Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xiv + 504 pp. Notes, Index.
$34.50 (alk. paper), ISBN 0-231-11972-0 .
Thomas Hilbink , Institute.
Red, White, and Blue(Blood)
would have guessed that few Americans know who Roger Baldwin was. Imagine my
surprise, then, when, while reading the book now reviewed, I found the
following letter to the editor in my local newspaper:
the editor: "The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 by an
unabashed advocate for Marxism and communism, Roger Baldwin. For many of its
early years, the ACLU's main pursuit was the defense of communists facing
government charges of subversion.... Ronald D. Bouman" 
admit that I was impressed that Mr. Bouman even knew who Baldwin was. And,
though his letter was obviously skewed, he wasn't wrong on the facts per
se. Perhaps he had read Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil
Liberties Union, Robert C. Cotterell's recent biography of the man
described at times as "the Pope of the liberals." Cotterell, a professor of
history and American studies at the California State University at Chico,
would disagree with Mr. Bouman's negative characterization of Baldwin,
but his book reveals the extent to which Baldwin was many different
people - an unabashed communist or the "Galahad of freedom," depending on
whom you ask.
Cotterell's main argument is that Baldwin
was a paradox, a "gentleman radical" (p. 198). He was simultaneously an
elitist who wished to benefit from his status, and a dissenter and anarchist
who claimed to reject the very institutions that gave him the status he so
enjoyed. Throughout this book, Cotterell treats these traits as
contradictory. He seems impelled by a view that one's politics must be
reflected in the way one lives one's life. Baldwin, it seems, did not
do this. Rather, he came from a wealthy background, attended Harvard
College, married a wealthy woman, and lived a comfortable life. His approach
to advocacy entailed face-to-face meetings with his fellow Ivy Leaguers
occupying the upper echelons of power. He sought to persuade them through
meetings and correspondence rather than sitting-in or picketing.
Baldwin believed that there was no better radical than a member of the power
elite. Those who defend civil liberties should not be those who benefit from
the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights. To do so would be
self-serving. Rather, driven by a sort of noblesse oblige and the
influences of Progressive-era politics, Baldwin believed that those who had
the least to lose - that is, elites like himself - were more effective
advocates because they derived no apparent benefit from their advocacy.
Cotterell sees Baldwin's life and attitudes as paradoxical seems a product
of the past forty years in American political culture. No doubt, Baldwin's
attitude towards activists and activism is a relic of the past, but the idea
of a gentleman radical seems paradoxical only from the perspective of an era
in which identity politics have come to dominate our society, in which the
"politics of authenticity" demand that one's political aspirations be lived
in the everyday.
result, by exposing by what he sees as Baldwin's supposed contradictions -
the "warts and all" portrayal lauded by the book's blurbers - Cotterell
misses what may be a more interesting reading of Baldwin's life: the shifts
in society, law, and politics over the course of the twentieth century.
Roger Baldwin's life and views took on many shapes, reflecting the changing
shapes of American politics over the sixty years during which he was
politically active. Baldwin's driving passions shifted from social reform
and Progressivism, to economic equality, to political liberty.
extremely large portrait of Roger Baldwin hangs in the offices of the
American Civil Liberties Union, where I worked for five years. The painting
depicts Baldwin in his later years. He died in 1981 at the age of
ninety-seven. I've always thought of Baldwin first and foremost as old and
wrinkled. Yet his presence at the organization goes beyond that image. He is
held up as the unabashed avatar of civil liberties - the man who not only
gave birth to the ACLU, leading the fight for civil liberties for all, but
the embodiment of the oft-quoted saying (usually but wrongly attributed to
Voltaire), "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the
death your right to say it." Cotterell's biography reveals a more fluid
portrait of Baldwin, one that does not freeze Baldwin
in the neutral civil-libertarian phase that dominated his final years, but
rather delineates a political actor whose ideas and ideals of freedom
changed many times over the course of his long life. What emerges is not
only the life of Roger Baldwin, but also the career of civil liberties in
American law and society.
Biographies generally begin at the beginning of the subject's life. Thus,
the book's first few chapters parallel Baldwin's life and we learn of his
birth to an upper-crust family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, his education at
Harvard College, and his post-college move to St. Louis, Missouri, where he
began work as a professor and a social worker.
his elite background and education, it is hardly surprising that Baldwin was
a model Progressive. He was a leader in overhauling the city's child welfare
system and was involved in the growing social-work movement. Despite the
seeming success of his work and career, Baldwin was increasingly
disillusioned with the politics of what he described as "hopeful reform and
useful social work" (p. 44). Contacts with Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger,
Jane Addams, and other radicals slowly moved him towards more radical ways
of thinking, so that by the time he left St. Louis
for New York, "reconciling his reformist and radical inclinations proved
increasingly difficult" (p. 45).
his arrival in New
quickly incorporated himself into New York's "bohemian"
culture. In one interesting chapter (pp. 103-118), Cotterell explores the
conflict between Baldwin's political ideals and his actual behavior -
namely, the clash between having an "open," egalitarian, companionate
marriage and his inability to make the expected contributions to the
relationship. The chapter also reveals the extent to which Baldwin's
public life took unquestioned precedence over his private life - a trait
that would continue until his death.
the onset of the First World War, Baldwin
became deeply enmeshed in the pacifist and conscientious-objector movements.
