Cover image for Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union
Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union
Cottrell, Robert C., 1950-
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Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiv, 504 pages, 10 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm

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JC599.U5 B353 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Roger Nash Baldwin's thirty-year tenure as director of the ACLU marked the period when the modern understanding of the Bill of Rights came into being. Spearheaded by Baldwin, volunteer attorneys of the caliber of Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, Osmond Frankel, and Edward Ennis transformed the constitutional landscape. Company police forces were dismantled. Antievolutionists were discredited (thanks to the Scopes Trial). Censorship of such works as James Joyce's Ulysses was halted. The Scottsboro Boys and Sacco and Vanzetti were defended. The right of free speech for communists and Ku Klux Klansmen alike was upheld, and the foundations were laid for an end to school segregation.

Robert Cottrell's magnificent book recaptures the accomplishments and contradictions of the complicated man at the center of these events. Driven, vain, frugal, and tempestuous, America's greatest civil libertarian was initially also a staunch defender of Communist Russia, deferred to the U.S. government over the internment of Japanese Americans, and openly admired J. Edgar Hoover and Douglas MacArthur. His personal relationships were equally complex. Spanning a hundred years from the late 1800s through Baldwin's death in 1981, this riveting biography is an eye-opening view of the development of the American left.

Author Notes

Robert Cottrell is professor of history and American studies at California State University, Chico. He has written numerous books and articles on American liberalism, reform, and radicalism in the twentieth century, including Izzy: A Biography of I. F. Stone.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

It's a surprisingly modern story: an advocacy group pushed to national prominence by a single individual's persistence (in recent decades, think Nader, Chavez, and Brower, for example). But the man most identified with the civil liberties crusade was a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin who began his career at a St. Louis settlement house in 1906. Baldwin was a puzzle; he was sympathetic to the most radical voices (Emma Goldman, the Wobblies, and, later, communists), yet, in his personal and public life, he was certain of his position among "the better sort" of people. He supported unionization of working people but was himself a highly tyrannical boss. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Baldwin headed the ACLU, insisting on an expansive definition of civil liberties that often annoyed even the group's strongest supporters. He remained a grand old man of the movement and worked on international civil liberties until his death at 97 in 1981. Cottrell, a California State University at Chico historian, provides an involving portrait of this often frustrating, ultimately fascinating American activist. Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

ACLU founder and longtime director Roger Nash Baldwin (1884-1981) has dimmed on the radar screen of popular reference, but his legacy has not. Cottrell's straightforward biography of this complex figure focuses on the various forces at work, and sometimes in conflict, in Baldwin's life: his privileged heritage, his egalitarian impulses (awakened by the progressive movement's growing strength and stature, bolstered by Teddy Roosevelt's presidency), his unconventional marriage, his philandering and his single-minded drive to establish the fledgling civil liberties movement. From his blue-blooded upbringing in Massachusetts and his Harvard education, to an unexpected social work career in St. Louis and imprisonment for conscientious objection during WWI, to the founding and running of the ACLU, Baldwin's life makes for a naturally compelling narrative. Baldwin oversaw early incarnations of the ACLU and helped lead them through their evolution into a mainstream progressive stronghold. Cottrell's discussion of the radical influences pulling Baldwin away from the practices of early 20th-century progressivism elucidates the popularization of radical politics that occurred in the first half of the century. Cottrell (Izzy: A Biography of I.F. Stone), an American history professor at California State University, is an empathic but not overly sympathetic chronicler. The first biographer to draw on material that surfaced after Baldwin's death, he adheres to chronology and clear, unembellished prose. Cottrell fills the pages with Baldwin's mentors, allies and foes, including Emma Goldman, Jane Addams, Norman Thomas, A.J. Muste, Douglas MacArthur and J. Edgar Hoover, providing a detailed and comprehensive understanding of 80 years of progressive activity. 37 photos not seen by PW. (Feb.) Forecast: Devotees of civil liberties and progressive causes will be drawn to this, assuring solid, though not startling, sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

