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.”