Biography and History

Roger Nash Baldwin was born in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, on January 21, 1884 into a prominent Boston family. His parents were Frank Fenno Baldwin and Lucy Cushing (Nash) Baldwin, and he was the first of six children, three boys and three girls. His parents were Unitarians with strong liberal connections; W. E. B. Dubois was a Baldwin family friend and a frequent guest at the house. Baldwin's upbringing in this atmosphere in Wellesley, where he attended public school, instilled in him a life-long sympathy for the underdog. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1905 with an A.B. and an A.M. (received after a summer course in sociology).

On the advice of his father's friend and lawyer, Louis D. Brandeis, he decided to become a social worker. From 1906 to 1917 he lived and worked in St. Louis, determined to make his own way rather than depend on the family connections that would have helped him in Boston. While there he worked in the neighborhood settlements, served as chief officer of the St. Louis Juvenile Court and voluntary secretary of the National Probation Association, and founded the sociology department at Washington University, where he taught from 1906 to 1910. While in St. Louis he wrote (with Bernard Flexner) Juvenile Courts and Probation, which remained a standard in the field for many years. Ironically, in the 1960s the ACLU challenged the standards promulgated in the book, citing the need to guarantee juveniles due process.

In St. Louis Baldwin became attracted to the radical political and social movements that greatly affected his politics until the 1930s. He was a close friend of the anarchist Emma Goldman and he moved in left-wing circles. During the 1920s he joined the I.W.W., and in 1927 he visited the Soviet Union, producing from his trip a book entitled Liberty Under the Soviets, published in 1928. He broke with the Communists and other radicals only in 1939, after having been horrified by the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

Baldwin left St. Louis in 1917, when the United States entered World War I, in order to become involved with the pacifist movement. He was a member of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), an organization which lobbied first against U.S. entrance into the war and later for a negotiated peace. He also worked with the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), an arm of the AUAM founded to defend conscientious objectors but which quickly broadened its scope to include in its mission defense of the freedoms of speech, press, and conscience. In 1918 Baldwin was called up for military service, but as a conscientious objector he refused to go. His arrest, trial, and conviction made headlines, and he spent a year in jail, calling it “my vacation on the government.”

After his release, Baldwin spent four months in the Midwest working as an industrial laborer in several factories, but he was soon persuaded by his war-time NCLB colleagues to return to New York.

The end of the war had not meant an end to civil liberties violations, which were being fanned by the post-war “Red Scare,” and in 1920 the NCLB was transformed into the American Civil Liberties Union. Baldwin became its executive director.

Baldwin remained in this position until 1950. As executive director, he was intimately associated with two of the biggest cases with which the ACLU was involved in these years, the Scopes trial and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. In 1950 Baldwin resigned as executive director to become the ACLU's international adviser and to devote himself more fully to his work with the International League for the Rights of Man, where he served as chair for fifteen years. In that position he traveled extensively; his ports of call included the Middle East, Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Peru, Nigeria, many Western European countries, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

Baldwin became involved with international affairs in 1947, when the War Department invited him to go to Japan and South Korea to assist in developing civil liberties agencies in the infant democracies. He founded the Japan Civil Liberties Union, and the Japanese government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his service to Japanese democracy. In 1948 General Lucius Clay invited Baldwin to Germany and Austria to perform a similar service in those two countries; he returned to Germany several times in subsequent years.

Baldwin was also extremely active in the study and protection of civil liberties in Puerto Rico, setting up a commission to deal with the issue in the 1960s. A close friend of Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, Baldwin traveled to Puerto Rico frequently in his later years. He often taught a seminar on constitutional rights at the University of Puerto Rico law school.

Baldwin was connected to various educational institutions throughout his life. In addition to his stint at Washington University and his recurrent seminar course at the University of Puerto Rico, he taught several courses at the New School for Social Research in New York. He served for many years on the Overseers' Visiting Committee to the Harvard Economics Department. He also received numerous honorary degrees, including ones from Brandeis, Columbia, Haverford, Washington University, and Yale. His other honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 1981.

Baldwin remained active right until the end of his long life; in a series of memoranda on old age, he attributed his longevity to his constant activity. He was an avid outdoorsman who loved canoeing and bird-watching. He was a director and vice-president of the National Audubon Society and donated some of his land in New Jersey to the Audubon Society as a bird sanctuary. While in St. Louis, Baldwin adopted two boys who had come to the attention of the Juvenile Court, Oral James and Otto Stolz. James followed his adoptive father to prison as a conscientious objector during World War I, while Stolz served in the army in France. Stolz committed suicide in 1930.

After being released from prison in 1919, Baldwin married Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, a journalist and feminist who never took Baldwin's name. They divorced in 1936, although they had not lived together for over a decade, and in 1936 Baldwin married Evelyn Preston. Evie had been married before and had two small boys, Carl and Roger, who chose to take Baldwin's name long before their mother, a feminist, did. Roger and Evie had one daughter, Helen. Evie died in 1962 at the age of 64 from cancer. Helen died in 1979 at the age of 41 from cancer. Baldwin himself died of heart failure on August 26, 1981, at the age of 97.

Source: From the finding aid for MC005

  • Roger Nash Baldwin Papers. 1885-1996 (inclusive), 1911-1981 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC005

    The Roger Nash Baldwin Papers document the life and career of Roger Baldwin (1884-1981), a prominent and active American civil libertarian for almost all of his prodigiously long life. Baldwin is remembered first and foremost as a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of the papers in this collection document his involvement with the conscientious objection movement that served as the forerunner to the ACLU and with the Union itself. He served as both its executive director from its foundation in 1920 to his retirement in 1950 and as an advisor from that date until his death in 1981. However, Baldwin cast his net much wider than just the ACLU. During the 1920s and 1930s, he was involved with various left-wing political organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World. Following the end of World War II, he served as an advisor to the U.S. Army and the United Nations in Germany, Austria, Japan, and Korea, guiding the establishment of democracy in those countries, and he was for many years chair of the International League for the Rights of Man. He spoke and wrote widely, most often on issues of civil liberties and human rights, and also taught periodically throughout his life. The papers, which include correspondence, memos, writings, notes, and photographs, document all aspects of his public life, as well as some portion of his personal life.