A Teaching Cleveland Documentary. Camera, production and editing by Jeremy Borison. Special thanks to Dr. John J. Grabowski, Tom Suddes, Greg Deegan and Brent Larkin. Also to the Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland State University Special Collections and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Collection of material on Newton D. Baker
Lectures by John Grabowski, Tom Suddes, Marian Morton, Ken Ledsford and Richard Baznik
THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF NEWTON D. BAKER
Sunday, April 19
Tinkham Veale University Center
The community is invited for a day of lectures and discussion with faculty experts to examine and celebrate the life and times
of Newton D. Baker, addressing his impact on the intellectual and political life of Northeast Ohio and beyond.
with John GrabowskiAn introduction to a formative period in American political and civic life. Baker’s legacy is intimately connected to this pivotal movement in United States history.Read Dr. Grabowski’s essay about “Cleveland in 1912”
2–2:45 p.m.“Cleveland’s Newton D. Baker and John H. Clarke: Two ‘Gold Democrats’ and the New Freedom—and New Deal”
with Tom Suddes
In 1896 Baker and Clarke both split from Democrat William Jennings “Cross of Gold” Bryan. Both went on to attain great distinction, first in Northeast Ohio, then under President Wilson’s New Freedom. Baker and Clarke eventually diverged, however, in their assessment of the New Deal. How and why—that is the question.
2:45–3:30 p.m.“The Making of a Political Activist: Belle Sherwin and Woman Suffrage”
with Marian Morton
Newton Baker was a proud supporter of woman suffrage, but for Clevelander Belle Sherwin, the movement was a transforming experience. Born to privilege and propriety, Sherwin overcame her “natural shrinking from publicity” by joining, and then leading, the campaign for votes for women that changed their lives and American politics forever.
with Ken LedfordThe ham-handed efforts by Arthur Zimmermann of the Imperial German Foreign Office to deter U.S. entry into World War I by conspiring with Mexico helped Newton D. Baker navigate a path from his neutrality in the European war while mayor of Cleveland to a commitment to interventionism in January 1917 after he had become Secretary of War. The impact of the Zimmermann Telegram on Baker and U.S. policy highlight the perils of insulated and insular strategic thinking in an age of modern communications technology and surveillance.Read this wonderful story about Newton D. Baker as Secretary of War: “Recollections of Secretary Newton D. Baker” by FQC Gardner
4:30–5:15 p.m.“Newton D. Baker and the Creation of Cleveland College”
with Dick Baznik
As a progressive leader in regional and national affairs, Baker was dedicated to the cause of adult education and seized the opportunity to help launch a remarkable model in Cleveland.
Newton D. Baker at 1924 Democratic Convention
Remarks by Thomas F. Campbell
Upon the Occasion of
NEWTON D. BAKER’s
Induction into the City Club’s Hall of Fame
May 18, 1987
In 1912 Mayor Newton D. Baker was the principal speaker at
the organizational meeting of the City Club. While he welcomed
the formation of a club devoted to the discussion of municipal
affairs he stressed that the members needed to maintain a nonpartisan
spirit in their discussions of public matters. It was
good advice because many other city clubs across the country
withered and died in the arid soil of narrow partisanship.
Yet such advice surprised some Clevelanders because of
Baker’s well-earned reputation as a very partisan Democrat. But
they didn’t understand that Baker wanted the City Club to become
an educational, not a political, forum. His model was Mayor Tom
L. Johnson’s famous tent meetings where, in Baker’s opinion,
Clevelanders became the best informed citizens in the country.
Baker, who had studied political economy under Woodrow
Wilson and who was deeply influenced by Thomas Jefferson, shared
their views that democracies could not survive if their citizens
were not well informed on the issues of the day.
When Baker came to this city in 1899, he was quickly drawn
into its social and political reform circles. For several years
he lived and worked as a volunteer in Goodrich Settlement House.
Our present Juvenile Court system, Legal Aid Society and
Consumers League are part of the heritage that Baker and other
social reformers bequeathed to us. But politics was his forte,
and during the first decade of the 20th century Cleveland was in
the foreground of progressive reforms. Baker met Tom L. Johnson
in 1901 and these two transplanted southerners became the leading
spokesmen and architects of a crusade that was to earn Cleveland
a national reputation as the most progressive, best governed city
in the nation.
When Baker became Mayor in 1911, he not only developed the
Municipal Light Plant and a three-cent car fare but he played a
major role in securing a Home Rule Charter that was a model of
its kind. The debates on these first steps toward municipal
independence took place right here at the City Club. Baker
believed that a city should be as noted for its cultural assets
as well as for its municipal waterworks and he got the city to
support a local symphony and fought unsuccessfully for a
In 1916 President Wilson called upon this scholarly
“pacifist” to be his Secretary of War. Within a year Baker was
responsible for organizing an American fighting force of over 4
million and mobilizing our industrial resources to supply them
with munitions and transportation. It was a major tribute to
Baker’s administrative and political skills that this massive
mobilization was successfully achieved and without a taint of
When the Great War ended in 1918 there were over two million
men in France. Some generals who were of the Grand Old Duke of
York School — he marched them up to the top of the hill, and he
marched them down again — wanted to drill the men until they
fell down with fatigue. Baker had a different and more creative
idea. Influenced by the educational impact of the Johnson tent
meetings, he wanted to give the idle soldiers an opportunity to
study, so he organized the university of the American
Expeditionary Forces. As a result over 141,000 men took
advantage of the fully fledged colleges and correspondence
schools that were set up in France and elsewhere. The sight of
these citizen-soldiers eagerly learning a variety of academic
subjects so impressed Baker that he became in the 1920’s a
leading national advocate of adult education programs. He was
the prime force that persuaded Western Reserve University to
establish its famous downtown, but now sadly defunct, Cleveland
In 1921 Baker, financially and physically exhausted after
two decades of strenuous public service, returned to the firm he
had established in 1916. Within a few years the firm, popularly
known then and now as “BakerHostetler” had earned a national
reputation and there is little doubt that Baker would have
immense pride in that firm’s continual growth in size and
In the remaining 16 years of his life, he continued to
promote the Wilsonian dream of a League of Nations. Indeed, it
was this unrepentant internationalism that destroyed his chances
of securing the nomination of the Democratic Party for President
in 1932. William Randolph Hearst, deadly afraid that Baker might
get the nomination, threw his support to F.D.R.
In the last few years of his life, Baker grew increasingly
uncomfortable with the direction of Roosevelt’s policies and
impatient with the arrogance of some New Deal Administrators, yet
he could never desert the Democratic Party even as it appeared to
him to be moving away from the ideals of his own presidential
heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.
As a man of common sense and as an idealist Newton D.
Baker served this city and this nation in an extraordinary
fashion in times of peace and war. Ralph Hayes said of Baker
when he died on Christmas Day 1937 that for forty years Baker had
been to this municipality, counselor, guide, and friend. That’s
why we honor him tonight.”
Newton D. Baker: Cleveland’s Greatest Mayor
By Thomas Suddes
Approaching age 30, Newton D. Baker, a West Virginian educated at two of America’s finest universities, came to Cleveland in 1899. Baker was enormously gifted. And Baker was searching for opportunity. He found it in Cleveland, like so many before him, like so many since.
And in time, Baker became a protégé of perhaps Cleveland’s best-known mayor, the great reformer Tom L. Johnson, mayor from 1899 to 1909.
Baker also became the executor of Johnson’s political legacy, fashioning it into forms and philosophies that characterize Cleveland’s government and political culture even today.
Johnson’s vision and the battles he waged on behalf of ordinary Clevelanders likely make Johnson better-known today than Newton Diehl Baker is.
But in terms of follow-through, in terms of shaping the Ohio Constitution into what it is now, and fashioning a city charter to give Clevelanders more freedom to govern themselves than ever before, Baker, arguably, was Cleveland’s greatest mayor. Johnson had the dream, but Baker made much of it real.
Baker didn’t just share Johnson’s outlook. Baker made Johnson’s hopes concrete by deploying exceptional gifts for advocacy in the courtroom. Little wonder that Tom Johnson made Newton Baker first assistant law director for Cleveland.
