Clarence Darrow and the defense of thought against ignorance

Clarence Darrow has long been a hero of mine, ever since reading Irving Stone’s now-out-of-print biographical novel Clarence Darrow for the Defense when I was boy. I went on to read Darrow’s autobiography probably in high school or early college and haven’t read anything since, but he has always remained for me the ideal of someone who believed strongly in ideas, intelligence and reason in the face of reality-ignoring existence.

I’ve been thinking  about Darrow a lot lately, and how he would react to the current state of the United States. Darrow first rose to national prominence as a union lawyer, and was involved in some of the most important labor events of US history including the Haymarket bombing, the Pullman strike, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times, and much much more. After the LA Times bombing trial, which went very badly for Darrow as he was accused and tried for trying to bribe the jurors (although the history remains murky, but one biographer I read thought at least he might have done it, but with the mood of capital against labor in those days, any sensationalistic account would have been taken up, so it’s hard to say). After that trial, Darrow left strictly union causes. His probably most famous case was the Scopes monkey trial, in which he defended a young Tennessee teacher against charges of teaching evolution, which was then against the law in that state. His defense of evolution, and reason, is one of the most eloquent expressions of human intelligence I can imagine, although according to the internet some spectators thought he was cruel to poor William Jennings Bryan. (In fact Bryan, who had been a populist candidate for president and was deeply religious, died five days after the trial.)

Thinking about Darrow and my lifelong hero worship of him made me realize that i needed to do more reading and research on the man. There is nothing sacrosanct in the world, and all needs to be questioned. So I’ve started with the Internet, which, in the case of someone like Darrow, is highly suspect depending on the motives of the writer (for example the Wikipedia article on Darrow is, in my opinion, a piece of shit). But there are some interesting things, including this amazingly relevant quote, from the Leopold and Loeb trial, which was an amazing forshadowing of the future involving rich idleness, thrill killing, and media persecution (taken from this really interesting article):

“I saw a dark vision of the future this morning,” Darrow wrote to Parton . . . “This is all so shocking but, at once, I sense a strange new era. Life will become cheap and tawdry, driven by a lust for sensation and mass stupidity. Man has never been a noble beast but, now, our understanding and mercy will be tested to their limits.”

This is just the beginning of a project that will take more than one blog post, (and much more than just reading the Internet), I think Darrow is standing up well to the test of time: he might have bribed a jury, but even if that was the case you can be sure the corporations were doing worse; he was a womanizer, but he believed in free love; he made money from his trials, but he also did a lot of pro bono work and always put the defense of ideas above the love of money. He was a founding supporter of the NAACP and defended blacks against white racism and violence; and he defended science and reason against blindness and ignorance. So warts and all he’s looking pretty good to me, including this tidbit from an interview with a Darrow biographer:

After the monkey trial he was without a doubt the most famous trial lawyer in America. He could have commanded titanic fees from any corporation in America; they would have loved to have him. And instead, he used his fame to go to Detroit and represent for $5,000 over nine months a group of African Americans who had been trapped in a house by a racist mob at a time when the city was whipped into a hateful frenzy by the Ku Klux Klan. [The homeowner, an African American physician named Ossian Sweet, had just bought the house in a white neighborhood; when the mob stoned his house, some men in the house returned fire with guns, killing a white neighbor. The 11 men in the house were charged with murder.]

So I am starting a thread on this blog called What would Clarence Darrow do? And in it I might discuss topics of the day or my continuing research into Darrow’s life. All motivated with an eye toward inquiry and open mindedness, and if this journey takes me to finding Darrow was a piece of shit, well then so be it. Because knowledge is always better than ignorance. Something I believe Darrow would have appreciated.


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