Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow

The brilliant attorney was the original secretary of defense.


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!”

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 Darrow, 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 Darrow 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 Darrow 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.


Within the same week I have heard a bishop and a prominent Socialist express wonder and dismay at Clarence Darrow’s hold upon the interest and even the affection of large sections of the American public. But there is no mystery about it; agree with him or not, Darrow is a charming, colorful figure. His avowed pessimism notwithstanding, he finds living zestful and infinitely entertaining. He is intensely interested in men, and understands their pretensions and their troubles. His ideas are usually unconventional and expressed with a sly wit and warm geniality which the toughest cannot resist. He is rarely argumentative, never didactic, always tolerant and good-humored. Free of bustle and hurry, he walks through the streets, his hands jammed deep into his coat-pockets, the last calm Chicagoan.

The secret of Darrow’s amazing ability to master a jury is the same that underlies his attractiveness to the public generally: He knows what moves men, and how to amuse them. Men, he has learned, act because their emotions, not their minds, have been aroused. His whole effort in winning a jury—and he begins the campaign when they first step into the box to be examined—is to stir their imagination, to make them put themselves in the place of the man accused.

No trial in which he participates is ever very solemn; there is a steady fire of humor which melts even the fiercest prosecutor; and a jury in a genial, joking frame of mind is not inclined to hangings! Even under the merciless pressure of the Loeb-Leopold hearing he never became sour. One day he was chatting with the reporters during a recess, and complained to them of their frequent mention of his wrinkled and baggy clothes. “As a matter of fact, boys,” he said very soberly, “I suppose I pay more for my clothes than any of you, and my pressing bills are higher. But you damn dudes take off your clothes when you go to bed!”

There is nothing of the slick platform orator about him when he delivers an address or participates in a debate. He shuffles about, as awkward and embarrassed as a schoolboy “speaking” a piece; he hunches his enormous shoulders; he writhes and twists. This almost grotesque awkwardness and apparent self-consciousness before an audience is not, however, part of his jury manner. When he faces the jury he stands before the box, composed and serious, his arms folded across his massive chest, his huge head dropped forward, the eyebrows drawn to a Mephistophelian angle above the grim round eyes. Although his arguments sometimes last through two or even three days, there is never any “rehearsal”; every sentence is impromptu and delivered without a note. His voice is a low rumble, almost a growl, and his words are weighed and very slow, like some old philosopher explaining very simply the sad truths of life to immature students.

But when he begins the attack upon the prosecution the philosopher becomes the fighter, with head lowered, his loose under-jaw now tight and hard, his arms swinging viciously, voice harsh and brazen like a hideous alarm gong. This transformation is so amazing that most juries are startled. But it is not long before the fighter disappears, and Darrow becomes again the genial, satirical maker of gibes—the engaging old fellow whom few juries have ever been able to resist.

Darrow is probably wittiest in the many debates in which he has participated in the past twenty years. He has debated upon a variety of large questions: “Is the Human Race Getting Anywhere?” “Is Life Worth Living?” capital punishment, immortality, religion, prohibition, the mechanistic philosophy, and so on. His opponents have been anthropologists, ministers, professors, Senators, and judges, most of whom have been routed not so much by Darrow’s intellect as by his irresistible flow of good-natured cynicism.

He has debated religion upon many occasions. Through his argument runs a vein of gentle scoffing. He will say: “Of course I know that Confucius was as great a philosopher as Billy Sunday, and that as a thinker Buddha was the equal of Billy Bryan. But still all orthodox people know that Confucius and Buddha were spurious and the Billy brothers are genuine.”

Although as a young man he was attracted by the doctrines of socialism and still has the devotion of many Socialists, he has often enjoyed poking fun at them. In talking to an audience of Socialists he said:

Now, as far as socialism affects your life today, it is because it is a dream, a religion, nothing else. Why, I have known Socialists who haven’t been awake since I knew them. They never will awaken. They are living upon a dream; they are taking dope. Practical socialism is not a political theory; it is a religious doctrine. When you fellows look at a man with that far-off, dreamy look, and say, “Are you a Socialist?” it is exactly the same as the liquid stare of the Salvation Army lassie, who looks into your eyes and says, “Do you love Jesus?”