Johnson, in his autobiography, lavishly praised Newton Baker for his many talents, but especially Baker’s legal acumen:
Though [Baker in 1903] was the youngest of us all, [he] was really the head of the Cabinet and adviser to us all. As a lawyer, he was pitted against the biggest lawyers in the State. No other City Solicitor ever had the same number of cases crowded into his office in the same length of time or so large a crop of injunctions to respond to, and in my judgment no other man in the State could have done the work so well.1
Baker, like Johnson, was an idealist. Baker’s idealism recommended him to The Plain Dealer when it endorsed him for mayor in 1911:
“[Baker’s] critics … call him a dreamer. … [But] the progress of the world is written in the dreams of dreamers. … Unless a man is a dreamer, he is a plodder. .. . Plodders have their place of course, but no wide-awake city wants one for mayor.”2
Three times the voters of Cleveland elected Baker their city solicitor (a job today called city law director). “Baker’s job,” Archer Shaw of The Plain Dealer wrote, “was to find the law to support the ambitious designs of [Johnson].” That is, Baker in effect channeled through litigation Johnson’s dreams for Cleveland: And “the most important battle the Johnson-Baker partnership waged was municipal operation of Cleveland’s street railroads.”3 Little wonder, then, that after Johnson’s 1911 death, Baker inherited “the mantle of chief [Cleveland reformer].”4
How did Baker appear to the colleagues and voters – and adversaries – who encountered him? The New York Tribune, profiling Baker when Wilson named him secretary of War, said Baker was “a slim little man with a fighting jaw and a whimsical eye. … He is possessed of a clear analytical mind which has been called one of the most intellectual in the country.”5 He was also “youthful in appearance, he was an excellent extemporaneous speaker and seldom wrote out even a major address.”6 In a 1916 study, published just after Baker had left the mayor’s office, Western Reserve’s C.C. Arbuthnot wrote this about Baker: “A cultivated taste and a wide intellectual outlook, united with a catholicity in judgment, made the scholar in the mayor’s office a source of more real gratification to many of his fellow townsmen than malls and monumental buildings.” 7
Baker’s popularity crossed party lines. For example, in 1909, even as the voters of Cleveland ousted Johnson from the mayor’s office and replaced him with Republican brewer Hermann Behr, those same voters re-elected Baker, Tom Johnson’s lieutenant and fellow Democrat, as Cleveland’s city solicitor. “Baker,” Shaw wrote, “was the only Democrat [that year] to survive the Republican onslaught.”8
The path from Martinsburg, W.Va., Baker’s hometown, to Cleveland, wasn’t direct, but in retrospect it looks preordained. Before coming to Cleveland, Baker had landed a patronage job as assistant to Postmaster General William L. Wilson, a West Virginian who from 1895 to 1897 was in Grover Cleveland’s Cabinet.9 In mid-1897, after Canton Republican William McKinley succeeded Democrat Cleveland, Baker took an Atlantic voyage. One of Baker’s shipmates was a highly successful Democratic lawyer from Cleveland, Martin A. Foran (1844-1921).10 In the 1880s, Foran served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was later elected a judge of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.
After Baker returned to the United States from his voyage, he sought a bigger arena than Martinsburg (and West Virginia) in which to practice law, such as Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Baker was, his biographer recorded, “impressed with the public spirit of Cleveland; everyone seemed to be aware of the importance of good government and public improvement.”11
Meanwhile, Foran asked another Cleveland lawyer, who happened to have been a Baker classmate at Johns Hopkins – Frederic C. Howe – to recommend an able lawyer to join Foran’s practice.12 (Howe was more than just a classmate of Baker’s – he was also a fraternity brother to Baker.)13 Howe suggested Baker; Foran remembered Baker from their voyage – and hired him.
When Newton Baker arrived in Cleveland to practice law, he was far from alone in seeking his fortune in the lakeside metropolis. Greater Cleveland’s pulsing industrial might arguably made the city and its environs that era’s Silicon Valley, albeit a Silicon Valley that produced steel and chemicals and, perhaps above all, the machine tools that made Ohio one of the world’s manufacturing giants. The city and its enterprises were exploding with growth.
Population statistics offer dramatic evidence of that growth. In 1890, roughly a decade before Baker came to in Cleveland, the city had about 262,000 residents. The 1900 Census, taken the year after Baker settled in Cleveland, found that the city now housed more than 381,000 men, women and children. That is, in 10 years, the city’s population had grown 45 percent. “Cleveland,” historian Thomas Campbell wrote, “had reached the flowering stage of its industrial development.”
Campbell, biographer of another Western Reserve newcomer, Daniel Morgan of Southern Ohio’s Jackson County, described Cleveland around 1900 this way:
Thousands of people had poured in … Most were bewildered immigrants, speaking a babel of tongues … But not all had crossed the seas to make their home in Cleveland. Many … were … country folk leaving farms and small towns. … All of them, immigrants and migrants alike, were the new pioneers of the twentieth century … [in a] congested conglomeration of factories and office buildings, homes and slums, filled with a noisy, restless tide of humanity.14
It was, incidentally, that human tsunami that helped prompt the birth of Cleveland’s settlement house movement, which aimed to assimilate newcomers into the city, and the adult education movement, which aimed to educate working-class Clevelanders for jobs and citizenship.
Appropriately, adult education was a key ingredient in Newton Baker’s recipe for a better Cleveland. In the 1920s, after Baker had been Cleveland’s mayor and Wilson’s secretary of War, Baker was the heart and soul of Cleveland College, which was dedicated to adult education. Baker considered Cleveland College “the most significant educational project with which he was connected.”15
Daniel Morgan, from Jackson County’s Welsh-American village of Oak Hill, got to Cleveland in 1901 after graduating from Harvard law school. In time, Morgan would help Newton Baker write Cleveland’s charter. Still later, Morgan became Cleveland’s second city manager and, toward the end of his life, a judge of the Ohio Court of Appeals (8th District).
Morgan, with Baker, were two of the stars in a galaxy whose sun was Tom L. Johnson, born in Kentucky in 1854. Another person in the Johnson cohort was Harris Cooley, born in 1857 in what was then Royalton Township. Cooley was a Disciples of Christ minister who later served in Johnson’s Cabinet
Also orbiting Johnson was Peter Witt. Born in Cleveland in 1869, Witt, like Johnson, was a disciple of philosopher Henry George.
George (1839-1897) wrote Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Causes of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, published in 1879. Reduced to essentials, George’s book called for a Single Tax on land to capture, for public benefit, the unearned increases in land’s value due to public improvements and economic growth.16 It is hard now to recapture the excitement generated by George’s Single Tax idea. Those who believed in the Single Tax claimed it would end poverty. The Single Tax captivated Tom L. Johnson: “[Johnson] had gotten an idea – the idea that poverty, unemployment, slums, disease, crime – could be eliminated.”17
Newton Baker was Johnson’s acolyte. Baker appreciated Henry George’s war on privilege. But Baker didn’t share Johnson’s enthusiasm for the Single Tax because, “unlike Johnson, [Baker] never believed there could be wholesale application of single-tax principles to the old and established society in which he lived.”18
Indeed, Baker’s personal library, at least in the 1930s, lacked a copy of Progress and Poverty (though a biography of Henry George, by George’s son, was.)19 That is, Baker was no radical. He was “basically an aristocrat who had little in common,” for instance, “with [Peter] Witt’s savage attacks, ruthless sarcasm, and lack of refinement.”20 In fact, according to another Baker biographer, Baker “consistently drew support from constructive conservatives, both Republican and Democratic, in Cleveland. [He was] deeply committed to stability and order.”21
If Baker were an “aristocrat,” he was an aristocrat of the liberal persuasion. Consider what Baker said in the 1920s about the liberalism he had always embraced in political life:
Liberalism is a state of mind and not a creed. A liberal uses his fellow man for their own benefit and not for his own. He judges political purposes by their effect on the common good, and he has in his mind’s eye, as the ultimate object of his concern “the forgotten man,” remote, obscure and inaudible in high places. Liberalism of this quality is imperishable and it has many brave services yet to perform for the American people.22
Programmatically, the 1912 Democratic state platform may be as good a guide as there is to the collective thinking of that era’s Ohio Democrats – and Newton D. Baker was then a member of the Ohio Democratic State Central Committee:
The [Ohio] Democratic party stands, first, for the restoration of the government to the people through direct legislation and through the simplification of the machinery of government so the people may adequately express themselves; and, second, for legislation looking to the abolition of privilege and to the restoration of equal opportunity to all.23
It was Foran who had told Tom L. Johnson about Baker, according to Hoyt Landon Warner: “Johnson, immediately attracted to Baker, brought him into his administration first as legal adviser to a tax boards and then, when an opening occurred, as an assistant law director.” 24 Baker had already done “social and civic work” at the urging of Howe, who’d “invited [Baker] to a join a social service club at the YMCA, which conducted a vigorous program for the welfare of children and workingmen.”25 Howe later recalled:
The brilliant promise of Baker’s student days at Johns Hopkins was more than fulfilled in those early years of his maturity [in Tom Johnson’s Cleveland]. He was a splendid speaker, fluent, resourceful, and adaptable. Richly endowed mentally he seemed never to know what it was to be tired. He did his work easily, mastered intricate legal subjects quickly, and had time for wide and carefully selected reading.26
Besides Baker and Cooley, Morgan and Witt, others in Tom L. Johnson’s inner circle included Painesville native Charles W. Stage, a lawyer who served in Baker’s mayoral administration; Howe, born in Pennsylvania in 1867, a Cleveland City Council member allied to Johnson during Johnson’s mayoralty, who’d recommended Baker to Martin Foran; and Massachusetts-born Edward W. Bemis, who reformed Cleveland’s waterworks when Johnson was mayor. Coincidentally, Howe and Bemis, like Baker, held degrees from Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876 as the first American research university, where future President Woodrow Wilson, who later figures large in the Newton Baker story, earned a Ph.D. in 1886.
