william jennings bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and well-known fundamentalist, helped the state attorney general prosecute the case, and the notorious clarence darrow, a self-proclaimed atheist, defended Scopes. The trial ended with Scopes being convicted, although the verdict was later overturned because of a judicial error. The trial brought the issue of academic freedom to the public's attention and probably helped stunt the growth of the antievolution movement.

The ACLU was involved in the Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, in which it was widely believed that the two defendants, Nicolo Sacco and bartolomeo vanzetti, were scapegoated because they were Italian anarchists and draft resisters. Baldwin led the ACLU into the anticensorship arena in the fight to lift the importation ban on such books as James Joyce's Ulysses. In 1938, the ACLU obtained an injunction against Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, ordering him to cease antiunion activities. ACLU lawyers defended the free expression and free press rights of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose anti-Catholic rhetoric and aggressive canvassing tactics came under attack. They successfully argued that Henry Ford had a first amendment right to express his antiunion views as long as he did not threaten workers. Possibly the most controversial cases accepted by the ACLU were those that defended the free speech rights of unpopular groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the German-American Bund, and the American Nazi party.

During world war ii, Baldwin and the ACLU opposed the movement of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to relocation camps. After the war, he helped General Douglas MacArthur set up a civil liberties policy for the occupation forces in Japan. He also consulted on civil liberties issues in the U.S. zone of occupied Germany.

Baldwin, always a nonconformist, lived an ascetic lifestyle, wearing the same ill-fitting suit for years at a time and accepting a subsistence salary from the ACLU. He was married for fifteen years to Madeleine Z. Doty, a reformist lawyer. They divorced in 1934, and in 1936 he married another reformer, Evelyn Preston, whose two sons he adopted. The couple had one child, Helen Baldwin Mannoni.

Baldwin retired as head of the ACLU in 1950, but he never retired from the causes to which he was committed. He continued working until the day he died, August 26, 1981, at age ninety-seven. A few months before his death, President jimmy carter awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian tribute. Reflecting on that honor, Baldwin expressed the philosophy he had lived by all his life: "Never yield your courage—your courage to live, your courage to fight, to resist, to develop your own lives, to be free." It is clear that Baldwin never yielded his courage, and that he remained to the end a dauntless crusader for freedom and liberty for all U.S. citizens.

further readings

Lamson, Peggy. 1976. Roger Baldwin: Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Walker, Samuel. 1990. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Communism; First Amendment; Freedom of Speech; Japanese American Evacuation Cases; Sacco and Vanzetti; Scopes Monkey Trial.

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