In spite of his thoroughgoing pessimism, Darrow finds the greatest flavor in life. He enjoys baseball, and can play a keen game of poker. He is fond of children. In fact, his book on “Crime, Its Cause and Treatment” was written at a camp in Wisconsin with two youngsters, the children of friends, hanging on his neck and playing havoc with his papers. He enjoys talking with the ordinary run of men. In a court recess, while the other distinguished counsel are engaged in important “conferences,” Darrow can usually be found discussing the latest prize-fight with the elevator man or listening meekly to a bailiff’s theory of “what this here country needs …”

And yet his despair over the cruelty and futility of the world is so deep that the joy he takes in living seems inconceivable. A few years ago John Howard Moore, a brilliant naturalist and beloved brother-in-law, killed himself one morning in Jackson Park in sight of the Darrow home. Darrow delivered a memorial address which shows how, intellectually, he despises the life which in fact he enjoys. He said:

John Howard Moore wrote and worked with feverish haste, and he believed that the blind and heartless world would listen to his words and mend its ways. But humanity went on trading and dickering, lying and cheating, marrying and dying, and never heard his voice. One day he opened his eyes and knew his work was in vain, and feeling the weight of the universal sorrow on his soul, he took his life. The coroner’s jury determined that “he died from his own hand, while suffering under a temporary fit of insanity.” I tell you he died from his own hand while suffering under a temporary fit of sanity … . Poor, dead dreamer! You are not the first or last mortal to learn the truth. Other men have awakened from the mad and blissful dream of saving mankind from itself. I, too, have dreamed my dreams, had my illusions, and wakened from my sleep… Among all who are gathered here there is but one whom we can felicitate on this event, and that one is our friend who lies peaceful and all unconscious of the world. If any word of mine could call back his troubled soul, I should feel myself guiltier far than I would to cause a brother’s death.

In many sections of the country Clarence Darrow is regarded, quite literally, as the earthly manifestation of the Evil One. There are many who feel as did the late Mr. Bryan, who said during the Scopes trial:

Mr. Darrow embodies all that is cruel, heartless, and destructive in evolution. He is the finished product of evolution, the most perfect that has developed in the United States, and proves the criminal folly of intrusting to the tempestuous sea of life an intellectual ship without a moral rudder and a compass.

The fact is, of course, that Darrow has no quarrel with any man to whom religion holds out consolation or hope, making life more palatable. “I know there are millions of people in the world,” he has said, “who derive consolation in their times of trouble and solace, in times of distress, from the Bible. I have never tried to impose my views on religion on any human being. I have a right to my own views, and I would fight as hard to protect every other man’s views as I would fight to protect my own.”


At forty Darrow was a partisan. At seventy he has become a philosopher. At forty the partisan, stirred by the suffering and wretchedness of men, led a gallant attack upon those economic forces which he believed deliberately held the workers in bondage. At seventy the philosopher feels even more deeply the suffering of humankind, but he neither blames nor excuses. He now believes that man acts as he does because of stimuli from without and is as little responsible for his conduct as a machine of steel. Darrow as a young man dreamed of a day when the intelligence of man would rule, when his bestiality and cruelty to his fellows would give way to love and kindness. The old philosopher believes such dreams to be mere opiates with which we drug ourselves against the terrifying facts: that man is not a creature of infinite possibilities, that he is ruled by his emotions, not by his mind, that he has the same “purpose” as the amoeba-simply to wriggle along as best he can.

Some fifteen years ago, in addressing the prisoners in the Illinois state prison, Darrow said: “It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel-he believes in punishment.” The good people are still his chief concern, the good people who are forever sitting in judgment on their fellows, who seek to force every one else into their mold of goodness, to adopt their good habits of drinking, of worship, of thinking-even of procreating. The metamorphosis of the partisan is now complete: Darrow has become the most feared enemy of the cocksure and omniscient, the ablest libertarian of the day.

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