In Cleveland, as in other big cities, a cauldron of industrial expansion and population growth brought with it enormous challenges. Some were obvious: Growth could easily outpace existing urban services (streets, sewers and drains, gas-, electricity- and telephone services, public transportation). But ruthless, determined monopolists controlled the immense sums of capital required to add or expand urban services. That stark fact created a conflict of interest between elected officials eager to provide their cities with public services – and the monopolists who owned utilities that monopolized extortionately priced public services.
Worse, urban service monopolists had an end-run in case a given cities officials scorned bribes and blackmail. In that case, special interests could quietly run (and lavishly finance) pet candidates. Or, at less risk, though at greater cost, special interests could grease the Ohio General Assembly to rip local decision- making away from local officials.
That was done through appropriately named “ripper” bills. In 1902, for instance, the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill stripping the mayor of Toledo (Sam “Golden Rule” Jones) of power over that city’s police board and police court. “And that was not the only ripper bill passed in the 1902 session. The tax boards of the cities were shifted from local to state control, and Cleveland also had its park board metamorphosed.”27
Earlier, in 1896, the General Assembly flaunted an especially smelly example of interference in local matters. Former Gov. Joseph B. Foraker, a Cincinnati Republican and major lawyer-lobbyist, engineered General Assembly passage of the “notorious Rogers Law,” which benefited the Cincinnati Street Railway Co., the city’s streetcar monopoly, by allowing Cincinnati officials to extend – for 50 years – the streetcar company’s franchise.
Among those who denounced the Rogers Law was the great muckraker Lincoln Steffens. He denounced the bill not only for what it was, but for what it demonstrated about how the marriage of political corruption and private greed were trampled at the Ohio Statehouse:
The plain, undeniable, open facts are that the Legislature of 1896 which elected Foraker to the United States Senate was led by the Senator … to pass in the interest of the traction company a bill which granted privileges so unpopular that public opinion required a repeal in the next Legislature of 1898. In other words, this man, who by his eloquence won the faith of his people, betrayed them for some reason to those interests which were corrupting the government in order to get privileges from it.28
Worse, Foraker later “represented the transit firm before [state officials] and succeeded in winning a $285,000 reduction in the company’s tax valuation.”29 Even more outrageously, after courts ruled that the Rogers Law was blatantly unconstitutional, General Assembly members in thrall to the teeming Statehouse traction lobby tried to pass a “curative provision” to overturn the court’s ruling and thus reinstate the Cincinnati Street Railway’s sweet, 50-year franchise.
This was the seamy Statehouse reality that reformers such as Johnson and Baker had to confront in Columbus. That so-called curative law, a bid “to restore such an ‘iniquitous franchise’ aroused the ire of [Newton] Baker and [Tom] Johnson, who delivered tirades against the curative proposal.”30 Foraker’s maneuvers demonstrated how it was that in that era of Ohio history, a corrupt legislature could be bought and sold by corporate interests in end-runs around good government reformers in Ohio’s city halls.
Baker later described the difficulties that Ohio cities faced at the Statehouse before home rule:
We had a legislature … which we called “The Garbage Legislature.” Men trafficked in votes upon legislation in the lobby of a hotel immediately across from the State House, and men were heard to weep and complain because the amount they had gotten for their vote was less than some associate legislator had gotten.31
In 1912, Baker wrote the Ohio Constitution’s municipal home rule amendment. And Baker helped form the commission that wrote Cleveland’s first home rule charter, which the city’s voters approved in 1913.32
A few years later, in 1914, after Ohio had empowered its cities and villages, Baker said this of the privately owned utilities whose excesses helped get home rule ratified: “All sincere and fair observers put their fingers upon the public utilities corporations in the city as at least the greatest contributing cause of the corruption of the American city.”33
Such interference by monopolies and a shady legislature that sparked Cleveland’s battle, on its behalf, and on behalf of Ohio’s other big cities, to determine local policies locally: Home rule.
Any discussion of Baker’s commitment to home rule needs to be guided by an important aspect of Baker’s thinking. Interference with the affairs of Cleveland by the General Assembly was, wrong, yes, and even if it hadn’t been wrong it was done for all the wrong reasons.
But what Baker really opposed was the strait-jacketing of Cleveland (or any community) with one-size-fits-all demands from a centralized government. His concerns were not so much philosophical as they were practical: Central imposition of uniform patterns was simply unworkable.
Baker said that cities should be experiment stations, as, for instance, were the agricultural experiment stations Congress authorized in every state by the Hatch Act of 1887, signed by President Grover Cleveland. The act authorized grants to every land-grant college – Ohio’s is Ohio State University – to promote experimentation and disseminate the results of research.
For instance, writing to his friend John H. Clarke in March 1916, Baker said, “The problems of democracy have to be worked out in experiment stations rather than by universal applications, so that I regard Cleveland and Ohio as a more hopeful place to do things than in any national station whatsoever.”34 Thus, Baker, “during his years of struggle with officials at the state capital in Columbus… developed a profound distrust of government beyond the local or municipal level.”35
Experimenting locally meant cutting fetters clamped on at the Statehouse. In 1916, Mayo Fesler of the Cleveland Civic League sketched the objectives Baker and other urban reformers had in prying a home rule amendment from Ohio’s 1912 Ohio Constitutional Convention.
Cities and villages, Fesler wrote, wanted freedom from General Assembly interference. They wanted to exercise, themselves, “all powers of local self- government.” And they wanted power to determine their own specific forms of city or village government by writing, if they chose, their own charters, as Cleveland’s voters did in June 1913.
In 1916, just three years after the home rule amendment had become part of the Ohio Constitution, Fesler found that court rulings had advanced (or at least not impeded) those reform objectives.36 Interestingly, Fesler wrote that municipal home rule had “made Ohio a municipal laboratory … for promoting economy and business-like efficiency” – the very experiment stations that Newton Baker wanted Ohio’s cities and villages to become.
So what, before and after the 1912 convention, did Newton Diehl Baker do to realize the dreams of Tom L. Johnson and advance of the hopes of rank-and- file Clevelanders?
Looking back, Western Reserve University’s Arbuthnot observed in 1916 that, with the exception of Hermann Baehr’s two years in the mayor’s office, Cleveland “has been for fifteen years under the influence of the [Tom] Johnson school of politics.”37
True, Arbuthnot found that, financially, Cleveland was in a deficit. But Arbuthnot attributed that not to municipal mismanagement but to the revenue shortages faced by many American cities. But Arbuthnot made another observation, as sound today as it was in 1916: “The growth in civic necessities has been more rapid than the growth in civic consciousness.”38 In short, voters were willing to demand and use new city services, but were also reluctant to pay for them. Too, the Ohio General Assembly, as was its right under the home rule amendment, had limited city and village taxation via the so-called Smith law.
Offsetting those problems was completion by Baker of a new (today’s) City Hall; smooth implementation of the so-called Tayler plan regulating mass transit fares and service in the city; improvements in the East Ohio Gas Co.’s service inside Cleveland; and Baker’s policy of “seeking even in other cities for the best [administrative] talent available.” 39
Baker’s record of achievements as Cleveland’s mayor began in 1911 when voters elected him rather than the Republican candidate, Frank G. Hogen. (Hogan had been in the mayoral Cabinet of Hermann Baehr, who’d unseated Tom Johnson in 1909.)
Candidate Baker “made the chief issue of the  campaign” the approval of a $2 million Cleveland city bond issue whose proceeds would expand what became known as Muny Light (today’s Cleveland Public Power. The Muny Light expansion “cut the electric-light rate to three cents.”
In the 1911 mayoral campaign, the primacy of the public vs. power debate was demonstrated by what historian Hoyt Landon Warner characterized as the campaign’s climax. It was a debate between Baker and Samuel Scovill, president of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., now a tentacle of Akron-based FirstEnergyCorp.
