Interviewing Connecticut’s Great Lawyer and Democrat, by James B. Morrow

Gov. Simeon E. Baldwin Talks on the Dominant Questions of the Day, Under Peculiar Conditions Imposed by Himself.

A Man Who Resembles His Distinguished Great-Grandfather, Roger Sherman, Signer of the Declaration — Every Generation of Americans, He Asserts, Has Its Own Point of View and, Therefore, Through the Supreme Court of the United States, Makes the Constitution Fit Its Own Needs and Conditions — The Bible Is the Same Bible of the Middle Ages but Is Differently Understood in the Twentieth Century — Declares the Law Will Find a Way to Stop Trusts — Labor Unions, in His Opinion, Do No Promote Thrift — Advises Working Men to Put Their Surplus In Banks, Where It Will Draw Interest and Be Subject to Call at Any Moment.

“The greeting I got was ceremonious, but not un-cheerful. Simeon E. Baldwin — E. for Eben — one of the great democrats of the country, and now for the second time the governor of Connecticut, sat in an ancient chair of colonial pattern and looked at me with primness and civility. There was to be no waste of language — that was manifest. That atmosphere was not exactly inhospitable, but it lacked the warmth of gladness, which, in the interviewing business, opens the buds of conversation and fruitens them into anecdotes, as well as the comedies and tragedies of life.

‘I am ready,’ said the governor. The tone given the words made me feel like a dentist, though the governor betrayed no alarm in his countenance. Indeed, his eyes seemed kindly and his voice sympathetic. The first question was asked rather stiffly, I suppose. There was a pause. ‘He is thinking,’ I said to myself. We gazed steadily at each other for a moment — he indulgent and I expectant.

‘I am waiting,’ he presently remarked, ‘for you to get ready to write down my answer.’

‘But I never take notes,’ I replied in some defiance.

‘I insist that you shall this time,’ said the governor quietly, though decisively. ‘I have had experience with magazine editors.’

‘But I am a newspaper man,’ I explained without any show of humility or prejudice.

The glint of a smile shone out of the governor’s blue and spectacled eyes. He wavered an instant. ‘I would prefer,’ he said, and command was in speech, ‘that you make sure of it and put my answer into writing.’

‘But I have no paper,’ I replied, seeking help in a feeble attempt at generalship.

Outmaneuvers the Interviewer.

‘Here is some,’ and governor, amused no doubt at my puerile strategy, put into my reluctant hand a coarse, yellow tablet and a lead pencil that had not been sharpened for a long time. I wrote on my rebellious knees while he dictated. He never hesitated to think for the word he wanted. He did not ask to have any of his sentences read aloud that he might change their syntax, get their connection or hear their sound. Like a good surgeon, he went straight ahead in a perfect knowledge of his grounds. Precise, formal, practical and shrewd are the four words which describe his methods and his character.

‘That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut,’ Thomas Jefferson said to a friend in Philadelphia who was watching a session of the continental congress. ‘That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.’ And John Adams declared that Roger Sherman, the eleventh signer of the declaration of independence, its author, in fact, together with Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston and Adams himself, ‘is one of the most sensible men in the world.’ Simeon E. Baldwin is Sherman’s great-grandson. He comes down on the other side of his family from the Puritan immigrants who settled New Haven in 1638. Nevertheless, the interview, I dare say, would have been more human and descriptive without notes.

‘I could see you,’ the governor wrote me in advance, ‘at my office, which is opposite the postoffice.’ He spends a day each week at Hartford, the state capital. The rest of the time he lives and works in New Haven. ‘Opposite the postoffice’ strips him of all pride and ostentation. The descendant of Roger Sherman, the son of a United States senator, the professor of constitutional law at Yale since 1872, and the governor of Connecticut might have told me that the postoffice was across the street from his own chambers. Sherman, a great judge, a senator in congress, and the mayor of New Haven for many years, lives even now in the simplicity and the modesty of his learned and eminent great-grandson. He was a shoemaker while a young man and walked with his tools from Newton, in Massachusetts, to New Milford, in Connecticut, a distance of 200 miles, perhaps, cobbling the boots of the colonists for his board and lodging. Gov. Baldwin would repeat the performance were he a shoemaker and were it necessary.

How He Keeps His Health.

