Clarence Darrow (1857-1938)
by Doug Linder (2004)
Clarence Seward Darrow grew up the son of coffin-maker Americus Darrow, the village atheist and eccentric in the small, former abolitionist stronghold of Kinsman, Ohio. Clarence is bequethed "a nonconforming spirit, a skeptical mind, and freelance politics that drifted toward cynicism." His oratorical skills are already in evidence by his early teens, when he participates in town debates on the issues of the day-- always arguing the negative, and always winning.
In Chicago in 1896, two years after having given up a lucrative job as corporation counsel for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway to represent Eugene Debs, head of the railroad union, Darrow attended the 1896 Democratic National Convention as a member of the Illinois delegation. He listened as a young congressman from Nebraska and champion of silver coinage, William Jennings Bryan, swept delegates to their feet, warning of crucifixion upon "a cross of gold." Although Darrow found the speech simplistic, he wrote that he never heard a speech move an audience the way Bryan's speech did. While Bryan became the party's nominee and lost to McKinley, further down the ticket, Clarence Darrow lost his race for Congress by only 100 votes.
At the century's end, Darrow—by this time a committed determinist and agnostic—was a fixture in Chicago's intellectual circles. At frequent gatherings in his Chicago apartment, he might read “from Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Voltaire as his guests spread out on the Oriental carpet before him.” Tears might “roll down his cheeks as he reads Robert Burns poetry or bellows the powerful chants of Walt Whitman." The night might end with Darrow joining his guests in a rousing rendition of "The Road to Mandalay"
John Scopes called Darrow “the best read man I have ever known” (COS, 225)). Through his voracious reading he absorbed the mechanistic thinking and modernist notions of the age. Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud all shaped Darrow. He also, undoubtedly, was influenced by the times: a time of class conflict so intense as to border on class warfare, a time of Jim Crow and of unprecedented xenophobia, 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. Invariably, he saw his client's cases as inextricably linked to these large philosophical and social issues. Unlike most attorneys, Darrow fought his battles not just for his clients, but also for the hearts and minds of the American people. Darrow believed, as did most people in the early twentieth-century, that intellectual battles could be won, not just fought. He felt strongly 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.
After a long career of celebrated cases, including—especially—his defense the year before of two, young genius thrill killers, Leopold and Loeb, Darrow by 1925 ranked as the most famous lawyer in the country. In the pre-television, newspaper world, words mattered more than images. People appreciated oratorical skills; whole speeches were heard and were read—not just sound bites. The ability to use words well still could make one a hero in the 1920s, the decade of Ruth and Lindbergh, a time that was the Age of Heroes. Clarence Darrow, the “sophisticated country lawyer,” was, when the Scopes trial opened in Dayton, Tennessee, at the same time one of the best loved and most hated men of his time—a status that it is hard to imagine a trial attorney achieving today.
The Scopes case was a dream-come-true for Clarence Darrow. In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, admits that as soon as heard William Jennings Bryan had joined the prosecution team, “at once I wanted to go.” (SOL, 249) On a speaking tour in Richmond at the time, a confidant Darrow confided to a friend, “I believe I could bring him down.” (Stone, 432) The trial, as he saw it, provided the opportunity “to focus the attention of the country on the program of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America.” (SOL, 249) Religious “fanaticism,” as he called it, threatened public education and the spirit of inquiry and skepticism that sustained civilization. Darrow described the upcoming trial apocalyptically in remarks shortly after his arrival in Dayton: “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” (Stone, 437)
So irresistible was the chance to battle “the idol of all Morondom” (SOL, 249) that Darrow felt compelled “for the first, the last, the only time in my life” to volunteer his services in a case. (SOL, 244) The ACLU leadership was decidedly less enthusiastic about Darrow’s participation in the case than was the famous defense lawyer himself, and accepted him on the defense team reluctantly, when John Scopes “insisted on having him as a defender.” (COS, 220) Scopes revealed that ACLU officials he met in New York feared that the “headline chaser” would turn his trial into “a carnival” and “obscure” the real issue in the case. (KT, 355) Scopes never regretted his decision and later wrote that Darrow had “a greater influence on my life than any other man I have ever known, except my father.” (COS, 220)
Darrow’s interest in the evolution-creationism issue began well before Dayton. Two years before the Scopes trial, the July 4, 1923 front page of the Chicago Tribune carried a list of fifty-five questions, composed by Darrow and addressed to Bryan, relating to human origins and the stories of the Bible. The questions came in response to a letter from Bryan, published in the same paper, attacking the teaching of evolution. Darrow noted in his published letter that Bryan had mailed “questionnaires to various college professors who believe in evolution and still profess Christianity.” He thought it appropriate, therefore, to turn the table on Bryan and ask of him a few questions which, “if fairly answered, might serve the interests of reaching the truth—all of this assuming that truth is desirable.” Bryan offered a brusque reply: “I decline to turn aside to enter into controversy with those who reject the Bible as Mr. Darrow does.” (IS, 426-27)