Baker and Scovill faced each other in the auditorium of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. Baker, Warner wrote, “concluded with a characteristic dramatic touch, ‘I am in the house of have. I appeal on behalf of the house of want – for justice.’ ”40
Newton Diehl Baker’s record as mayor of Cleveland was a cavalcade of accomplishments, previewed by a 1911 campaign that copied some of Tom Johnson’s campaign techniques, including Johnson’s tent meetings.41 Baker’s 1911 victory, by a plurality of 17,738 votes, “was the largest received by a candidate for mayor up to that time.”42
One post-victory priority was perfecting home rule for Ohio cities by amending the Ohio Constitution, something Ohio’s (male) voters did in 1912; they approved many proposals of a state constitutional convention, including a home rule amendment. (Baker collaborated with another Ohio municipal reformer, Toledo’s Brand Whitlock in composing the amendment.)43
With the home rule amendment ratified, according to Baker biographer Cramer, Baker became known as the “three-cent mayor.” That is, Baker wanted “three-cent streetcar fares, [lighting], dances and fish,” the latter referring to a municipal fishery Baker supported to help consumers when prices climbed in the private market.44
In 1913, Baker won re-election. He captured a second mayoral term by besting GOP challenger, Harry L. Davis, whom Warner, the historian of Ohio Progressivism, described as “a politician of small caliber.”45 Davis was backed by the Cleveland Leader, owned by, and voice of, Dan Hanna, son of Mark.46 The Cleveland Press, in endorsing Baker, said, “Newton Baker has gone briskly and capably about his job of being a good mayor. … He has been part of every forward movement the people of Cleveland have made.”47
Still, as Cramer recorded, Baker beat Davis by just 3,258 votes in 1913, a much smaller margin than Baker had accumulated in 1911 against Hogen. Interestingly, Baker received “decisive nonpartisan support [from] independent Republicans,” likely the result of Baker’s nonpartisanship.48 As mayor, Cramer concluded, “had given Cleveland both dignified and distinguished service,” which had contributed to Baker’s re-election victory.49 (Nevertheless, as Cramer also observed, “the position [of mayor] in City Hall was destined to be the last elective office held by the ‘Big Little Mayor.’ ”)50
Muny Light opened in 1914. It was, according to Cramer, “the largest in the nation at the time,” and Baker later estimated that over the plant’s first eight years, “it saved the people of Cleveland almost fourteen million dollars.”51
Western Reserve’s Arbuthnot made it clear that, in the absence of better accounting data, it was unclear if Muny Light – which began operating in July 1914 and by 1916 had 15,000 customers – was operating in the red or operating in the black.
Foreshadowing what would become nearly a century of attacks on public power, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., which had 75,000 Cleveland customers at the time Arbuthnot wrote, claimed Muny Light was operating in the red. Muny Light, Arbuthnot reported, claimed it had accrued a $33,000 profit during the first seven months of 1915. Undeterred, the Illuminating Co. claimed Muny Light had incurred an $81,000 loss during that same period that was masked by Muny Light accounting that, intentionally or not, the Illuminating Co. claimed was incorrect.52
Baker’s appointment of Peter Witt as traction commissioner was considered a major success, as were such Baker accomplishments as a subsidized municipal orchestra, new city piers, and the realization of some features – sadly, not all of them – of Daniel Burnham’s Group Plan for the Mall.53
On the other side of the ledger, an adulterous affair led to the removal of police chief Fred Kohler, and for reasons that now seem inexplicable, Baker failed to see the urgency of securing for Cleveland a first-class and salubrious water supply, although in time he attacked that problem.54
In or out of City Hall, Baker’s prominence and accomplishments made him a sparkplug of the Democratic Party’s reform wing. From youth until death, Baker was among Democrats’ most revered and senior national statesmen, even if, in time, Baker broke with the New Deal outlook of his fellow Democrat and longtime acquaintance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s brand of liberalism wasn’t Baker’s brand. One historian said that Baker, like many of that era’s other conservative Democrats, might best be described as “internationalist in foreign outlook and conservative in domestic philosophy.”55
Baker didn’t seek a third term as mayor, left office on Jan. 1, 1916 – and, soon after, Woodrow Wilson named him secretary of War.
Today a Greater Clevelander knows much about Newton Baker, that’s likelier due not to Baker’s illustrious civic leadership but, say, to the 800-lawyer Cleveland-based BakerHostetler law firm, which Baker helped found. Or, if a Clevelander is an Ohio State University alumnus, perhaps he or she knows that an Ohio State dormitory, Baker Hall, which opened in 1940 on the university’s south campus, several years after Baker died, is named for Baker. He was once an Ohio State trustee.
Fame is fleeting, but accomplishments last. It is only a slight exaggeration to say of Baker and of the Cleveland and Ohio he helped create, as the epitaph of the British architect Christopher Wren says of Wren in Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you seek his monument, look around.” In Baker’s case, that means looking around Greater Cleveland – and looking around Ohio, especially at the state’s constitutional and statutory framework for city and village self- government.
On the roster of political godparents of today’s Cleveland, Johnson arguably has primacy over Baker, at least in public memory. But Baker indisputably was Tom Johnson’s heir.
Baker came to believe, though, that not all the reforms Progressives ballyhooed in Ohio in 1912 were necessarily unqualified plusses. Among reforms Baker later believed had been “tried and found of less value in practice” were the initiative, referendum, recall, non-partisan primaries, the commission form of city government and proportional representation.56 Ohio authorizes the initiative and referendum, and grants cities and villages, if they wish, the recall, non-partisan elections, a commission form of local government and proportional representation (though “commission” municipalities are few, and proportional representation now appears to be absent from Ohio).
Baker, writing in the 1920s, a decade after being mayor, said that home rule had made a salutary difference in local government in Ohio:
Many cities have made and re-made their own charters and a series of informing experiments has been made in municipal institutions, so that city government is freer from bossism, more responsive to popular control and more efficient than it used to be. With these changes has come the full acceptance of the program of municipal activity for which radicals used to contend – better public schools, parks, bath houses and public control of public utility monopolies.57
Early in his days at Cleveland City Hall, Baker’s reputation for sturdy liberalism in the face of such right-leaning Ohio Democrats as Gov. Judson Harmon, a railroad lawyer from Cincinnati, evoked at least one published call, in a letter to the editor of the influential North American Review, for Baker’s nomination for president in 1916 in lieu of incumbent Democrat Wilson, seen by the letter-writer as too conservative:
In the fight for a [reformed] constitution in Ohio the master hand and master mind of Newton D. Baker could be traced at every turn, – the same Baker that fought through fifty-seven injunctions from the lowest court in Ohio up to the Supreme Court of the United States to fix forever the principle that every American city has a right to its own streets?58
On the social front, Newton Baker, first as a Johnson lieutenant, then as mayor of Cleveland, finally as a post-mayoral Clevelander, promoted the idea of public responsibility for enculturation (or, in the case of immigrants, acculturation) by, for example, as noted above, establishing Cleveland College as a school for adult learners.
Cleveland College was part of what is now Case Western Reserve University. The college’s founding was a huge boost for Greater Clevelanders: Before the college opened, “Cleveland didn’t have a municipal or quasi-municipal institution of higher education. In contrast … [there were] … 11 municipal colleges or universities [elsewhere] … including Ohio’s Akron, Cincinnati, and Toledo universities.”59
Baker’s lasting national prominence was such that, even years after leaving Cleveland City Hall, and more than a decade after Wilson’s presidency ended, he was a potential Democratic presidential nominee. That fact, often overlooked today, earned mention in a book of A.J. Liebling’s essays published a decade later, in the 1940s.60
Liebling’s New Yorker profile of newspaper mogul Roy Howard of the Scripps Howard chain (which included The Cleveland Press) recorded that Howard had been part of a “stop (Franklin) Roosevelt” movement at the 1932 Democratic National Convention.
Howard’s take on Baker’s potential for landing the nomination in lieu of FDR: If Roosevelt’s convention foes managed to stop Roosevelt, that might eventuate in Baker’s nomination. (And Baker, Liebling tartly noted, was “incidentally, general counsel for the Scripps-Howard newspapers.”)
Not everyone was either persuaded by Baker’s eloquence or edified by his stated idealism. For example, in a slashing 1932 article, the great liberal journalist Oswald Garrison Villard denounced Baker in every mood and tense:
Just another politician and orator without fixed principles, veering to the wind if necessity arises or there is an opportunity to take office or make money – this is Newton D. Baker. … He started out as an idealist of the finest type; he can clothe his ideals in beautiful language and touching generalities. … Then he can and will forsake them whenever expediency counsels.61
After leaving Wilson’s Cabinet, Baker was not simply a “prominent lawyer” or a “former mayor.” In life, as in politics, Baker was not all one thing or the other, which was evidently part of what irked Villard. Baker’s biographer wrote:
Baker believed sincerely in the ultimate objectives of the Progressive Movement but often disagreed with his colleagues on the most suitable means to achieve them. With [Tom L.] Johnson he agreed in the soundness of the anti-privilege position taken by Henry George; unlike Johnson he never believed there could be a wholesale application of single-tax principles to the old and established society in which he lived. There was a lot of Southern tradition in Baker, and it sometimes seemed contradictory that this lawyer and scholar should espouse the cause of the people and take an abiding interest in modern sociology and politics. But he had a warm heart along with his cool head, and the heart was moved by Tom Johnson just as it was to be excited later by Woodrow Wilson.62
After World War I, Baker helped build BakerHostetler; tended to personal investments; and further burnished his reputation as a superb advocate for his clients and causes. And Baker, like his close friend John Clarke, who in 1916 Wilson had named to the U.S. Supreme Court , was an ardent League of Nations supporter, a cause that was a moving force in Wilson’s presidency, though that quest ended in failure.63 (To Villard’s disgust, Baker later abandoned his call for U.S. membership in the League.)