I found the office in a shabby building, up one pair of stairs, and well toward the end of a long hall, which, during daytime at least, is filled with shadows and the gloom of twilight. ‘Simeon E. Baldwin,’ his name and nothing more, is painted in gilt letters on a black sign over the door. The five small rooms, heated by three stoves, are crammed with law books. There was a bicycle in one of them. On the mantel in another I saw a bottle of lubricating oil, several wrenches, a roll of tape for punctured tires, and an extra saddle.

‘You are almost 73 years old,’ I said to the governor at the end of our formal interview, ‘and can still do a good day’s work.’

‘That is so,’ he replied. I now quote from memory. ‘I can do a good day’s work because I have looked after my health and taken vigorous exercise regularly — such exercise as walking, rowing, horseback riding and bicycling.’

‘What distance can you walk?’ I asked.

‘A year or so ago I covered thirty miles one day. I could do it again, if I wanted to.’

We were standing up and I noted his long, muscular legs, his lean, straight body, the sparkle in his eyes, and the fersh[sic] color that the weather has burned into his face. His beard, once tawny, has turned nearly white. He wore dark clothing and an unstarched shirt. An aged man in years, but not in looks, nor in his view of questions and events. The legislature of Connecticut, at his recommendation, passed the first law in the United States regulating aerial navigation. ‘One of these days,’ he said, ‘a flying machine will fall to the ground and hurt somebody or damage property. Something could be dug out of the law, possibly, to cover the case, but there would be a long fight. We had better write a statute into the books.’

Works with the Third Wing.

Political parties, he has observed to his friends, have three factions, or wings, as he calls them. One wing is far ahead, one lags behind, while the third stays in the center and pulls the forward wing back and the backward wing forward. He says he naturally belongs to the wing in the center. Men who know him intimately believe that because of his blood and the activity of his ancestors he feels a personal responsibility, though he has never said so, for the form and integrity of the government which rules the nation. Roger Sherman, as a member of the continental congress, exposed a contractor who overcharged for the shoes he was making the revolutionary soldiers. He knew the price of leather and the cost of manufacturing. His colleagues on the committee which was auditing the accounts of the war were surprised at his technical information. ‘Gentlemen,’ Sherman said, ‘I was a shoemaker long before I came to congress.’

Moreover, there was the governor’s father, R. S. Baldwin, who in 1829, was the principal attorney in a suit that was celebrated not alone in this country, but in Europe. Slaves, a shipload of them, on the way to Cuba, poured out of the hold at a signal, overcame the officers and took possession of the vessel. An American ship, finding them adrift, towed them into the harbor of New York. Spain claimed that the slaves were the property of Spanish planters and speculators. Abolitionists in the north defended the Africans. The case went to the United States supreme court finally, and was argued for the black men by Gov. Baldwin’s father, John Quincy Adams being his assistant. His skill, learning and thoroughness caused the renowned Chancellor Kent to say that he was one of the ablest jurists of his time.

“I Live Here,” Said Precision.

Gov. Baldwin himself is famous in New England as a lawyer. He has been chief justice of the supreme court of Connecticut, president of the American Bar association, and has written books on law and history. Two years ago he was unexpectedly elected to the chief office in his commonwealth. Since then he has been a notable man in the democratic party of the nation. Were he ten years younger, he and not Woodrow Wilson might have been nominated at Baltimore for president. Important publishing concerns have begged for his opinions on certain pressing questions. Clubs in large cities have asked him for speeches. Therefore, when he saluted me as I entered his office I felt that I was in the presence of an illustrious man, a very big democrat, a primeval American.

The chair he gave me was as hard, uncomfortable and plain as his own. He sat upright, as if sitting were a duty made imperative by the federal constitution or the tables of stone. The floor of the room was of old and rough oak, but clean as broom and mop could make it. Precision seemed to say: ‘This is my abode.’ Even the sunbeams which shone through the windows conformed to the law of the place and assumed geometrical combinations. Somewhat confounded, feeling rather silly and amateurish with a lead pencil between my fingers and a tablet of paper on my knees, I awkwardly propounded my first interrogation. So far the advantage was with the governor. It remained with him until I bowed my respects, spoke my thanks, and departed from his office.