"Professional patriots" characterized him as dangerous and un-American,
beginning decades of governmental and right-wing surveillance of his
activities. It was out of his work on behalf of pacifists and war resisters
that his concern for and involvement with civil liberties grew. Baldwin helped found the
Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB) in 1917 as a means to gather information about
conscientious objectors and to advocate for "liberty of conscience" (p. 57).
Motivating Baldwin's work was not an objective concern for the abstract
right to object, but rather a pacifist-driven defense of conscientious
objection. In other words, his concern for civil liberties was tied to his
personal opposition to war and militarism.
his growing involvement with the CLB came an increasingly radical approach
to politics, rejecting reform because it failed to encourage the fundamental
structural change that Baldwin
felt were needed to sustain democracy in the United States. Following a
stint in prison in 1919 for his work on behalf of conscientious objectors,
Baldwin became more interested in the fight for economic justice and
equality (p. 101). The next year, he founded the ACLU.
ACLU reflected Baldwin's civil libertarian ideals. This is not to say that
those ideals were static, nor that Baldwin was a civil libertarian and
nothing else. (Nor is it to say that the ACLU was Baldwin and no one else.)
Cotterell reveals the ever-changing nature of Baldwin's
commitment to and justifications for civil liberties. Just as the CLB had
used the idea of "freedom of conscience" instrumentally to advance the
interests of conscientious objectors, in the early years of the ACLU Baldwin
used the fight for free speech as a means to an end.
Following the Russian Revolution, Baldwin was enamored of the communist
experiment taking place in the Soviet Union and was quite vocal in his
support for those attempting to make Marx's communist vision a reality.
While seemingly contradictory, his double standard reveals the extent to
which Baldwin's main cause at the time was communism. He was not concerned
with wholesale violations of civil liberties by the Soviets, but he remained
a staunch supporter of civil liberties at home. Civil liberties, he
believed, could facilitate the process by which communism could bloom and
grow in the United States. The struggle for freedom of expression was tied,
mind, to the class struggle. Baldwin was not even
convinced that civil liberties could serve a genuine good. As he wrote:
fiction that constitutional American rights can be maintained through law
has been pretty well exploded. Everywhere the realization is growing that
legal rights are hollow shams without political and economic power to
enforce them. The road to industrial freedom is the way to all freedom" (p.
Interestingly, Baldwin's statement reveals a sort of proto-Critical Legal
Studies view of rights. He questioned the value of the very rights that he
and his organization wished the government to recognize and respect.
However, although he expressed such ideas just as his work for the ACLU was
getting underway, at times Baldwin
spoke of civil liberties as a neutral ideal, an organizing principle of
Cotterell makes such an effort to explain away the seeming inconsistency
between these views that at times he condemns Baldwin
for being politically naïve, as if Baldwin did not realize
that expressing support for communism or making known his partisan reasons
for supporting civil liberties could harm the "cause" for which he worked so
hard. Cotterell's criticism stems from a late-twentieth-century view of
civil liberties that generally accepts them as neutral principles of law.
But without focusing on the seeming contradiction, what the ACLU founder's
views reveal is the ways that the civil liberties movement has change din
the eighty years since it began in earnest, as well as the extent to which
Baldwin's ideas changed over time, shifting from partisan to non-partisan
and the forces that prompted that change. In the 1920s the "cause" for which
Baldwin worked appears to have been communism. By the 1940s, the "cause" was
civil liberties. The question is why.
Roger Nash Baldwin
reveals how Baldwin's view of civil liberties as neutral principles grew
more definite as his support for communism and the Soviet experiment
trajectory follows the same path traced by many members of the "old" left
whose politics were shifted seismically by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Baldwin went from true
believer to anti-communist in a matter of months. When he was once willing
to overlook the massive civil-liberties violations committed by the Stalin
regime, he now spoke out vigorously against them. More important, he became
a vocal opponent of communists in the United States.
what is perhaps the strongest section of his book, Cotterell details the
story of the ACLU's ouster of communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the
organization, the barring of communists and fascists from the organization's
board and staff, and the implementation of other policies that put the ACLU
on record as anti-communist. Although this story has been told before,
Cotterell's study allows us to see these events within the context of
Baldwin's shifting ideology, effectively connecting the ACLU's
anti-communism with the rise of civil liberties as an end in themselves in
the 1930s and afterward.