Baker’s plea for League membership, given in a speech to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. “was remembered by Adlai Stevenson as the greatest speech he had ever heard.”64 It “enhanced [Baker’s] stature and cemented his image as heir apparent to the [Wilson] mantle.”65
Baker’s great gifts as a courtroom advocate were both a plus and a minus to after he returned to private life while remaining active in Democratic Party affairs. For instance, though it may seem paradoxical given Baker’s support for and identification with what’s now Cleveland Public Power, “Baker’s greatest handicap [in the 1930s] with Progressives was his identification [as a lawyer] with private utility interests.”
A particularly piquant instance was Baker’s legal representation of Appalachian Power Company, today’s American Electric Power Co., in what was known as the New River Case, a 15-year court fight over whether federal law could require Appalachian to secure a Federal Power Commission license to dam the New River.66 And support of public power (as opposed to private power) was a key test of political authenticity to the Progressives who by then were key players in Democratic presidential nomination campaigns
One such Progressive, Judson King, of the National Popular Government League, said this of Baker: “Baker has taken a long stray to the right since I used to know him back in 1906 to 1910 as the right arm of Tom Johnson.”67
Moreover, Baker was also a supporter of the so-called open shop, a fact he had confirmed in 1922 correspondence with Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor.68 An “open shop” refers to a workplace that does not require an employee to join a labor union as a condition of his or her employment in that job. The Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, of which Baker had been president, favored the open shop.
Franklin Roosevelt, not Newton Baker, was Democrat’s 1932 nominee, and FDR handily won the presidency, then a second term in 1936, despite the misgivings of Baker and other conservative Democrats. FDR’s policies concerned Baker to the point that he confided in his close (maybe closest) friend, retired Justice Clarke, that Roosevelt might not get Baker’s vote in November 1936. In a letter to Clarke, who had retired to San Diego, Baker indicted the New Deal “for its ‘frightful extravagance,’ for the ‘wickedness of a political administration of these government favors,’ for … ‘coercion.’ … ‘Our present government is a government by propaganda and terrorism.’ ”69 But as the 1936 election neared, Baker hinted to Clarke that Roosevelt might have improved his standing with Baker, if slightly:
If I am sure the President will be re-elected, I shall not vote for him. If I think there is any doubt I shall … If I could have my way, Roosevelt would be reelected by one vote and the House of Representatives would be so closely divided that one sensible and courageous man would hold the balance of power.70
Newton Baker’s 1936 take on FDR had an uncanny resemblance to the plaintive remark of a New York Democrat disillusioned in 1896 by another perceived Democratic radical, William Jennings Bryant: “I was a Democrat before the …convention, and I am a Democrat still – very still.”71
1 Archer H. Shaw, “New War secretary as his neighbors know him,” The New York Times (March 12, 1916).
2 “Newton D. Baker, Dreamer,” The Plain Dealer, Oct. 30, 1911.
3 Beaver, 4.
5 Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker, America at War (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1931), 7, citing the New York Tribune, March 7, 1916.
6 Beaver, 7.
7 Arbuthnot, 240.
9 C. H. Cramer , Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland: World Publishing Co. , 1961), 26-29.
10 Ibid. 29-30; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present, s.v. “Foran, Martin Ambrose. ”
11 Cramer, op. cit., 30.
12 Howe,1867-1940, a key ally of Tom L. Johnson, was later elected to the Cleveland City Council and the Ohio Senate: Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, s.v. “Howe, Frederic C.”
13 Warner, op. cit., 63.
14 Thomas F. Campbell, Daniel E. Morgan, 1877-1949, The Good Citizen in Politics (Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966), 10.
15 C. H. Cramer , Newton D. Baker, a Biography (Cleveland: W orld Publishing Co. , 1961), 198.
16 American National Biography, s.v. “George, Henry.”
17 Cramer , C. H. , Newton D. Baker, a Biography (Cleveland: W orld Publishing Co. , 1961), 36.
18 Ibid., 41.
19 Willis Thornton, Newton D. Baker and His Books (Cleveland, The Press of Western Reserve University, 1954), 71.
20 Cramer, op. cit., 41.
21 Beaver, op. cit., 5.
22 “Where Are the Pre-War Radicals?” The Survey 55 ( Feb. 1, 1926): 557.
23 “Ohio Democratic Platform, 1912,” Ohio Almanac and Hand-Book of Information (1914), 222-223. 24 Ibid.
26 Frederic C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (New Y ork: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), 190.
27 Hoyt Landon Warner, Progressivism in Ohio, 1897-1917 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press for the Ohio Historical Society, 1964), 36, 106.
28 Lincoln Steffens, The Struggle for Self-Government, Being an Attempt to Trace American Political Corruption to Its Sources in Six States in the United States, with a Dedication to the Czar (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1906), 176-177.
29 Robert H. Bremner, “Asa S. Bushnell, 1896-1900,” in The Governors of Ohio (Columbus: The Ohio Historical Society, 1954), 133.
30 Warner, op. cit., 112.
31 Baker, “Municipal Ownership,” op. cit., 190.
32 The Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, s. v . “Baker , Newton Diehl. ”
33 Newton D. Baker, “Municipal Ownership,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 57 (January 1915): 189. This number of the Annals published the Proceedings of the Conference of American Mayors on Public Policies as to Municipal Utilities, held in Philadelphia on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14, 1914.
34 Beaver, 1.
35 Beaver, 5.
36 Mayo Fesler, “The Progress of Municipal Home Rule in Ohio” National Municipal Review (v. 5, no. 2) April 1916, 242.
37 C.C. Arbuthnot, “Mayor Baker’s Administration in Cleveland” National Municipal Review (v. 5, no. 2), April 1916, 226.
38 Ibid., 227.
40 Warner, op. cit., 302.
41 Cramer, 47.
42 Ibid., 48-49.
43 Ibid., 49-50.
44 Ibid., 50-51.
45 Ibid.. 444; Davis (1878-1950) eventually did win election as mayor, and in 1920 he was elected governor of Ohio for one term (1921-1923); Davis was mayor for a fourth term 1933 and 1934: The Governors of Ohio (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1954), 163-165. Davis tried an unsuccessful gubernatorial comeback in 1924.
46 Warner, op. cit., and Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, s.v., “Cleveland Leader.”
47 “What the issue is,” The Cleveland Press, Nov. 1, 1913.
48 Cramer, op. cit., 58 49 Ibid., 57.
50 Ibid., 59.
51 Ibid., 51.
52 Arbuthnot, 239. 53 Ibid., 52-54.
54 Ibid., 55-56.
55 Elliott A. Rosen, “Baker on the Fifth Ballot? The Democratic Alternative: 1932,” Ohio History 75 (autumn 1965): 229. Though the idea of Democrats as “business conservatives” may appear paradoxical, that would aptly characterize Grover Cleveland’s Democratic administration, in whose Post Office Department Baker served. And in 1896, one of Baker’s closest friends, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John H. Clarke, likewise a Greater Cleveland progressive, declined to support the pro-silver inflationary Democratic presidential ticket led by William Jennings Bryant but instead backed the National Democratic (”gold Democrat”) ticket led by John M. Palmer; so, incidentally, did
Wilson; see David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900,” Independent Review 4 (spring 2000): 568, 569.
56 “Where Are the Pre-War Radicals?” op. cit., 556.
58 John McF. Howie, “The Master Hand and Mind of Newton D. Baker,” North American Review 204 (August 1916), 319.
59 Thomas Suddes, “The Adult Education Tradition in Greater Cleveland,” 11, in Teaching Cleveland, citing John P . Dyer , Ivory T owers in the Marketplace: The Evening College in American Education (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1956), 35.
60 A. J. Liebling, The T elephone Booth Indian (Garden City , N. Y . : Doubleda y , Doran and Co . , 1942), 245- 246.
61 Oswald Garrison Villard, “Presidential Possibilities VII: Newton D. Baker – Just Another Politician,” The Nation (April 13, 1932), 414.
62 Cramer, op. cit., 41-42.
63 Clarke, a co-owner of the Youngstown Vindicator, resigned in1922 from his lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court in order to devote himself full-time to campaigning for U.S. membership in the League.
64 Daniel R. Beaver, “Baker, Newton Diehl,” in American National Biography Online. Stevenson, later governor of Illinois, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, and a grandson of Adlai E. Stevenson, vice president of the United States from 1893 to 1897, elected on fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland’s 1892 Democratic presidential ticket.
65 Beaver, op. cit.
66 Rosen, op. cit., 237. In December 1940 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 (one justice recused himself) that Appalachian Electric Power Co., a unit of American Electric Power was indeed required to get a Federal Power Commission license for a dam on the New River, a watercourse in Virginia and West Virginia. The ruling represented a loss for the company, Baker’s client. Moreover, the ruling vastly broadened federal jurisdiction over hydroelectric projects generally.
67 Ibid., 238.
68 Ibid., 239.
69 Hoyt Landon W arner , The Life of Mr . Justice Clarke: A Testament to the Power of Liberal Dissent in America (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1959), 192.
70 Carl Wittke, “Mr. Justice Clarke – A Supreme Court Judge in Retirement,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36 (June 1949): 44. Emphasis is in the original.