As Cottrell (history, California State Univ., Chico) notes, "a full-scale biography" of Baldwin, a towering figure in the development of modern American civil liberties as the founder, longtime driving force, and director (1920-49) of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has been "clearly overdue." Cottrell's outstanding effort, the only book on Baldwin aside from Peggy Lamson's Roger Baldwin: Founder of the ACLU (CH, Feb'77)--which was essentially a lengthy annotated interview--amply fills this lacuna, finely complementing Samuel Walker's In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (CH, Sep'90). Cottrell's primary focus is on Baldwin the man, and he paints a rich, textured portrait highlighting Baldwin's numerous contradictions. Blessed with an outstanding intellect, extraordinary energy, and enormous personal charm, Baldwin devoted his life to fighting for democracy and the personal liberties and dignity of the deprived, yet was an elitist patrician who loved to hobnob with the wealthy and powerful, ran the ACLU and his staff in an authoritarian manner, and all too often compromised his fundamental principles, thus long downplaying Russian repression and allowing his desire for good relations with the FBI to blind him to that agency's transgressions. Highly recommended at all levels. R. J. Goldstein Oakland University



Chapter One Growing Up in Wellesley Hills Roger Nash Baldwin was born in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1884, into the comfort and affluence of an old-stock New England family. He was the first of seven children of Frank Fenno Baldwin and Lucy Cushing Nash; his family lineage dated to the time of William the Conqueror, and his ancestors arrived in the Americas on "the inescapable Mayflower ." More than five centuries before the Pilgrims, "Baldwins of rank" had appeared in England. One Loammi Baldwin was credited with producing the Baldwin apple. Roger's maternal side boasted Chaffees, Cushings, and Nashes--long considered among the most prominent names in Massachusetts society--as well as a Revolutionary War general.     By the antebellum period the Baldwins exuded the kind of social conscience often exhibited by leading families in the American Northeast. Roger Baldwin's paternal grandfather, William Henry Baldwin, was in his early forties when he gave up his successful dry goods business to found the Boston Young Men's Christian Union in 1851. The union offered adult education in addition to recreation and social services. William, attracted to abolitionism, was a kind of Unitarian lay preacher who befriended "non-conformist Brahmins" like Phillips Brooks, the renowned Episcopal minister who would write the words to "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the early abolitionist who would lead the first regiment of black troops in the Civil War. William Baldwin corresponded with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he knew Henry Ward Beecher, who headed the nation's largest Protestant congregation at Brooklyn's Plymouth Church.     When Roger Baldwin was a young child, his paternal grandparents lived at 63 Pinckney Street, where he visited them often. Grandfather Baldwin spoke frequently of the operations of the Young Men's Christian Union, which held Christmas parties for poor children, sent emissaries to their homes, ran an athletic program for young men, and offered library services, among other functions. While walking with his grandfather around the streets of Boston, Roger was impressed with how respectfully members of the organization greeted the elderly gentleman. And he came to consider his grandfather's famous pen pals, especially Brooks and Holmes, as family friends.     Roger also often visited his uncle, William Henry Baldwin Jr., who eventually served as president of the Long Island Railroad. Like his father, William Henry Jr. was something of a reformer and held a seat on the Southern Education Board, which contested the exploitation of minors in the workforce. He became director of the National Child Labor Committee, which brought together northerners and southerners who considered learning the key to racial understanding, and chaired the Committee of Fifteen, which spearheaded a campaign against prostitution in New York City. He also was a trustee of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. William Henry Jr. would insist to his somewhat disbelieving nephew that only a few individuals worked hard, saved their earnings, and became rich.     William Henry Jr. had married Ruth Standish Bowles, the daughter of newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. She helped found the National Urban League, served as a trustee of Smith College, and joined the Socialist Party. Her acquaintances included social reformers and critics like Lillian Wald, Paul U. Kellogg, and Jacob Riis. She and Roger became particularly close, especially after William Henry Jr. died in 1905.     