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May 06, 2005

On Clarence Darrow

Ray Ginger on Clarence Darrow, from Ray Ginger (1975), The Age of Excess: The United States from 1877-1914 (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press: 0192486013954), pp. 358-9:

Lawyer: Clarence Darrow: The name of Clarence Seward Darrow (1857-1938) conjures up the Monkey Trial and Leopold-Loeb. He is remembered as the foremost defense lawyer of his generation, spokeman for the accused in dozens of murder trials. This view is badly distorted. He was a courtroom advocate only in his waning years. The truth is far more complex.

Darrow found his springboard into the Chicago bar in the practice of civil law, not of criminal. His friendship with John Peter Altgeld made him the corporation counsel of Chicago, representing the city in such mundane actions as land titles and tax assessments. Next he was general attorney for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, trying to fend off the regulatory efforts of municipalities and legislatures and the federal authorities. It was his appearance as attorney for Eugene V. Debs in the Pullman boycott of 1894 that projected him onto a larger and more brilliantly lighted stage. For the next twenty years his best-known clients were a cross-section of the trade union officials of the nation.

Even after he became a famous labor lawyer, Darrow continued to represent large corporations--if they would pay his fee. His friends in the settlement houses sometimes challenged the contradiction in his behavior. He replied thus, probably in 1895, to one of them:

I undertook to serve this company or these people, believing they had an ordinance, procured by the aid of boodle. Judged by the ordinary commercial and legal standard of ethics I did right.... I am satisfied that judged by the higher law, in which we both believe, I could not be justified, and that I am practically a thief. I am taking money I did not earn, which comes to me from men who did not earn it, but who get it, because they have a chance to get it.... I came to Chicago about eight years ago, before I came I lived in a small country town.... I determined to take my chance with the rest, to get what I could out of the system and use it to destroy the system. I came without friends or money. Society provides no fund out of which such people can live while preaching heresy. It compels us to get our living out of society as it is or die. I do not choose yet to die, although perhap it would be the best...

Darrow was in a quandary. The lawyers he knew as a youth were private practitioners, each his own man, picking his own clients, serving in a wide spectrum of causes. But the legal firms on the ascendant in 1900 were bureaucratic teams of experts. Not only was each attorney a victim of the division of labor, so were most firms (specialists in municipal bonds, or railroad reorganizations, or land development). Darrow was the marginal man, teetering between these ways of life. In the long haul, he liked the old ways better than the new.

Posted by DeLong at May 6, 2005 12:17 PM