Darrow’s questions for Bryan reveal what Darrow biographer Kevin Tierney called his “childish conception of theology, which was in its way as dated as Bryan’s.” (KT, 358) He missed the subtleties of religion—aspects dealing with transcendent purposes and aims—and focused instead on its most improbable claims. Tierney cited the comments of a woman who attended a debate on religion between Darrow and G. K. Chesterton: “He seemed to have an idea that all religion was a matter of accepting Jonah’s whale as a sort of luxury liner.” (KT, 358) For Darrow, miracles were not merely miraculous, but impossible. His naturalistic philosophy left no room for the supernatural, and he had a hard time seeing how any thinking person could conclude otherwise. Beliefs such as those held by Bryan were to Darrow’s mind “crude” and rejected “the common intelligence of modern times.” (CD, 267)
It wasn’t just the physical law-defying aspects of fundamentalism, however, that bothered Darrow. He saw it as “the sanctifier of bigotry, narrowness, ignorance, and the status quo.” (KT, 358) “Religious fanaticism,” Darrow believed, “has always hampered” education. (CD, 249) In 1925, “the sharpshooters of bigotry were picking off its victims in our schools and colleges day after day.” (CD, 276)
Darrow considered himself something of an amateur scientist—and boasted of his knowledge of things scientific. “For a lawyer, I was a fairly grounded scientist,” he declared in The Story of My Life. “I had been reared by my father on books of science,” he recalled. “Huxley’s books had been household guests with us for years, and we had all of Darwin’s as fast as they were published.” (CD, 250-51) Science linked in Darwin’s mind with skepticism—and skepticism built civilization and fueled progress. “The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry,” he concluded. (VooC, 436)
The theory of evolution fit well into Darrow’s pessimistic philosophy of life. He saw abundant evidence of pain and uncaring cruelty in the world, much as Darwin saw nature in general as characterized by the relentless struggle for survival. Certain deterministic aspects of the theory appealed to him as well. Darrow had long argued that human behavior was the product of genes and environmental influences, not free choice.
People clung to the myths of Genesis, Darrow wrote, because they wanted to believe “that man is a being set apart, distinct from all the rest of nature.” (VooC, 427) This desire sprung, in his opinion, from “hopes and fears, and...primitive conceptions of undeveloped minds.” (VC, 427) The men who wrote Genesis can hardly be faulted for believing as they did, but Darrow expressed surprise that any “intelligent person” could still accept their words as true. “The Bible is not a book of science,” Darrow noted. “The men who wrote Genesis believed, of course, that this tiny speck of mud we call the earth was the center of the universe, the only world in space, and made for man, who was the only being worth considering….Everyone today knows that this conception is not true.” (VooC, 433) Christians, he felt, found evidence of intelligent design where none existed. They “obsessed for many years” over the famous “watchmaker” argument of Paley, believing, as he did, that the wondrous complexity of nature could no more be a product of the chance operation of physical laws than could a watch found lying in a desert. Darrow dismissed such speculation, finding “no implication that some intelligent power must have made” these impressive—and well-adapted—designs of nature. The origin of the universe—“if it had” an orgin—was, for Darrow, the agnostic, “a mystery” and would remain one forever.
Darrow claimed to sympathize with took great comfort in the Bible and the belief that a God existed who watched over the universe. “I would be pretty near the last one in the world to do anything to take it away,” he said. “If anybody finds anything in this life that brings them consolation and health and happiness I think they ought to have it.” (IS, 440) Meeting before the Scopes trial with local prosecutors at the Hicks firm in Dayton, Darrow told them, “I wish I could believe in the Bible, like you people—I just can’t. And I wish I could get hope out of it like you do.” He added, sadly, “I’ve got no hope.” Evolution led many young people from the faith of their parents, Darrow knew, but “that was the way of life, and the old have no right to stand in the way of the young.” He understood “the sorrow of fathers and mothers when they found that the children were leaving them behind,” but progress is progress. (CD, 274)
If Bryan and the fundamentalists relied too much on the literal pronouncements of the Bible, Darrow might be faulted for accepting too unqualifiedly the impartiality of science and the soundness of its conclusions. He seemed not able to fully appreciate that science is a game in which old truths constantly give way to new ones, and evidence that supports conventional scientific wisdom is often uncritically accepted. Like many other evolutionists of his day, for example, Darrow accepted the “Piltdown Man” as virtual proof of man’s common ancestry with apes. It later turned out to be a hoax—and a rather crude one at that.
Shortly after arriving in Dayton in July 1925, Darrow proclaimed, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” Civilization on trial?: the notion was ludicrous, of course. Free thought in America did not depend on the acquittal of a public school teacher in Tennessee; humanizing institutions did not hang in the balance. As absurd as the ban on teaching evolution in state schools might be, it did not prevent the theory from being discussed in books, speeches, or private schools—nor did it require the teaching of any doctrine contrary to the best thinking of modern science. Moreover, the law probably would not have been enforced, had the ACLU not encouraged a test case attacking its validity. If not allowing the science education one might wish for, the Butler Act could have been worse….
