Newton Diehl Baker

Newton Diehl Baker (1871-1937) was an American lawyer, mayor of Cleveland, and secretary of war from 1916 to 1921. He made his most indelible mark as a municipal reformer in Cleveland.

Newton D. Baker was born in Martinsburg, W.Va., of a family with deep southern roots. In 1892, after graduating from Johns Hopkins University, he took a law degree at Washington and Lee University. A disciple of Edmund Burke, he also admired Thomas Jefferson.

After practicing law briefly in Martinsburg, Baker went first to Washington, D.C., where he served as secretary to Postmaster General William L. Wilson, and then to Cleveland to resume practice. There his astuteness and speaking ability soon won the attention of Thomas L. Johnson, who began an extraordinarily constructive career as a reform mayor in 1901. The youngest man in Johnson's administration, Baker was also one of the most influential. As city solicitor from 1902 through 1912, he brilliantly handled most of the 55 suits brought by the traction interests to prevent reductions in streetcar fares. He also did much to publicize the inequitable tax structure.

Baker early supported Woodrow Wilson for the presidential nomination in 1912, and his success in breaking the unit rule at the convention helped assure Wilson's nomination. Baker had been elected mayor of Cleveland in 1911 and in 1913 was reelected. Furthering Johnson's ideal of a utopia of civic righteousness, he constructed a municipally owned power plant, organized a symphony orchestra supported by civic funds, improved hospital facilities, and in general raised the quality of Cleveland life.

Appointed secretary of war in March 1916, Baker served to the end of Wilson's second term. He was slow to revitalize the Army and Navy, partly because of Wilson's indecisiveness and partly because of his own pacifist leanings. He approved the decision to go to war, however, and despite much Republican criticism of his administration of the War Department, he proved a creditable, though not truly distinguished, secretary.

In 1921 Baker returned to Cleveland and the law. As successful at the bar as he had been as a municipal reformer, he was called the outstanding lawyer of the 1920s by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Baker's practice was largely corporate. He became more conservative as he grew older and spent much of his time in the service of the utility interests he had once opposed. He was an ardent proponent of the League of Nations, and in 1928 he was appointed to the World Court. Though critical of the New Deal, he did not break with his party. Baker died on Christmas Day, 1937, and was survived by his wife, two daughters, and a son.

A gracious and learned man, Baker had an unusually open mind. Though small and slightly built, he was a powerful orator. He was widely regarded as one of the most kindly and charming public men of his time.

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Further Reading on Newton Diehl Baker

Clarence H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker (1961), is the standard biography. Though appreciative in tone, it is quite objective. It should be supplemented by Frederick Palmer, Newton D. Baker: America at War (2 vols., 1931).

Additional Biography Sources

Cramer, C. H. (Clarence Henley), Newton D. Baker, a biography, New York: Garland Pub., 1979, 1961.