Clarence Darrow | The Nation


Clarence Darrow

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The Attorney General of Tennessee was addressing the court and a battery of microphones in a sweltering courtroom in the town of Dayton. The burden of his remarks, in theory at least, concerned the validity of an unusual statute under which a freckle-faced young teacher was being tried. "Mr. Darrow," said the Attorney General with an expansive gesture, "is the greatest criminal lawyer in America today." He turned to an elderly, coatless, gallused man seated at the counsel's table, whose enormous head was tilted forward so that his jaw rested on his chest, his bulky shoulders hunched up, a long wisp of stringy hair fallen over one eye. "His courtesy is noticeable, his ability is known," the Attorney General continued genially. And then with a deep frown and a look of indignation he shouted: "Great God! the good that a man of his ability could have done if he had aligned himself with the forces of right, instead of aligning himself with that which strikes its poisonous fangs at the bosom of Christianity!"

About the Author

Through a good many years people have been saying something of the sort about Clarence Darrow. His views on the labor movement, religion, prohibition, capital punishment, and so on have, for a generation and more, been rousing men to similar denunciations. But in spite of the unconventionality of his ideas, or perhaps because of them, he continues at seventy to hold public interest securely, and to add to the flavor and zest of life in the United States.


Clarence Darrow was born in the little Ohio village of Kinsman, April 18, 1857, and there he spent his boyhood. His father had studied for the Unitarian ministry and had been ordained as a minister. But before he could actually serve as a pastor the doubts concerning God and the universe, which were later to assail his son, became so strong that he withdrew from the ministry and established himself as a small furniture manufacturer in Kinsman.

The years Clarence Darrow spent under his father's roof left an unusually deep impression upon him. His mind constantly drifts back to those early days; his conversation and writing are rich with clear pictures of his boyhood. The best writing he ever did--in his novel Farmington--is nothing more than a philosophical reverie upon the life in Kinsman which seems still to hold so much for him.

The Darrow household was quite out of the ordinary. The father had a passion for books; every moment he could possibly spare from his little factory he spent reading. This love of books he taught his children, to whom he gave daily instruction, supplementing that received at the district school. Religion had no place in the Darrow home, although both parents came of a long line of Puritans. The elder Darrow had forsaken the cloth to become the village atheist, and the fiery pamphlets of Thomas Paine took the place of the family Bible. His political views were as radical to his neighbors as his religious ideas: he was an ardent Greenbacker and a follower of old Peter Cooper. As a young man in Pennsylvania he had known John Brown and had become an Abolitionist of the most fervid sort; his Ohio home was a station on the underground railroad. When the works of Darwin and Spencer and Huxley appeared, the old scholar read them eagerly, sometimes spending most of the night over them.

Darrow was once asked by a newspaper-feature writer: "To what do you attribute your success?" The reporter had been interviewing leading business men whose answer to this question was invariably: "I owe my success to hard work." "That goes for me, too," said Darrow. "Hard work, in fact, is responsible for my choosing to become a lawyer. When I was sixteen I hired out to a nearby farmer. I had never done any hard work before. The first day I pitched hay, and the sun was hot and I got very tired. The second day the farmer set me to knocking fat potato bugs off the plants into a pan of kerosene. By noon I was disgusted. I chucked away the pan and the job, and swore I'd never do another day of hard work in my life--and I never have."

Across the street from the Darrow home was a tinner who was justice of the peace as well. Here the boy listened to one pettifogger abuse another, and acquired a passion to outdo them. A blacksmith nearby, also a "J. P." and a one-horse lawyer, offered young Darrow the use of his books. Darrow explains that he "studied law with a blacksmith and began practice before a tinner." After he was admitted to the bar he began practice in the village of Andover, soon moving to Ashtabula. There he lived for six years, becoming city attorney. He came to Chicago in 1887, at the age of thirty. He was in most respects a typical young lawyer with no unusual economic notions, distinguished if at all only by a very serious attitude toward life and a remarkable faculty for debate and impromptu speaking. One night he seized an opportunity to address a meeting of Democrats in the old Central Music Hall, speaking on free trade. The speech was a sensation; the politicians recognized his ability to dramatize an issue, and he was straightway made an assistant corporation counsel, in charge of important cases. From this point of vantage he watched the political machinery of a city work--and his illusions about political democracy were forever dispelled so that, years later, he was to say: "It is the mediocre, the thimble-riggers, the cheap players to the crowd, the men who take the customs and thoughts of the common people, who weave them into song and oratory and feed them back to the crowd, who get their votes, and from them nothing ever did come and I fear nothing ever can."