Roger's father, Frank Fenno Baldwin, was a successful leather merchant who ran several factories. When Roger was a teenager, his father was a partner in the Boston Counter Co. and traveled widely to great shoe centers. Later he served as a vice president of the American Hide Leather Co. and still later became an officer of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Frank was considered "a charming and fascinating person, flinging himself into any thing [ sic ] which claimed his interest or appealed to his sympathies with ardor and abandon--a man, too, of driving force and ardent emotions." He married his neighbor in the affluent Union Park area of Boston, Lucy Cushing Nash, who was "a lovely, quiet, gentlewoman." The daughter of Israel Nash, a successful importer, Lucy was taken with music, order, and thoroughness.     Frank would leave home for his office at seven in the morning and return at five or six. He exuded authority--certain of his relatives called him the Grand Duke. Articulate and possessed of a disciplined mind, Frank was, in Roger's estimation, "very positive, very decisive. He felt in command of things. He was the head of the works." He commanded a good salary, and the servants viewed him as "the Boss," Roger remembered. Frank was generally upbeat but could become angry or irritated, in a manner foreign to his wife. Although he was a devoted father, his children "were a bit fearful of crossing him." Indeed, the family made frequent references to Frank's acting as a semi-tyrannical patriarch, in the fashion of the protagonist of Clarence Day Jr.'s Life with Father . Nevertheless, Roger considered him "a very loving father and very companionable." While his father was determined to keep up appearances despite the turmoil in the household, Roger "saw right through him." His father allowed Roger to have everything he wanted and rarely disciplined or reprimanded him. Still, Roger acknowledged, "I think among all of us children there was a little sense of restraint, not through direct action but you didn't contradict or question. Fear is too strong a word. All of us, all six of us, were not fearful, but we wouldn't cross him."     The Baldwin household did not use corporal punishment. Instead, when one of the six surviving children (one died in infancy)--three girls and three boys--became unruly, Lucy would lead that child by the hand to the closet and lock the door. The angry and frightened seven- or eight-year-old Roger "used to kick the door, yell, finally I would give in and say I'll be good. I may have fought with my brothers and/or sisters or disobeyed my mother to have earned that punishment."     Small, slight, and soft-spoken, Lucy Baldwin possessed certain unconventional beliefs, albeit in a "quieter, self-effacing way," in contrast to her husband's more brusque and grandiose manner. She was appreciative of "good music, good solid books--no trash around our house--and good talk about things that mattered," Roger recalled. A friend related that Roger acquired from his mother his love of music and "his orderliness and thoroughness." Equally significant, Lucy seemed to believe in change, which Frank merely accepted. She was something of a supporter of women's suffrage. In contrast, their other children never expressed the same concerns about social issues that Roger did.     For the first seventeen years of his life Roger Baldwin lived in the family home on Maugus Avenue in Wellesley that Lucy had received as a gift from her father. The spacious Victorian was perched high on a hill, surrounded by about fifteen acres of open land, woods, and streams. The house, which a friend called indescribable, underwent many additions as the Baldwin family expanded. Above the house were five acres of pasture, and Frank took to farming as a kind of gentleman's hobby. The estate was home to pigs, sheep, cows, and horses. When Roger was about twelve, his father purchased a four-hundred-acre farm about twenty-five miles outside of Wellesley in Hopkinton. The Baldwins' existence was privileged and sheltered, attended to by a number of servants, including a nurse and a laundress. The maids and cooks were Irish, the gardeners Italian, and the coachman English.     Wellesley was a suburb of Boston, which included the eastern sector of Wellesley Hills, where the Baldwins resided. The suburbs of Wellesley, Brookline, Chestnut Hill, Milton, Needham, Dedham, and Dover were home to proper Bostonians. The townsfolk were generally comfortably middle class, with wealthier individuals serving as community leaders. Both proper and Unitarian, the Baldwins considered their religion superior to others, particularly the Catholicism practiced by those of Irish stock and domestic help. "Class distinctions were remote," Roger later insisted, but they clearly were present in Wellesley and in the circles to which the Baldwins gravitated. They also had an enduring influence on Roger. In the public schools he attended, Roger became acquainted with the children of immigrants. However, such schoolmates were not invited to Baldwin family parties. He was one of "the better people," young Roger understood, whose family did not associate with certain sorts. While in high school, he was attracted to a young Irish Catholic girl, Anastasia Kilmain. One of his parents pointedly insisted, "Now Roger, I wouldn't ask a girl like that to come to the house to your birthday party." Roger never considered questioning the admonition.     