The New York Times called it “the most amazing courtroom scene in Anglo-Saxon history.” The two rival celebrities, in the open air of the courthouse yard before thousands of spectators, rose from their seats, glowered at each other, shook their fists, and traded insults. The ostensible purpose of the Darrow’s calling William Jennings Bryan to the stand was to determine whether the self-proclaimed Biblical expert might shed light on the potentially relevant question of whether the Bible might be reconciled with Darwin’s theory. The real purpose was humiliation.
Contrary to most published accounts of the dramatic event, the idea of examining Bryan did not suddenly pop into Darrow’s head on the morning of July 20, 1925. The possible tactic, according to John Scopes, had been under discussion at least two days earlier. Denied the right to call their own experts to testify, Darrow realized that he might be able to use Bryan to make his points in a way that might command the nation’s attention. The Commoner’s ego knew no bounds, so Darrow understood that Bryan might find the challenge to testify irresistible—if only his co-prosecutors did not stand in his way. When the time came, Bryan dismissed the concerns of his prosecution team and took the stand willingly, subject only to his right to put Darrow and other defense lawyers on the stand as well.
Darrow, jacketless and wearing his trademark suspenders, began his interrogation of Bryan with a quiet question: "You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?" Bryan replied, "Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years." Thus began a series of questions designed to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Darrow later described the questions as “practically the same” as those he had confronted the Commoner with two years earlier in the Chicago Tribune. He asked Bryan about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis.
After initially contending, "Everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there," Bryan finally conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. In response to Darrow's relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan said "My impression is that they were periods."
Bryan, who began his testimony calmly, stumbled badly under Darrow's persistent prodding. At one point the exasperated Bryan said, "I do not think about things I don't think about." Darrow asked, "Do you think about the
things you do think about?" Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, "Well, sometimes." Both old warriors grew testy as the examination continued. Bryan accused Darrow of attempting to "slur at the Bible." He said that he would continue to answer Darrow's impertinent questions because "I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee--." Darrow interrupted his witness by saying, "I object to your statement" and to "your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes." After that outburst, Raulston ordered the court adjourned. The next day, Raulston ruled that Bryan could not return to the stand and that his testimony the previous day should be stricken from evidence.
The press reported the confrontation between Bryan and Darrow as a defeat for Bryan. According to one historian, "As a man and as a legend, Bryan was destroyed by his testimony that day." His performance was described as that of "a pitiable, punch drunk warrior." The problem, on close examination of the transcript, lay not so much with his own poor mind—Bryan was no blithering idiot—but with a faith that defied logic. It left him trapped, like “a dumb animal.”
When Judge Raulston mercifully ended the examination of Bryan, a large number of people rushed forward to congratulate Darrow. “Much to my surprise,” Darrow wrote in The Story of My Life, “the great gathering surged toward me. They seemed to have changed sides in a single afternoon.” (CD, 267) Feelings of sympathy for his prey, if Darrow’s account is believed, arose simultaneously: “I was truly sorry for Mr. Bryan.” (CD, 267)
The man he defeated, Darrow thought, was only a shell of the person he once had been. “I could see the rapid decay that had come upon him,” Darrow said. Bryan, he believed, was a man of “unchangeable convictions” who had come to Dayton “to get even with an alien world.” When he might have earlier smiled or told a joke, he now “snarled and scolded.” Darrow concluded that “the merry twinkle had vanished from his eyes” and he had the look of “a wild animal at bay.” He expressed shock to see the former zeal and idealism of Bryan “turned to wormwood and gall through failure and despair and bigotry.” (CD, 276-77)
Darrow, however, did not escape criticism either. Alan Dershowitz, for example, contended that the celebrated defense attorney "comes off as something of an anti-religious cynic." As Kevin Tierney observed in his biography of Darrow, there was indeed “something very cruel about the way in which Bryan was ravaged.” (KT, 370) Some people went so far as to suggest, when the Commoner died suddenly five days later, that the defense attorney had “cross-examined the helpless William Jennings Bryan into his grave.” (KT, 370)
Darrow, despite the best efforts of some in the ACLU to oust him, remained with the Scopes case until the defense’s final victory—if it can be called that—in the Tennessee Supreme Court. As he ended his argument, applause broke out. The court issued its opinion – months later, invalidating the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality--not constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, Scopes’s fine should have been set by the jury, not by Judge Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case with the comment, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."
Writing his autobiography seven years later, Darrow predicted “that it will be only a few years before the senseless statute will be wiped from her books either by repeal or the decision of a final court.” (CD, 276) (The Tennessee General Assembly did, in fact, repeal the Butler Act—but not until 1967.) The great defense attorney believed that he slowed, or even stopped, the anti-evolution movement in its tracks. “There is now reason for feeling confident,” he wrote, “that no more states will permit their fanatics to place them in the position of Tennessee.” (CD, 276) Some of Darrow’s more fawning biographers, such as Irving Stone, tended to agree. Stone declared in Clarence Darrow for the Defense that Darrow ‘s examination of Bryan “dealt a deathblow to fundamentalism.” (IS, 427)
Many in the ACLU, on the other hand, believed after the Scopes trial that Darrow had seriously harmed the organization’s reputation. They thought that the defense’s self-indulgent and sometimes frivolous actions in the case made good newspaper copy, but unnecessarily alienated potential supporters of good science, especially in the South.