‘What,’ I inquired, and it was merely to be a curtain raiser, you understand, ‘is the most important issue before the American people?’ I had hoped he might berate the millionaires, smash the socialists, or scoff at sexual hygiene or mental healing.

No Issue Before the Country.

‘I think,’ Gov. Baldwin answered, ‘there is no issue at present before the people. I think the people provided a verdict on November 5, 1912, that settled all issues, if they existed. They were asked then to choose between a standpat policy, a policy of reasonable changes in financial legislation, and a policy of haphazard, so-called progressive changes in every kind of legislation, state and national. They chose.’

There was a note of exultation in the words, ‘They chose,’ also a measure of emphasis. I looked up hastily and am sure I saw the governor smile, whether at me or the memory of the election I shall attempt no conjecture.

‘Has the constitution of the United States become old fashioned and does it need to be modernized?’ I asked next. Roger Sherman, I remembered, had opposed all early efforts to tinker with that sacred instrument. ‘We ought not,’ he said in the house of representatives, ‘to interweave our propositions in the work itself because it will be destructive of the whole fabric. We might as well endeavor to mix brass, iron, and clay as to incorporate such heterogeneous articles’ as were proposed by the progressives of that period. Would the goveror endorse the view of his great-grandfather?

‘Every constitutional government,’ he replied, ‘takes more or less of the color of its time from year to year because it is expounded by human beings, who must, necessarily, take their color more or less from the times in which they live. In this way every written constitution becomes somewhat changed in tone and aspect from one century to another. Every generation has its own point of view. The supreme court of the United States, as at present constituted, takes a very wide view of what the constitution of the United States means, and a view which, I think, would not have been entertained by all the members of the court thirty years ago.’

The Constitution Is All Right.

‘We have a twentieth century constitution of the United States because we have a twentieth century set of judges. The bible is the same bible now that it was in the middle ages, but it means to most of us something very different from what it is generally understood to have meant then.’

‘The constitution of the United States was wisely made very short. Its framers relied on practice and the influence of the lessons of political administration to fill up the outline. What it is cannot be fully understood without reference to its judicial construction, to its practical construction from decade to decade.’

‘Anyone, for instance, who reads our constitution without knowing its history, or the history of its development, would think that the electoral college of the states really selected the president and vice president. Of course, we know they only constitute forty-eight ballot boxes, into which ballots determined by somebody else than the electors are deposited by the electors. They have only a free choice when one of the candidates prescribed for dies before the vote.’

‘I do not think a convention to revise the federal constitution is called for. I trust the pending amendment proposed by congress for the election of United States senators by a direct vote of the people will be ratified. I have no doubt it will be. The next question will be whether it is not best to follow it with another amendment wiping out the electoral college and letting the people vote straight and by a short ballot for president and vice president, the vote to be cast state-wise, and every state as such to have the same number of electoral votes which it now has as expressed in the number constituting each electoral college, that is, as many votes as she has senators, and representatives in congress. That will be all,’ the governor said. ‘Now the next inquiry.’

‘Will the trust question ever be settled?’ I asked, wishing vigorously that I might have a moment in which to sharpen the governor’s lead pencil.

Trusts to Be Broken Up.

‘The trust question only arises when big concerns are illegally managed. Whatever is illegal, the law will find a way to stop. But a corporation is none the worse, if it acts legally, because it is big.’

‘What has been your greatest discovery since becoming governor of Connecticut?’ I asked. Perhaps, I thought, there will be a personal revelation concerning the frightful state of American public life as pictured by publications which want to build up a circulation and by politicians who are seeking after office.

‘I was reasonably familiar,’ putting stress on the word reasonably, ‘with the problems of government,’ the governor answered, ‘before I was elected. I did not expect to make any startling discoveries and I have made none. Next.’

‘You have said that the average workingman today lays up less than did the average workingman fifty years ago?’

‘I made some such statement, if I remember rightly, before an audience of workingmen, at a workingmen’s club, which I was to asked to address in Hartford while I was on the bench. I attributed the fact largely to the feeling that when a rainy day comes their unions or benefit societies will look after them and when they die will give them a proper burial. Of course, this (feeling) does not affect the nonunion workingman, so far as unions are concerned, but he is often a member of a benefit society, and if he keeps his dues up he knows that his family will be protected in case of his sickness or death.’

