Clarence Darrow

31 Darrow pic1

(1857 – 1938)

“There were no beggars in the early days. It was only when the landlord got in his way – when the earth monopoly was complete – that the great mass of men had to look for a job.”

“A lot of reformers are trying to get parks laid out in the slums, which only make the poor move, for they cannot pay the increased rent.”

“Every man, woman and child adds to the wealth of the landowner; the others must secure land upon which to live, and they must bid with each other for the right to live.”

“The single tax is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last land reform the world will ever get.”

In American culture, you don’t get honoured by getting a medal or a knighthood, but by having Hollywood and Broadway portray you as a hero. So if someone’s been played on stage and screen by the likes of Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Paul Muni and Edward Asner, you know you have a real champ on your hands. And sure enough, at the peak of his career in the 1920s, Clarence Darrow was the most famous trial lawyer in the United States and no-one before or since then has occupied the prominent role that he played on the legal stage as a lawyer and social activist.

Clarence Seward Darrow grew up during the American Civil War in the rural town of Kinsman in Ohio in humble circumstances with seven siblings. Due to the family’s failure to conform to society’s views, neighbors ostracised them. But it was here that young Clarence had the seeds planted that would prepare the ground for a geoist realisation in later life, for the family home served as a station in the Underground Railroad with the family helping runaway slaves escape to the North. Furthermore, Clarence’s mother was an early supporter of female suffrage and a woman’s rights advocate. Clearly, Clarence’s parents had a great influence on him for, in harmony with his subsequent geoist beliefs, he became a noted social activist, a champion of minorities, and a representative of the (black American advocacy organisation) NAACP, as well as for many organised labour groups.

Still, a solid education was important in the Darrow household, and Clarence managed to attend Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878 to begin a stellar career as an almost unbeatable courtroom attorney. But it was a tough struggle in the early days until Darrow married Jessie Ohl, who was the daughter of a prosperous local family. His father-in-law loaned him the money to purchase his law books and Darrow and his wife lived in a small apartment over a shoe store, which also doubled as his law office.

He found that he made less as a lawyer than he had briefly made as a school teacher, but he battled on until he made the move to the big smoke of Chicago in 1888 as the corporate counsel for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. In 1894 he switched sides and resigned from the railroad to represent union leader Eugene Debs. For the rest of his career, Darrow was known as a champion of the underdog, nationally famous for his strident opposition to capital punishment and as the defense counsel in two of the biggest trials of the period: the murder trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (1924), and the so-called “Monkey Trial” of John Scopes, a schoolteacher barred from teaching evolution (1925). Darrow’s oratorical skills and quick wit made him famous in and out of the courtroom, and he was a hero in intellectual circles for his progressive politics.

Darrow’s great intellectual milestone occurred just before this move to Chicago, when he became friends with Amos Hubbard who had advised him to read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. This had an enormous influence on Darrow, who credited Hubbard with giving him his great insight into the radical political doctrines of the day. Darrow later declared, “Henry George was one of the real prophets of the world; one of the seers of the world. His was a wonderful mind; he saw a question from every side.”

It was shortly after his move to Chicago that he gained the opportunity to mix with many of the progressive thinkers of that era, just when Henry George was setting the intellectual world alight. He was already onside with George in that he had been an ardent free trader and had supported Grover Cleveland’s campaign for election in 1884 against the protectionist policies of the Republican party.

But it was his larger-than-life personal character that led so many famous actors to later represent him. Darrow, the courageous and ultimately defiant thinker, relentlessly fought against what he believed was wrong. He was firm, bold, rational, and humane and he fought for his beliefs ferociously. He was a demagogue, capable of convincing crowds to be more reasonable and even affectionate.

Yet the object of Darrow’s own affections was not money; he had the opportunity to make much of it and declined for his true object of affection: defending truth and promoting humaneness. He worked for free tirelessly, in defense of unionists, scientists, and anyone who was capable of feeling suffering. Little wonder that he had been drawn into the geoist camp in an era before geoism was effectively killed by a conspiracy of silence.