Clarence Seward Darrow

As an American labor lawyer and as a criminal lawyer, Clarence Seward Darrow (1857-1938) helped sharpen debate about the path of American industrialism and about the treatment of individuals in conflict with the law.

Clarence Darrow was born on April 18, 1857, in Farmdale, Ohio, to Amirus and Emily Darrow. He was introduced early to the life of the dissenter, for his father, after completing studies at a Unitarian seminary, had lost his faith and had become an agnostic living within a community of religious believers. Furthermore, the Darrows were Democrats in a Republican locale.

After completing his secondary schooling near Farmdale, Darrow spent a year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and another year at the University of Michigan Law School. Like almost all lawyers of the time, he delayed his admission to the bar until after he had read law with a local lawyer; he became a member of the Ohio bar in 1878. For the next 9 years he was a typical small-town lawyer, practicing in Kinsman, Andover, and Ashtabula, Ohio.

Seeking more interesting paths, however, Darrow moved to Chicago in 1887. In Ohio he had been impressed with the book Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims by Judge John Peter Altgeld. Darrow became a close friend of Altgeld, who was elected governor of Illinois in 1892. Altgeld not only raised questions about the process of criminal justice but, when he pardoned several men who had been convicted in the aftermath of the Haymarket riot of 1886, also questioned the treatment of those who were trying to organize workers into unions. Both of these themes played great roles in Darrow's life.


Labor Lawyer

Darrow had begun as a conventional civil lawyer. Even in Chicago his first jobs included appointment as the city's corporation counsel in 1890 and then as general attorney to the Chicago and North Western Railway. In 1894, however, he began what would be his primary career for the next 20 years—labor law. During that year he defended the Socialist Eugene V. Debs against an injunction trying to break the workers' strike Debs was leading against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company. Darrow was unsuccessful, though; the injunction against Debs was finally upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 1906-1907 Darrow successfully defended William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, the leader of the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World, against a charge of conspiring to murder former governor Steunenberg of Idaho. But in 1911 disaster struck as Darrow, defending the McNamara brothers against a charge of blowing up the Los Angeles Times Building, was suddenly faced with his clients' reversing their previous plea of innocence to one of guilt. In turn, Darrow was indicted for misconduct but was not convicted. With this his career as a labor lawyer came to an end.


Criminal Lawyer

Darrow had always been interested in criminal law, in part because of his acceptance of new, psychological theories stressing the role of determinism in human behavior. He viewed criminals as people led by circumstance into committing antisocial acts rather than as free-willing monsters. For this reason he was a bitter opponent of capital punishment, viewing it as a barbaric practice. Now he embarked on a new major career as a criminal lawyer.

Without a doubt Darrow's most famous criminal trial was the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, in which two Chicago boys had wantonly murdered a youngster. For the only time in his career Darrow insisted that his clients plead guilty, then turned his attention to saving them from the death penalty. He was successful in this, partly because he was able to introduce a great deal of psychiatric testimony supporting his theories of the determining influences upon individual acts.


Scopes Trial

During this period Darrow also participated in another great American case, the Scopes trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tenn. The issue was the right of a state legislature to prohibit the teaching of Darwinian theories of evolution in the public schools. Darrow, as an agnostic and as an evolutionist, was doubly contemptuous of the motives behind the fundamentalist law that had been passed, and he sought to defend the young schoolteacher who had raised the issue of evolution in his class. Technically, he was unsuccessful, for Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for his crime. But Darrow's defense, and particularly his cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan (the three-time Democratic candidate for president who spoke for the biblical, antiscientific, fundamentalist side) served to discredit religious fundamentalism and won national attention.

Two books among Darrow's many writings typify his concerns toward the end of his life. In 1922 he wrote Crime: Its Cause and Treatment; in 1929 appeared Infidels and Heretics, coedited with Wallace Rice, in which he presented the case for freethinking. To these two issue-oriented books he added in 1932 his autobiography, The Story of My Life.

Darrow's last important public service was as chairman of a commission appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to analyze the operation of the National Recovery Administration. He died on March 13, 1938.


Further Reading on Clarence Seward Darrow

The standard popular biography of Darrow is Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941). A more recent work is Miriam Gurko, Clarence Darrow (1965). A specialized, scholarly study is Abe C. Ravitz, Clarence Darrow and the American Literary Tradition (1962), which takes note of Darrow's participation in some of the literary controversies of his time.