71 New York Gov. David B. Hill, letter dated Sept. 12, 1896, to New York state Supreme Court Justice Hamilton Ward, in Hamilton Ward Jr., Life and Speeches of Hamilton Ward, 1829-1898 (Buffalo: Press of A.H. Morey, 1902), 399.
Arbuthnot, C.C., “Mayor Baker’s Administration in Cleveland, National Municipal
American National Biography. Review 5 (April 1916), 226-241.
Newton D. Baker, “Municipal Ownership,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 57 (January 1915).
Daniel R. Beaver, Newton D. Baker and the American War Effort, 1917-1919 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966).
David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, “Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900,” Independent Review 4 (spring 2000): 568, 569.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present.
Robert H. Bremner, “Asa S. Bushnell, 1896-1900,” in The Governors of Ohio
(Columbus: The Ohio Historical Society, 1954).
Thomas F. Campbell, Daniel E. Morgan, 1877-1949, The Good Citizen in Politics (Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966).
C. H. Cramer , Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland: World Publishing Co. , 1961).
Dictionary of Cleveland Biography. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Mayo Fesler, “The Progress of Municipal Home Rule in Ohio” National Municipal Review 5 (April 1916), 242-251.
The Governors of Ohio (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1954).
Frederic C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (New York: Charles Scribner’s
John McF. Howie, “The Master Hand and Mind of Newton D. Baker,” North American Review 204 (August 1916).
A.J. Liebling, The Telephone Booth Indian (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1942).
“Newton D. Baker, Dreamer,” The Plain Dealer, Oct. 30, 1911.
“Ohio Democratic Platform, 1912,” Ohio Almanac and Hand-Book of Information (1914).
Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker, America at War (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1931).
Elliott A. Rosen, “Baker on the Fifth Ballot? The Democratic Alternative: 1932,” Ohio History 75 (autumn 1965).
Archer H. Shaw, “New War secretary as his neighbors know him,” The New York Times (March 12, 1916).
Lincoln Steffens, The Struggle for Self-Government, Being an Attempt to Trace American Political Corruption to Its Sources in Six States in the United States, with a Dedication to the Czar (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1906)
Thomas Suddes, “The Adult Education Tradition in Greater Cleveland,” teachingcleveland. org
Willis Thornton, Newton D. Baker and His Books (Cleveland, The Press of Western Reserve University, 1954).
Oswald Garrison Villard, “Presidential Possibilities VII: New D. Baker, Just Another Politician,” The Nation (April 13, 1932).
Hoyt Landon Warner, The Life of Mr. Justice Clarke: A Testament to the Power of Liberal Dissent in America (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1959).
Hoyt Landon Warner, Progressivism in Ohio, 1897-1917 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press for the Ohio Historical Society, 1964).
“What the issue is,” The Cleveland Press, Nov. 1, 1913.
“Where Are the Pre-War Radicals?” The Survey 55 (Feb. 1, 1926).
Carl Wittke, “Mr. Justice Clarke – A Supreme Court Judge in Retirement,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 36 (June 1949).
“Newton D. Baker, Dreamer”
Plain Dealer Endorsement Editorial 10/30/1911
A Teaching Cleveland Documentary. Camera, production and editing by Jeremy Borison. Special thanks to Dr. John J. Grabowski, Tom Suddes, Greg Deegan and Brent Larkin. Also to the Cleveland Public Library, Cleveland State University Special Collections and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Terrific essay written about Newton D. Baker after his death by Frederick P. Keppel for Foreign Affairs Magazine, April 1938. Strongly recommended.
Newton D. Baker
NEWTON BAKER, though a seasoned public servant, was far from being what is called a national figure when he went to Washington as Secretary of War in March 1916; and on the Atlantic seaboard at least, the appointment definitely offended our folkways. Of course the new Secretary had to be a Democrat, but here was clearly the wrong kind of Democrat. He came from Cleveland, not a good sign in itself, where he had been the disciple and successor of Tom Johnson; he had found nothing better to tell the Washington reporters at his first interview than that he was fond of flowers; and he belonged to peace societies (so did his predecessor, Elihu Root, but that was different). Could Woodrow Wilson have done worse had he tried?
Few of us changed our minds about Baker within the first months of his service. Yet at the Armistice he stood without question in the front rank of our citizens; and in direct violation of the rule that in an ungrateful democracy service in a national emergency is to be quickly forgotten, the years remaining to him were ones of steadily growing reputation. His death on Christmas Day last drew forth unique expressions of admiration and affection from all sections, all parties, and all classes. And yet the man who had died was the same man who came to Washington in 1916, ripened by time and by great responsibilities it is true, but the same man. The change was in ourselves. My effort here is an attempt to trace the steps and to set forth the reasons for that change.
The story of his administration of the War Department has been told by Frederick Palmer in “Newton D. Baker: America at War,” and told with sympathy and understanding; we cannot reach our objective by briefly repeating that story, nor can we reach it by comparing Baker’s record with that of his predecessors in wartime, and for two reasons: first, the vastness of the undertaking in 1917-18 threw all previous experience out of scale; and second, our military organization had, since the Spanish War, been re-created “under Elihu Root’s counselling intelligence” — to use Baker’s own phrase. What I set out to do is much more personal in character, and the task has not proved to be an easy one. Natural gifts and long practice had indeed made Baker one of our outstanding public speakers, and a volume of wartime addresses collected by his friends in 1918, “Frontiers of Freedom,” [i]provides fruitful reading, as do the addresses which later found their way into print, including his greatest effort — the eloquent and deeply moving plea for the recognition of the League of Nations made at the Democratic Convention of 1924. It is true, also, that no adequate collection of American state papers could fail to include a few of his departmental writings (in general, these are to be found in Palmer’s book) and that there are other important writings of his — to which reference will be made later on. The entire printed record, however, tells us but little about the man himself, for the good reason that when he spoke in public or wrote for publication the very last thing in his thoughts was Newton Baker. With his genius for friendship, he was, as Raymond Fosdick has pointed out, one of the few remaining exponents of an almost lost art, that of letter writing, and it would have been much more to our present purpose if his voluminous and many-sided correspondence had been available.
It has really been by something like a process of elimination that I have been brought to seek the nature and degree of Baker’s influence and the steady growth of his renown, not in the printed record, but rather by gathering together the impressions he made upon all sorts and conditions of men in direct personal contact. Inevitably my thoughts went back to the early days of the war, when I saw him daily and nightly, and what has come to me after these twenty years is no steady stream of recollection, but rather a cavalcade of separate incidents, of figures singly or in groups crossing the stage of memory — each individual as he left the scene carrying away some impression of the man.
Let me try to reconstruct a typical day in his office in the late spring or summer of 1917. At 8.30 A.M. Herbert Putnam might arrive, and in five minutes the Secretary would understand both the wisdom and the practicability of libraries in the training camps of our citizen army, and of having the books later accompany the soldiers to France. Next, a Plattsburg enthusiast who had come to scold might find himself, much to his astonishment, remaining to listen and learn; or some fellow liberal would have to be disabused of the idea that the war was a heaven-sent experimental laboratory for some pet social theory. Fosdick would drop in to go over some point about camp facilities, or Tardieu about the available ports of debarkation in France, or General Bridges about temporary provision for our soldiers in England. Big business and transportation and labor would have their representatives, and members of Congress were always in the anteroom, insistent on prerogative in direct proportion, it seemed to us, to the unimportance or impropriety of their purpose. At noon Baker would come out to give at least a handshake and a smile, often an understanding word, to the scores of private visitors for whom it was physically impossible to arrange private appointments. Then home to luncheon with his wife and children, his one act of self-indulgence. Afterward, there might be a quiet hour with Dr. Welch of Johns Hopkins on what modern medical care might contribute to the health of the soldiers. On such occasions he was not to be interrupted, however loudly the heathen might rage in the anteroom. Meanwhile, throughout the day and in the evening the Chief of Staff and the Bureau Chiefs were of course demanding and receiving a full share of his time. In between he somehow managed to conduct an immense correspondence, the formal signing of the departmental mail sometimes taking the better part of an hour, and many of the letters and memoranda he must needs prepare himself being none too easy to compose. The sound of the Provost Marshal General’s crutches in the hall told us it was 10 P.M. We could almost set our watches by him, for Crowder (whose wounds, by the way, had been received not in battle but in falling from a Pullman berth) had promptly learned the value of a daily discussion on the problems of a nation-wide draft with this son of a Confederate soldier, who had been raised in a small town, whose student days had been passed in Baltimore and Lexington, and who for fourteen years had been a public officer in Cleveland.