He soon became acting corporation counsel and one of the most powerful men in the City Hall. The next step was logical; he joined the legal staff of the Northwestern Railroad. Meanwhile, as he rose rapidly in the conventional role of corporation lawyer, a host of doubts were perplexing him. The agitation for an eight-hour day had reached its climax in the explosion of a bomb at Haymarket Square and the death of several policemen. The city was in a tumult, and the blood of labor leaders was demanded--and given, after a mock trial. These events stirred Darrow. Himself tough-minded, practical, and ambitious, his sympathies were touched by the prospect of these dreamers calmly mounting the scaffold for the sake of their ideas. He decided to find out more about those ideas. Chicago was then a center for militant unionists and he sought out their meeting places. He marveled at the devotion of the group of rare spirits who then led the movement. The injustice of society and its implacable cruelty, especially to its dreamers, "the Prometheans who tried to carry candles for the world," oppressed him. The prospect of becoming a successful and wealthy railroad attorney gradually lost much of its seductiveness.

Then, in 1894, came the great strike of the American Railway Union against the Pullman Company, led by the late Eugene Debs. The strike soon became a fight to the finish between all the railroads, supported by federal troops and a federal judge's "blanket injunction," and the strikers. Debs was arrested and jailed for contempt of court. Darrow could no longer contain his resentment. With one stroke he cut himself off from all hope of a conventional success at the bar, and threw himself into the task of defending Debs.

For the next fifteen years Clarence Darrow was the country's outstanding defender of labor, at a time when labor was more militant and idealistic and employers more hardened and desperate than ever before or since. The cases he was called upon to defend were almost invariably criminal prosecutions in bitterly hostile communities. His success in persuading the most carefully "selected" jury to bring in acquittals was soon the talk of the country.

The wood-workers' conspiracy case, tried in 1898, is typical of these fights. The employees of a large lumber mill asked their employer, George M. Paine, a baronial old fellow, to make certain improvements in their working conditions. He refused to deal with them and a strike was called. Paine, who held title to the entire county government, obtained the indictment of the strikers' leader for "conspiracy"; a conviction was almost a matter of course. Darrow, for the defense, presented the case, not as an ordinary criminal prosecution, but as a part of a dramatic struggle of the poor against the rich and powerful, in which the humble jurymen found themselves suddenly in the camp of the "conspirators." It was too much for the jury; they voted an acquittal and went home to their suppers with a warm feeling of virtue.

The defense of indicted labor leaders--part of a bitter guerrilla warfare between the unions and the employers--occupied most of Darrow's time during the opening decade of the new century. It was in this work that the acute railroad lawyer, turned labor advocate, came to be known in every town and hamlet; everywhere dinky lawyers in one-horse towns began to affect white washties, baggy trousers, and the newspaper version of the Darrow jury manner. His most widely known cases included the Haywood trial at Boise, Idaho, where he was opposed by a young lawyer named William E. Borah; the McNamara dynamite case, and his victory in defense of himself at Los Angeles, on a trumped-up charge of bribery.

Some observers think that Barrow, at this time, conceived of himself as a great leader of the common man, and that he planned to use his tremendous hold upon the affections of the working class to play for the highest political stakes. There can be no doubt that a calculating and ambitious man, with the devotion of ten million men to draw upon, and the friendship of such leaders as Altgeld and Bryan, would have been scheming just such a rise to political power. But Barrow became a leader of labor not in obedience to a design but upon an impulse, and in spite of himself. The labor cause in the militant nineties appealed to his emotions, to a strong, almost irresistible sympathy for the under-dog. Here is the unifying element in a life which is otherwise almost incoherent. Bred of a sensitive imagination which gives him an uncanny and disturbing faculty for understanding the suffering of all unfortunates, it has plowed his face with care and put into his eyes the sadness of wisdom. It has driven him out of the comfortable conformity in which men find tranquillity, to make him spokesman for inarticulate mechanics and miners, murderers, highwaymen, and "niggers"-the despised and beaten of the earth.

The wide public interest in Clarence Barrow has in recent months been maintained by his participation in three criminal trials, in which his genius for turning an ordinary case into a drama of far-reaching significance is well illustrated. In the Loeb-Leopold hearing he addressed a single judge--and a listening world--upon the mechanistic philosophy and the cruelty and blindness of our criminal law. The trial of Scopes at Dayton was saved from becoming simply a fundamentalist revival by his salty sarcasm and his fearlessness. In the trial at Detroit of eleven Negroes charged with the murder of a white man he raised the whole question of the Negro's right to live decently in the urban North.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size