Cold War era, on the international stage the United States increasingly
contrasted itself with the U.S.S.R. on the basis of liberty and equality.
These ideals did not encompass all possible definitions of those terms.
Liberty was political, equality was tied to opportunity. Baldwin's ideals of
liberty and equality in the 1920s grew out of his communist leanings.
Equality was economic, liberty a means to that end. But by the time of the
Cold War, Baldwin's message of civil liberty had changed and was tied to
political liberty. Equality was a legal concept wherein all people possessed
the same rights. Law (and the ideal of "rule of law") became a pillar of
American freedom. The ACLU's message hewed to this tack. Indeed, by 1945
Baldwin was situated enough in the political mainstream that General Douglas
MacArthur invited him to tour American-occupied Japan
to assist in creating democratic institutions.
this point, a brief digression is in order. Throughout his book, Cotterell
makes excellent use of archival materials, particularly Baldwin's papers.
Without question, he managed to digest and synthesize a vast body of
information. Yet his discussion rarely deviates from the contents of those
papers. His account of Baldwin's Japan trip is an excellent example. Here we
discover whom Baldwin met on his trip. We know that he thought MacArthur
"charming, wise, witty..." (p. 316). We know that he met Emperor Hirohito,
that the two sat on gold and scarlet chairs and discussed the treatment of
Japanese citizens in the United States (p. 318). Unfortunately, the chapter
does not offer a concrete picture of the state of civil liberties in Japan
before and after Baldwin's trip. In sum, Cotterell tells the reader about
the significance of this trip in Baldwin's life, but he does not address the
more interesting (and admittedly more difficult) subject of how Baldwin's
trip influenced Japanese law and society, where immediately afterward or in
Following his trip to Japan,
Baldwin became increasingly involved in the international human rights
movement. He was relieved of his duties as Executive Director of the ACLU
(though, again, Cotterell does not let us in on the why of the
ouster, leaving us to speculate whether Baldwin was ousted by the board
because he was too conservative, too liberal, or simply too old). By the
twilight of his life, Baldwin no longer was perceived as a dangerous
radical; rather, he was seen as an "elder statesman of dissent" (p. 312).
His views, and those of the ACLU, had so entered the mainstream of American
law and politics - particularly in the Warren Court era - that in the final
year of Baldwin's life President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Congressional
Medal of Freedom. The question raised by this trajectory of Baldwin's life
and career is - what changed? Did Roger Baldwin change America, or did
America change Roger Baldwin? The answer, of course, is yes.
Cotterell's biography leaves little question that Baldwin's
Herculean efforts for freedom of speech and other liberties were crucial to
the growing acceptance of civil liberties in the United States. Just as
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP are largely responsible for the growth of
racial equality under law, so Baldwin and the ACLU are largely responsible
for the advance of civil liberties in the twentieth century.
what Cotterell's book provides as well is a view of how Baldwin and the ACLU
moved into line with American politics. Over the course of the twentieth
century, the ACLU's message became more and more suited to the needs of Cold
War America. Civil liberties and civil rights became weapons in the Cold War
- symbols of equality under the law. The shift necessitated stripping civil
liberties of their partisan, means-to-an-end nature. Baldwin's changing
attitudes made the shift seamless. Unfortunately, Cotterell fails to explore
fully this aspect of Baldwin's life story. We see the changes in Baldwin,
but not so much how America changed.
Cotterell's biography gives us an interesting, well-written account of a man
whose contributions to American culture cannot be underestimated. I hope
that it will be read by all the Ronald Boumans who wish to simply and vilify
what was a rich and fascinating life. However, the historian's contribution
to biography is to link the person to his or her times and the times to
history. Biography allows us to explore the interaction of individual and
society, of the day-to-day with the historical. Doing so helps us better
understand the changes in activism, law, politics, and society over the
course of one person's life. I wish that Cotterell had met this challenge.
"Letters to the Editor," The Daily Oklahoman, February 15, 2002
Call Number: JC599.U5B353 2000
Baldwin, Roger Nash, 1884-
Civil rights -- United States -- Biography
American Civil Liberties Union -- History
Civil rights -- United States -- History
Citation: Thomas Hilbink . "Review of Robert C. Cotterell, Roger Nash
Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union,"
H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April, 2002. URL:
“Perhaps because inconsistency was such a prominent
feature of Baldwin’s life, it is also a prominent feature of Cotterell’s
sympathetic but critical biography… The reader is left wondering if there is
any position Baldwin could have taken…that would satisfy Cotterell…
Otherwise, this is an excellent biography. Cotterell has a firm command of
the relevant secondary literature, and his primary research is impressive.”
Michal R. Belknap, review of Roger Nash Baldwin and
the American Civil Liberties Union, by Robert C. Cotterell, The
Journal of American History 89 (June 2002): 269-270.