As the long days succeeded one another there were occasional calls from President Wilson, who never announced his coming and never stayed long; and almost daily meetings with Secretary Daniels and other Cabinet officers. One day we would have a phalanx of college presidents, who saw their students melting away and who wanted their institutions taken over — or at least financed — as training camps. On another, a delegation from a city not necessary to name might come to challenge the authority of the War Department to mend their morals for them just because a divisional camp was to be established nearby. In this case the Secretary conceded that the point of law was well taken, and suggested the wholly unwelcome alternative of changing the location of the camp. On still another day our T.V.A. of today was, I remember, born in a discussion regarding the sources of power for a nitrogen fixation plant great enough to ensure an unlimited supply of explosives. Once the Secretary scandalized us by explaining in German the intricacies of the draft law to a delegation of Hutterian Brethren, an offshoot of the Mennonites. Another time former Secretary of State Elihu Root came to discuss the Mission to Russia. Officers ordered to France had to be slipped in secretly to say goodbye. I can recall taking the future Chief of Staff, General March, out on a balcony and in through a window of the Secretary’s private office. Then there were official receptions for generals and statesmen from overseas, conducted with the active and, to us juniors, not always welcome, advice and counsel of the State Department. The frequent meetings of the Council of National Defense also were held in Baker’s office and made cruel demands on his time, though they doubtless served their purpose. And, of course, there were many calls to take him outside of his office — Cabinet meetings, Congressional committees, visits to nearby training camps.
And this kind of thing went on all day and every day from eight-thirty in the morning until eleven at night (only two or three hours less on Sunday), but nothing that happened could ever ruffle the tranquillity of the Secretary. How the favorite disciple of the excitable Tom Johnson could maintain throughout the alarums and excursions of wartime Washington this calm imperturbability was beyond our comprehension.
During this period Baker made one hasty trip overseas. Though naturally different, his days there were just as strenuous as those in Washington. Our officers behind the lines were proud of the docks and warehouses and hospitals they were building, and those at the front wanted to show him the morale and appearance of their men. Their determination that the Secretary should see all with his own eyes meant long and arduous trips, between which must be found time for serious discussions. That these discussions were fruitful, we have the public evidence of General Harbord and Charles G. Dawes, Pershing’s right-hand citizen soldier; Sir Arthur Salter has told me that it was directly due to Baker’s quiet but effective presentation of the situation that the British Government diverted so large a proportion of their ships from highly profitable trade routes to transport our soldiers and supplies.
Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the picture at Washington changed. Into the service of the War Department itself, men of affairs, accustomed to making decisions rather than passing the buck, were being absorbed. Outside it, the direction of the various war boards and war administrations fell into competent hands. Other Federal departments, notably the Treasury, were strengthened by the acquisition of men of first-rate ability. As a result, the direct pressure of non-military matters upon the Secretary of War was correspondingly lightened, and he could concentrate his attention on the problems which came to him not via the public reception room but through the door connecting his office with that of the Chief of Staff.
Until the end of 1917, however, no clear distinction could be drawn in Baker’s daily work between his military and his civilian activities. He had, in fact, to stand between and, so far as possible, to reconcile two very different human attitudes. The military way of thinking and acting is based on long tradition; instinctively, it avoids lights and shades and doubts; while there might be private jealousies, the Army thought and acted essentially as a unit. The American people, on the other hand, were far from united in 1917. Many were definitely hostile to the whole enterprise, many more were at that time indifferent; certain elements were already outdoing Ludendorff himself in war spirit; very few had any conception of what war really meant. In the task of building up an Army the civilian attitude put much more emphasis than the military upon applications of new scientific knowledge, upon matters of comfort and health, physical and mental, and social and recreational services of all sorts. It recognized, as the Army did not at first, the repercussions upon civil life, that the War Department, for example, was becoming the country’s largest employer of civilian labor. It was the Secretary’s task to bring about a fusion of these two strains, and the degree of his success may be measured by the fact that the United States was able to build up a great Army, whose courage and endurance were beyond question, whose health record, despite the influenza epidemic, was extraordinary, and whose behavior was the best in the world’s history. Two years after the call which brought four million men to the colors, there were actually fewer soldiers in military prisons than there had been when that call was issued. It was, as well, an Army which it proved possible to reabsorb into civil life without undue confusion and difficulty.
Curiously enough, Baker the pacifist won the confidence of the Army officers before he enjoyed that of the public at large. Or perhaps this is not so strange after all. Few men in the Army or the Navy are militarists in the sense that our super-patriots deserve the title. It is no wonder that he and Tasker Bliss, scholar and philosopher as well as soldier, should achieve a prompt meeting of minds; but his success, though not so immediate, was equally complete with the more conventional type of professional soldier. Even before the outbreak of war the Bureau Chiefs with civilian responsibilities, men like McIntyre of the Insular Bureau and Black of the Engineers, had found him a Secretary after their own hearts, who had the brains and industry to understand the matter in hand, who in consultation with them would reach a decision, and having reached it would stay put. Of Crowder’s conversion I have already spoken, and we know that all these men passed the word along to their fellow officers in the combat branches who had not come into contact with the Secretary.
As to the civilian attitude, on the other hand, we had only to read the daily and weekly press (when we had the chance) to know that outside the Department there was widespread misunderstanding of the Secretary, and more than one center of implacable hostility. It was hard for us to judge whether the countless civilian visitors were exerting an influence in his favor, for, in general, after their visits they promptly left our sight. One very important type of civilian, however, remained under our observation. Baker was incredibly patient but quite firm with the members of Congress who wanted favors for constituents, and little by little it became recognized that though the Secretary’s quiet No might be disappointing, no one else would receive a different answer to the same question. In his relations with the two Committees on Military Affairs the picture is somewhat different. Here the Secretary, in his desire to defend his military associates from charges which he knew to be unfair, showed himself rather too skillful as a counsel for the defense to permit the establishment of an early entente cordiale. With the more thoughtful members, however, and notably with Senator Wadsworth and Representative Kahn, Republican leaders of Democratic committees though they were, a basis of mutual respect and confidence was established and maintained throughout the war.
The culminating event of this first period of Baker’s war administration was his account of his stewardship to the Senate Committee on Military Affairs on January 28, 1918 (twenty years ago, to the day, as this is being written). This was the occasion to which the anti-Bakerites had been looking forward in order to “get” the Secretary and force his resignation. Baker, be it said, recognized the good faith and patriotic motives of the great majority of his critics (there were exceptions to be sure, but these didn’t count in his mind). He himself was far from satisfied with the progress that had been made in certain essential services and, if it were made evident that a change in direction would be in the public interest, he was just as ready to step aside as when he had offered to resign his place in the Cabinet upon Wilson’s reelection. But his testimony revealed such an amazing grasp of the problem as a whole — and in all its parts — so clear a picture of pending difficulties and of the steps being taken to surmount them, that the more thoughtful of his critics saw at once that in going farther for a Secretary of War the country might well do much worse; and though criticism was to continue, this day marked the turning point in the civilian attitude.
At the time, as I have said, we knew only dimly and in part what kind of picture all these people who saw the Secretary of War were taking away with them — soldiers, legislators, scientists, professional and business folk of all sorts — how they described him to their wives that night. But in retrospect, and in the light of Baker’s later reputation, which must of necessity have been built up in large part on just this basis, I can, I think, present a pretty fair composite sketch.
His visitors arrived expecting to see a functionary, with all that this implies. They found a man short in stature, fragile in build, who never raised his voice in protest or command, never clenched his fist, never lost his temper. They found a man as completely selfless as it is possible for a human being to be, who instantly and instinctively assumed the other man’s sincerity of purpose. Needless to say, this led to occasional disappointments and disillusions, but these were rare and they never embittered his reception of the next visitor. A common meeting ground for discussion was promptly established, and a well-furnished mind, clarity of understanding, and an amazing power of exposition were placed at their service, and at their service as of right and not by favor. But there was, I am sure, something more than these recognizable and more or less measurable qualities to be reckoned with — something intangible, something rich and rare in the man’s personality which made his friendship a major event in one’s experience. When in the spring of 1917 Theodore Roosevelt referred publicly to Baker as “exquisitely unfitted to be Secretary of War,” he builded better than he knew in the selection of his adverb, if not of the word which followed it; “exquisite” is the mot juste to characterize that delicate combination of personal qualities which had so much to do with Baker’s power.
If I had to choose the one quality in his make-up which exercised the most potent influence upon soldier and civilian alike, it would be his courage, an undramatic but imaginative courage, broad enough to cover both a gallant recklessness and a philosophic fortitude. His effective support of the Selective Draft demanded that sort of courage, particularly from so recent a convert to its necessity. To set the pattern of American participation upon so vast and costly a scale took both imagination and courage. And certainly, to break all American tradition by giving the General in the field a free hand and protecting him from criticism meant both courage and fortitude. It was Pershing who kept Leonard Wood on this side of the Atlantic; it was Baker who silently received the resulting storm of protest.
