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Before the ACLU, Theodore Schroeder


“...all support of censorship should be considered as problems of abnormal psychology.” So said Civil Libertarian Albert Theodore Schroeder, who died on this date in 1953. Schroeder was born in Wisconsin in 1864. When his mother, a German Catholic, married his father, a German Protestant, both had been disowned by their parents. This religious intolerance greatly affected young Theodore’s mother and played a large part in who he would become as an adult.

Historian David Brudnoy explains that Theodore went to Sunday School, but he hit his own personal roadblock when it came time for him to be confirmed according to the German catechism. Brudnoy writes, “Two questions in particular remained vivid years later. The first was: ‘Do you believe in God,’ to which the ready-made answer was: ‘I do.’ The second was: ‘How do you know there is a God?’ The right answer to that was: ‘I see him in nature.’”

“For me,” Schroeder later wrote, “the question and answer had only one meaning. To my literal child-mind it seemed that I must ‘see’ God in nature, as if with my physical eyes, or else admit that I...believed nothing of God.” Thus, the 13-year-old left the church, never to return. Two years later, he talked his disciplinarian father into giving him $50 to make his way in the world. His father insisted his son would soon be back for more, but he was wrong.

During what he later called his “Wanderlust Years,” Schroeder sold hats, ran errands, and sold ladies’ lingerie in Chicago. He also began to sporadically attend the University of WI. In 1882, his parents moved to Redfield, Dakota Territory. There, young Theodore surveyed for the railroad when not going to school. After one job in ‘83, the rest of the crew headed for Jamestown, while Schroeder headed out on foot for Aberdeen, where he would catch a train to his parents’ home.

Brudnoy writes, “After going ten miles, he stopped at a barn dance where he joined in the fun until daybreak and then went to sleep and missed a lift that would have taken him several miles along his way... (He) started walking again and made it to Aberdeen late the same day – a forty mile walk in twenty-one hours. Along that forty mile stretch,” Brudnoy writes, “were only a few farms, at one of which Schroeder stopped and asked for lunch. He had only a few cents in his pocket, partly because he had helped pay the fiddlers at the barn dance, (and he) convinced the farmer to loan him some money.” Brudnoy says this was a defining moment in Schroeder’s life – one that caused him to be forever sympathetic to those who were down on their luck.

After getting a law degree, Schroeder set up a practice in Utah. He had a romantic notion of defending the Mormons against the outside world and was instrumental in breaking up the Patriotic Order of Sons of America, an anti-Mormon group similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Over time, however, Schroeder reversed his thinking and came to believe the Mormon religion was designed to intellectually enslave the masses. He became increasingly more outspoken about religious intolerance and increasingly concerned with freedom of speech.

In 1891, Schroeder married Mary Parkinson, daughter of his former professor, but their time was short. Mary died five years later, and their only daughter, Theodora, died just a few years later.

Schroeder moved to New York City after that. There, his focus on civil liberties grew to include myriad social injustice and philosophical problems. In 1903, Schroeder’s deep concerns for freedom of speech and press led him, along with others like anarchist Emma Goldman, to establish the Free Speech League, a precursor to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).\

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm