(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Author Kevin Tierney, who presently teaches law at the University of California’s Hastings College in San Francisco, has written one of the most complete studies to date of America’s foremost trial lawyer: Clarence Darrow, the courtroom spellbinder who defended the most unpopular causes and personages of his day, including organized labor, anarchists, child murderers, and blacks charged with murdering whites. In Darrow: A Biography, the myth of Darrow, brave defender of the weak and hated, is given considerable reinforcement. For here is the battler of legend, who, although struggling against an army of enemies bent on his destruction or humiliation, wins case after case: the Loeb-Leopold “thrill murder” affair, the John Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, the Ossian Sweet case in Detroit. On the other hand, one sees Darrow in a different light than that in which he is usually portrayed. He is presented as a frustrated writer yearning to be part of the Chicago Renaissance group of poets and novelists; as a victim of bad luck, judgment and timing; and as a midlife failure.

The twists and turns of Darrow’s life were dramatic, with astonishing success followed by terrible defeat which, in turn, was followed by phoenixlike recovery. In fact, it could be said that Tierney’s principal aim in writing about Darrow is to demonstrate how supremely hard it was for him to win not only a name for himself but also the respect of fellow colleagues, many of whom were repulsed by his sense of superiority. A lesser man would have been broken by any one of the sizable defeats life dealt Darrow. However, his will and large heart, combined with a love of courtroom debate, made him the “people’s champion” late in life.

From tiny Kinsman, Ohio, an unincorporated hamlet not even appearing on maps of the day, Darrow started his life’s quest in solid Horatio Alger fashion, having neither prosperous or well-connected parents nor a decent school record upon which to rely. Tierney stresses that Darrow’s skepticism, his obstinacy, and his at times vehement unconventionality were there from the outset, as was his ambition to forge ahead no matter what or who stood in his way. Since anything which restricted his capacity to learn firsthand about the world and its workings angered him, it was only a matter of time before he spurned Kinsman’s dull ways and headed for law school at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, even a university setting was too predictable and orderly for Darrow, too isolated from the combative real world he wanted so much to be part of, so he left.

Out in the world, unknown by it but ready to be known, Darrow learned law his own way through doing rather than by diligent study. First he went to Youngstown, where he passed the bar examination, then to Andover, and finally to Ashtabula, Ohio, where he became active in politics, falling under the sway of reformer John Peter Altgeld’s essay, “our Penal Machinery and Its Victims,” a tract defending the legal rights of society’s lower-class.

After a time, Darrow’s restlessness led to his making the final big move of his life when he journeyed to Chicago, the new metropolis teeming with life, possibilities, and problems. Immediately upon his arrival there in 1887, he allowed Chicago to be the one schoolmaster he would listen to. The city would, in turn, teach him some of life’s cruelest lessons and force him to assert his brilliance and ability.

At the time of Darrow’s arrival, Chicago was already a swollen giant of a city with a population hovering around the one million mark; it was well-known for its wild, unruly populace and incredible growth rate. As Tierney points out, “No other place challenged its preeminence in actuality or prospects. America’s young hopefuls assessed Chicago as the city of the future.” So important, in fact, had the city become by the end of the nineteenth century that some believed the nation’s capital would be moved from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, the continent’s center.

The rebuilding of Chicago meant a great surge of cheap labor coming to the city from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, labor at first easily exploited by capitalists such as George Pullman or meatpackers Armour and Swift. Laboring men and women were so poorly treated that unionization was the only thing to which they could turn to help them receive the wages and hours they needed; and it was such unionization that led to the brutal Haymarket Riot of 1886 in which “unionist” anarchists supposedly threw a bomb, killing onlookers and police alike. That the “plot” leaders were so quickly condemned to death by hanging bothered, among others, Clarence Darrow. In fact, it was that decision by the Illinois court that led Darrow into the unionist cause and the fight for the rights of the laboring man.

By listening to Chicago’s finest legal authorities speak, by immersing himself in books and articles written about Chicago, by acquainting himself with the city’s streets and neighborhoods, and by introducing himself to those who were well-connected or in important city posts, Darrow gradually, albeit painfully, pulled himself out of obscurity and into the limelight.

Above all others, it was the idol of his youth, John Peter Altgeld, who offered help by making sure his novice lawyer friend Darrow found enough wealthy clients to begin his practice. Although no saint (he embodied “a peculiar mixture of idealism and ruthlessness”), Altgeld wanted to do a good turn for a person of Darrow’s talents and cast of mind who appreciated the fight he was making for individual rights in Illinois.

Darrow became prosperous as his horizons widened. Yet despite his early success, he continually quarreled with colleagues, adopting the attitude (foreign to most attorneys) that “he who opposes my client in the courtroom is no friend of mine.” Miffed by Darrow’s presumption and his penchant for seeing colleagues as enemies, many members of the Chicago bar avoided him. Later, when Darrow was in need of help from fellow lawyers, scarcely a handful were interested enough in him to give assistance. All in all, Darrow, as Tierney indicates, went out of his way to hurt his reputation. It was not until the 1920’s that he would be well received again in legal circles.

Among the early cases which caused considerable bad feeling between Darrow and other lawyers was the so-called “Debs’s Rebellion” at the Pullman Company just outside of Chicago. Here, federal troops fought and fired upon striking members of Eugene V. Debs’s Railway union which then caused the workers to burn and vandalize Pullman property. Caught between his instinctive loyalty to underdog causes like that of the workers and his disapproval of union terrorist activities, Darrow finally decided to side with the latter against the former and, in so doing, had to give up his lucrative connection with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. As he stepped out of the railway company’s office, he found his true vocation. According to Tierney, the first major case Darrow undertook, the one involving Eugene V. Debs’s defense, set the pattern for his future undertakings. Darrow’s zest for defending Debs was grounded in his dislike of institutions and his corresponding admiration for those who confronted institutions and made them tremble.

Darrow put everything he had into his early cases, most of...

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