‘A hundred years ago there were no such means of protection. Everybody had to lay up for himself. The savings banks offer the best and surest method. State supervision of benefit societies has improved their security. But nobody is quite as safe as the man with money in the bank, drawing interest and subject to his call, with no formality, at any moment.’

Why Americans Are Extravagant.

‘Are the American people extravagant in their personal and living expenses?’ I inquired.

‘I think the average American spends more in those ways now than did the average American before the civil war. That war gave birth to many large fortunes at the north and made large expenditures for living expenses fashionable. We get more out of life in the twentieth century and we give more to get it. Next.’

‘Are courts and the public too lenient with criminals nowadays?’ A year or more ago Gov. Baldwin said in an address at Hartford that ‘putting the wrongdoer in confinement to be supported at public expense is a very costly kind of punishment for the state. It was much cheaper to dispose of him as they did a hundred years ago. They generally fined or flogged him and let him go; unless it was a state’s prison offense.’ As I asked my question I heard the swish of a cat-o’-nine tails and hoped the governor’s observations would be picturesque at least, if not actually startling.

‘I have published more or less on that general subject,’ he said, ‘and I refer you to my book called Modern Political Institutions. Let me hear your next question.’

‘But you believe,’ I insisted, ‘in whipping bad boys instead of sending them to reform schools?’

‘My opinion on that,’ the governor answered, as he arose, walked to a shelf and took down a sober looking volume, ‘has been given in a paper, which appeared in the Yale Law Journal, in June, 1899.’

‘And as to paupers?’ I remarked, baffled but not disheartened.

‘Everybody except the socialists recognize the duty of the state to support those who are really unable to support themselves. Of course, one trouble in applying this doctrine is to ascertain who are thus unable to support themselves. This must always remain a problem of administration. It is supplied in Connecticut, and we think wisely, by making it so far as possible a local problem in each case and the locality is a narrow one, namely the particular town –‘

‘Which elsewhere is often called a township?’ I suggested.

‘Namely, the particular town,’ the governor continued, ignoring my interruption, ‘in which the individual belongs. This Connecticut town is a small tract of country, containing, perhaps, twenty, thirty or forty square miles, and in the smaller ones everybody knows everybody else and there is little opportunity for fraud in determining who are paupers and entitled to poor relief and who are not. Proceed.’

Socialism Is Not Dangerous.

‘What do you think of present-day methods of instruction in the public schools?’

‘You seem to want to cover the whole history of the world,’ the governor mildly protested, but he made answer nevertheless. ‘I think the danger in modern educational methods,’ he said, ‘is in trying to teach too many things. A few subjects well taught and well explained in their relation to each (one) other form the best food for the mind and the making of the average man. I think also that more might be taught in the early years of childhood than now commonly is. The German boy of 15 has learned much more than the American boy of 15 and is none the less healthy.’

‘Is there any danger of the United States becoming socialistic?’

‘You say danger,’ the governor repeated. ‘Is it a danger? What is socialism? In some respects modern government would be regarded by the world in former ages as thoroughly socialistic. The public library, the museum, the park, the postoffice are all efforts as a community to serve the individual members of society at the cost of the whole society.’

‘Paragraph,’ the governor ordered, and I felt more than ever like a stenographer.

‘Undoubtedly, however,’ he went on, ‘the socializing of governments in the United States in the future is rendered difficult if not impossible by the terms of our constitutions, state and national. These are instruments which it is hard to change in many of their essential characteristics. They secure private property, and that is an institution incompatible in principle with pure socialism. In Europe the transition would be easier because their constitutions, where they have them, are simpler and more flexible.’

‘Is this country losing its religion?’ was the last inquiry I attempted.

‘I do not think so,’ answered the governor, who is a pious man himself. ‘It is, in my judgement, more truly religious now than it ever was. There is less weight given to dogma and discipline and more to going about doing good, which was the rule of Christ.’

I picked the scattered sheets from the floor, the governor stood up and bowed, and I noticed that he would strikingly resemble Roger Sherman, who was the father of fifteen children, by two wives, were he to shave off his beard and wear a stock and a high-cut, collarless vest.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of, The Sioux City Journal, “Interviewing Connecticut’s Great Lawyer and Democrat,” by James B. Morrow, January 26, 1913

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