Not surprisingly, the lone extant correspondence from Roger Baldwin's adolescence reflects various prejudices, as well as stark class consciousness. He corresponded regularly with Charlotte M. Ryman of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, whom he met in the summer of 1897 at the Hotel Humarock in Sea View Station, Massachusetts. The Baldwins and Rymans were vacationing there, and the trip marked the start of a three-decade friendship with Charlotte Ryman, whose husband owned a coal mine. She had two daughters and became greatly fond of the thirteen-year-old Roger. He returned the affection of the forty-nine-year-old woman he came to call Ma Ryman or Grossmutter; she referred to him as "Ritterino." Ryman became the kind of second mother he often sought out, and he visited her home on several occasions. Her family was well off, "genteel middle-class," and he "fell right into its social circle in Wilkes-Barre," he recalled. There he became enamored of a niece of Ryman's, Marjorie Rose, to whom he later drew even closer. Around 1898 the Rymans invited him along on a trip to Washington, D.C., his first visit to the nation's capital. They also took him to New York City, where they stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, which became his social center when he visited Manhattan during his college days."     In a letter to Ryman dated April 18, 1898, he referred to the city of Norfolk, which he was visiting with his family, as "the worst and dirtiest" he had seen, "most full of lounging niggers that I ever saw." Departing from an electric car, the fourteen-year-old found himself "accosted by about five niggers," all of whom sought to carry his bag to the boat his family was boarding. Roger informed Charlotte Ryman that he refused their offers, choosing to carry the luggage himself.     In another letter, written on February n, 1899, he spoke of a masquerade ball held at his school that resulted in "a corking time." He wore "a `killing costume' which undoubtedly would have shocked the leading angel in Heaven." Sporting a great fan, he attended the ball as "a negro dude, with a face of immense proportions." He was attired in an old stovepipe hat, his father's dress suit, gaiters, a loud necktie, white gloves, and a diamond ring the size of a "chicken's egg." His flippant attitude about racial matters, every bit as much as the language itself, was all too characteristic of many Americans of his era. This was true even of well-educated people, including some of those who were viewed as reformers in their day. It remains startling, nevertheless.     Such transparent biases notwithstanding, his racial attitudes remained malleable, undoubtedly because of an already well-developed sense of noblesse oblige. On April 30 he sent a brief letter to Booker T. Washington--whom he had recently met at his uncle's home in Brooklyn--and enclosed a $20 contribution from the Baldwins to the Tuskegee Institute. This was in keeping with his family's friendship with Washington and its support for various reform efforts. Roger admitted he was "only a school boy" but suggested that made him "feel more for fellow school boys and girls of the South." William Henry Baldwin Jr.'s service as a Tuskeegee trustee also fed Roger's interest, as did Washington's status as arguably the nation's leading black spokesperson.     Shortly afterward Roger again wrote disparagingly to Charlotte Ryman, this time about people he met at the coast. "They aren't the very best," but there was "a little Jewish girl from New York, who is `perfectly killing.'" Her father was a German Jew, but to Roger she was "only German percent !"     In addition to prejudices of various types, his letters to Charlotte Ryman reflect the class consciousness that would always mark his life. He had taken up croquet and golf and planned to write "a grammar of the Golf Language," without synonyms, he told her. He had seen a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac , with a lead actor who was " très excellent ." He was writing in French, he clarified, "not to `show up'--honestly now--but because English can't express it." He also told Ryman how he and his friend Lawrence Grose had visited Faneuil Hall markets and the docks in Boston, then ventured over to La Touraine for crackers and milk in the coffee room. The hotel was every bit as grand as many in New York City while exuding a comfortable air of homeyness.     Late in the summer of 1899, having tired of playing cards, croquet, or pool, Roger shared intimate thoughts with his friend. He enjoyed lying in the sand, a solitary enterprise that enabled him to "think my little thinks all to myself," he wrote her. He had matured in the past six months. Now, it seemed, he could "see much further into things." In fact, "it seems that I can't think enough." Already highly ambitious, he had long wondered "what good it was to have this life unless one were going to become a President or Prince or other noted `big.'" Things seemed clearer now, thanks to s