Monday, April 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Clarence

Clarence Darrow was born today in 1857. Darrow was the preeminent lawyer of his day: the defense attorney for Ossian Sweet & his family, in one of the most racially charged cases ever tried (a black doctor moving into a white neighborhood in Detroit finds his house under attack, and someone in the white mob is killed; the whole black family is charged with murder); for Leopold & Loeb (arguing not that they were innocent, but against the death penalty); for several union men in the Haywood trial and other Western Mining Union trials; and of course, in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
There will never be another Darrow. He was, like us all, a product of his times. For him, it was a time of class conflict so intense as to border on class warfare. It was a time during which the Radical Left-- anarchists, socialists, communists-- were at the peak of their influence. It was a time of Jim Crow, of lynchings, a time during which the Klu Klux Klan called the shots in parts of our country. It was a time of unprecedented xenophobia. It was a time of whirl and social change-- a time when the modernist notion of asking whether a behavior pleased one's own intellect began to challenge the Victorian way of asking whether the behavior was approved of by society. Mechanistic thinking was in the air: Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud. Darrow was shaped, in both positive and negative ways, by these forces. Invariably, he saw his client's cases as inextricably linked to these large philosophical and social issues. He fought his battles not just for his clients, but also for the hearts and minds of the American people.

There will never be another Darrow. Power has shifted in the American courtroom since he ended his career. It's shifted away from attorneys and juries and to judges. There are more constraints operating on trial lawyers today; trials are more scripted. Few modern judges would let a defense attorney call a prosecutor as a witness; few judges today let attorneys depict their client's cause as bound up in the mechanistic workings of the ambivalent universe; the personal stories, the biting sarcasm, and the everpresent poetry that we find in Darrow's summations would likely be met today with judicial disapprobation.

There will never be another Darrow. In the pre-television, newspaper world of Darrow, words mattered more than images. Oratorical skills were valued; whole speeches were heard and were read-- not just sound bites. The ability to use words well could make one a hero in Darrow's time, a time that was the Age of Heroes (Ruth, Lindbergh). Clarence Darrow was at the same time one of the best loved and most hated men of his time-- it is hard to imagine a trial attorney achieving that status today.

There will never be another Darrow. In his time, there was a general belief that intellectual battles could be won, not just fought. That Science could beat Fundamentalism or that Fundamentalism could beat Science. That Trade Unionism would win, or Trade Unionism would be routed-- there seemed no middle way.
This is from an essay by Prof. Douglas Linder, to be found here

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At 1:38 PM, April 20, 2011 Anonymous Adrienne had this to say...

We are publishing the comprehensive biography CLARENCE DARROW: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell in June. If you are interested in a review copy please send your contact information to me at acsparks at


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