The day-by-day administration of his office gave him many other opportunities to show his mettle. In the general confusion, Congress had adjourned in March 1917 without enacting necessary Army Appropriation Bills; yet for weeks the Secretary by “wholesale, high-handed and magnificent violation of law” (to quote Ralph Hayes) placed contracts for scores of millions of dollars without a vestige of legal authority. Later on, in the selection of officers to fill key positions in the United States, he bided his time, perhaps he overbided it; but when in his judgment the day had come to act, he acted with cool courage. To pass over the entire Quartermaster Corps with its special training, and to choose as Chief of Procurement a retired Engineer officer took courage, even though the man selected was the builder of the Panama Canal, George Goethals. Today it is no secret that in selecting Peyton March as Chief of Staff at a crucial moment the Secretary followed his personal judgment rather than that of his military advisers. March was recognized as a man of the first ability, but to say that he was not popular with his fellow officers is to put it conservatively, and it took something more than courage to make the appointment, for the Secretary quite accurately foresaw that thenceforth many things would be done not as he himself would do them, but in a very different fashion, and that his would be the task of binding the wounds to be inflicted right and left by a relentless Chief of Staff. There can be no question, however, that this selection, and the free hand he thereafter gave to March to reach his objectives in his own way, did much to hasten the termination of the war.
Let me give one final example of Baker’s fortitude. After the Armistice the President asked him to be a member of the Peace Commission, an invitation he would have rejoiced to accept, not only because he had something to contribute, but because he sensed, I feel sure, that his presence might have another value, for the President was always at his best with Baker. His clear mind realized, however, that his own war job was only half done, that two million men had to be looked after until they could be shipped back from France, and that these and two million others must be reabsorbed into civil life; there was no shade of hesitation or regret when once more he quietly said No.
It would be no kindness to Baker’s memory to maintain that there was no ground for criticism of his administration, and it would indeed ill become a member of his personal staff to do so, for in the earlier days we ourselves were critical enough. We loved him for his faults, but we were sure that the faults themselves were grievous: outrageous overwork; too much tobacco; hours spent in suffering fools, if not gladly, at least with reprehensible patience; over-consideration of the feelings of the unimportant; and, worst of all, a habit of watching and waiting and listening when the situation in our own judgment demanded a prompt and brilliant decision. It was only later on that we could see that his sense of timing was much better than either his friends or foes could realize. It was only in retrospect, too, that we could give him credit for the double gift, so rare in an executive, of leaving some things alone and of seeing that other things didn’t happen.
After the war there came four occasions for looking backward; each in its own way throws light on Baker’s reputation. The change in national administration in 1921 brought in its train the inevitable official inquiries which sought to find evidence of wrongdoing and particularly of corruption in the conduct of a war which had cost more than $1,000,000 an hour to conduct. The net result of the 37 charges considered by the War Transactions Section of the Department of Justice was two convictions and two pleas of guilty, all in relatively minor cases. As Mark Sullivan put it, “All the charges and all the slanders against Baker’s management of the war collapsed or evaporated or were disinfected by time and truth.” The next two occasions were more or less accidental, but none the less significant. The first was the appearance in the American supplement of the “Encyclopædia Britannica” in 1922, of a seemingly malicious article on Baker. He himself refused to get excited about the matter. In fact, he wrote to a friend: “I am not so concerned as I should be, I fear, about the verdict of history . . . it seems to me unworthy to worry about myself, when so many thousands participated in the World War unselfishly and heroically who will find no place at all in the records which we make up and call history.” His friends, however, rallied to his defense, and the result was a flood of published letters from men who knew at first hand of the Secretary and his work. A meeting of the American Legion in Cleveland in 1930 revealed his popularity with enlisted men as well as officers.
Finally in the preëlection year of 1931 there was the customary scanning of the horizon for presidential timber. Newton Baker was obviously in the line of vision, and there was much discussion of his qualifications. In these discussions it became clear that to some degree the sides had shifted: certain of his former liberal and radical supporters found the middle-aged lawyer with a large corporation practice wanting in qualities they had admired in Tom Johnson’s City Solicitor, and said so in the condescending style which reformers permit themselves. On the other hand, journals and writers that had been openly anti-Baker in 1917 came out strongly in his favor. Baker himself took no part in the proceedings. He hadn’t the slightest intention of going gunning for the nomination. Whether he would have accepted it had it been offered, I do not know. As a good party man, he might have done so, but on the other hand he had already had intimation that his heart had been seriously affected by the strain put upon it fifteen years earlier, and this might well have settled the question in his mind.
In writing for this quarterly, certainly, the question of Baker’s interest in foreign affairs must not be overlooked. In his university days he had been a student of history, and thereafter, no one knows how, he had kept up his reading. War itself is perforce an international enterprise, and to keep our forces in France together and under our own flag took constant and difficult diplomatic negotiations with our Allies. It is the general testimony that the leaders from other lands whom he met in Washington and elsewhere both understood and admired him, and I have a theory that one of the reasons, a reason of which he himself was quite unconscious, was that like Dwight Morrow of his own generation, like Irving and Hawthorne in the last century, Baker has his place in the line headed by Franklin and Jefferson, the line of those who stand as living demonstrations that one can be as authentically and refreshingly American as Uncle Sam himself, while at the same time conforming to the standards of quiet good manners and sharing la culture générale of the Old World.
But it must be added that in his relation to foreign affairs, as in other matters, Baker declines to be subdivided, even in retrospect. His internationalism is only one reflection, though an important one, of an underlying and indivisible faith in our common human nature and faith in the power of ideas. He was no more interested — and no less — in the problem of a coerced minority in the Danubian region than of the corresponding troubles of a Negro group in an American city. He would work with equal ardor toward a joint understanding between China and Japan, or to bring Protestants, Catholics and Jews together here at home.
To understand the years remaining to Newton Baker after he left Washington in 1921 one essential factor must be kept in mind. It would be easy to picture him as a professor in any one of half a dozen fields of scholarship, or as a diplomat, or editor, or executive; but his choice of the law as his life-work, made as a very young man, was as authentic a “call” as any man has ever had to the ministry. He had scarcely started on its practice, however, when he was drawn into the public service, in which he was to remain with hardly a break for a score of years. His return to Cleveland was above all a return to his first love. There was no lack of reciprocal affection on the part of the law, and as a result all his other activities were conditioned upon having to fight for the time he could devote to them.
That his mind was constantly at work upon questions of peace and war there is abundant evidence. Take for example the following passage from his Memorial Address at Woodrow Wilson’s tomb in 1932:
The conference at Paris demonstrated that the sense of victory does not create a favorable atmosphere for the construction of just and enduring peace. The portions of the Treaty of Versailles that were dictated by the spirit of victory are largely the parts of that treaty which still obstruct peace. Nations, like men, have emotions, are sensitive to hurts to their pride, and in moments of passion submerge their better selves.
The only sort of peace which can endure must come from a recognition of virtues as springs of national action as well as guides for individual behavior. The future peace of the world cannot be secured by processes which attain diplomatic successes and inflict diplomatic defeats, which inflame nations with a sense of aggrandizement or humiliate them with a sense of wounded pride.
And somehow he found time to do not a little serious writing. In “War and the Modern World,”[ii] the memorial lecture for 1935, he paid the boys of Milton Academy the compliment of giving them his best. “Why We Went to War,” first published in this review,[iii] was really a tour de force, of which he himself was naively proud. The outward and visible sign of this self-challenge to do a thoroughly scholarly job despite an overwhelming pressure of other tasks was a second desk moved into his office, and piled high with volumes and reports. How and when he found the time to digest the material and write the treatise remains a mystery.
I shall not enumerate his services on national commissions or on private boards, educational, philanthropic and professional, except the Wickersham Commission of 1929, and those on Unemployment Relief in 1930, and on the Army Air Corps in 1934. They drew heavily upon energies which by this time it was all too evident he should have been conserving.
No man in his senses would add all these things to the engrossing demands of an active law practice; but then I am not maintaining the thesis that he had any sense — about himself. He didn’t, and there was nothing to do about it. Those of us who, following a British precedent, had organized a Society for the Preservation of Newton Baker, got no coöperation whatever from the subject of our solicitude, and we decided before long that the pain of refusal might really be worse for him than the additional strain of acceptance. From time to time during the last few years he did give up some voluntary service, and made a great virtue of it, but he never failed to replace this by at least two others.
Before the reader lays down this article, I should like him to know that it is not what I myself had meant it to be — namely, an appraisal of a public service, sympathetic naturally, but dispassionate. It has turned rather into a tribute of personal affection. All I can say in extenuation is that the very same thing would have happened had the editor of FOREIGN AFFAIRS selected for the task any other of Baker’s associates.
[i] New York: Doran, 1918.
[ii] Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.
[iii] FOREIGN AFFAIRS, v. 15, n. 1. Later published as a book by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cleveland Plain Dealer October 10, 1907 Magazine Section
In his four-year tenure from 1912 to 1916 Newton D. Baker fostered Tom L. Johnson’s ideal of a Utopia of Civic Righteousness. He coined a new word to designate his policy; it was “civitism,” once described as a combination of “Home Rule and the Golden Rule for Cleveland.”Baker believed that the greatness of a city did not depend on its buildings, either public or private, but rather on the intensity with which its citizens loved the city as their home. Such a pervasive feeling would inevitably produce beautiful parks, cleaner streets, honest government, and widespread adherence to justice as the ideal of its social and economic life. It was his firm intention to make “civitism” mean the same thing for the city that patriotism signified for the nation.
Plain Dealer article that ran on October 28, 1979 written by Ruth Hart Stromberg