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Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast Hardcover – April 26, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Relating the life of one of America's most progressive lawyers, Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), Kersten (Race, Jobs, and the War; Politics and Progress) portrays the "Old Lion" as a socially conscious maverick full of contradictions. Born of solid rural Midwestern stock, Darrow started as a real estate, insurance, and collections agent, until his calm, rational style as a lawyer elevated him to prominence. When he moved to Chicago in 1887, he became an influential member of the city's political machine, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful. But he eventually left them to become "the attorney for the damned," defending unionists, miners, and other members of the working class, as well as lawbreakers and the poor. Kersten, a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, does not omit Darrow's manic personal life of broken marriages, relationships, and juggling several affairs at once, leaving Kersten to comment: "Darrow lived life fearlessly, sometimes recklessly." In the end, the brilliance and daring of Darrow's legal strategies make this skillful, absorbing biography most riveting, especially with his masterful handling of the controversial Leopold-Loeb case, the unpopular Scopes "monkey trial," and the Sweet case, where a black family defended their home from attacks by their white neighbors. (May)
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Top Customer Reviews
In one of the many photos of this book, Darrow is shown looking depressed, and this does not come as a surprise, since he remained most of his life an avowed pessimist and often harboured dark moods. Still, he hoped his battles would make a difference in the lives of the average Americans.
What makes this book different from others is the emphasis on the political side of Darrow. Drawing on new records and documents, Professor Kersten shows to what extent Darrow fought the social evils of his days, mainly when he was battling the ongoing influence of corporations and government in ordinary working Americans' lives. Darrow actually decided to smash to smithereens systems of social control in America.
In spite of his pessimism, Darrow, in one of his famous cases, has used a sentence which was also typical of him. Addressing a jury, he said: "Gentlemen, the world is dark, but it is not hopeless". He reained skeptical about religion all his life and this he described well in his fictional autobiography called "Farrington". Then in 1905, he published another novel, called "An Eye for an Eye", which was based on a real murder case, in which he showed his intellectual debt to Kropotkin and Tolstoy.
Darrow is best remembered as the attorney who rose to stardom because of two famous trials: that of Loeb and Leopold and the Scopes trial. In the first case, he accepted the case because he opposed the death penalty all his life. In the second one, that of Scopes, he believed that schools had the right to teach evolution. This because he held the view that each individual had the right to decide what was right and what was wrong for him, and no authority had the right to impose its beliefs on anyone.
Later on he became a friend of African-Americans and was extremly active in the defense and promotion of civil rights after his turn away from the labout movement. This was fundamental to his outlook. No other Americans suffered as blacks had and no others had so consistently been denied basic freedoms and liberties. A supporter of President Woodrow Wilson, he gladly championed the war in Europe and longed for Germany's defeat. He traveled to Europe, in particular to England and France, visiting the front lines and meeting with various dignitaries there. This definitely showed a shift in his thinking as a pacifist, but Darrow saw the dangers of the German aggression and was witnessing the gunning down of a whole generation of young people in Europe, where 1 out of every 5 French soldiers had been killed. In the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 Britain had suffered 20000 deaths and 40000 wounded, while the American Expeditionary Force had lost nearly 120000 soldiers. This was the reason why he temporarily supported the suppression of some rights during World War One. However, after the end of the war, he declared that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional and added that "the prison doors should be opened". His first order of business was to join the legal defense of the 106 Wobblies arrested in Chicago, charged with violating the Espionage and Sedition acts.
In the thirties, he headed a commission to investigate conditions in Nazi Germany. He was shocked and aghast at the wholesale destrucion of civil liberties and the persecution of Jews under Hitler's regime. In his words: "Hitler was a very dangerous man and ought to be destroyed".
Darrow died one month short of his eighty-first birthday after his heart began to fail.
Professor Kersten, who also describes in detail Darrow's education and personal life, has written a very good and interesting book, which reads quickly and shows that people and especially lawyers like Darrow are extremely rare to find these days. As he remarks, "we could draw from Darrow's story what we wish". This book is about a very complicated, yet extremely interesting character, a crusader with many contradictions who helped define American liberalism. Highly recommended.
Kersten is an historian without legal training, and his work can therefore be maddeningly vague. A lodestar guiding Darrow throughout his career was a commitment to liberty, justice and equality for all, Kersten writes. I am not sure what value this adds to an assessment of Darrow’s life. Watch the debate between right and left in this country today. Surely Ann Coulter and Glenn Greenwald both maintain commitments to liberty, justice and equality: their differing means of getting to that goal is what makes sparks fly.
I chose Coulter and Greenwald as examples because, like Darrow, they have legal training. Coulter attended the University of Michigan law school; Greenwald attended New York University law school. Coulter and Greenwald are, as was Darrow, public intellectuals, writing and lecturing widely on all manner of things. Yet unlike Darrow, neither Coulter nor Greenwald darkens the door of courtroom to try cases. They talk the talk, but neither attempts the walk. Darrow did both. That’s one of the things that distinguishes him the the law’s chatterboxes.
Kersten’s brief biography may lack the insight lawyers expect when discussing Darrow’s cases, but it does present both his legal and political career in a balanced and accessible manner, indeed, the author makes no bones about his interest in Darrow’s politics. Darrow, a one-term state lawmaker and failed congressional candidate, viewed the law as a means of advancing political ends early in his career. As he aged and became more skeptical he emerged as far more than a mere movement lawyer.
We learn that Darrow was an ambitious drifter as a young man, eager to make a name for himself, but lacking big-city connections. He moved to Chicago and cultivated the attention of such men as John Atgeld, a reformer and future governor of Illinois. Soon, Darrow was appointed to a job in the Chicago corporation counsel’s office. Thereafter, he was running the office as the city’s top lawyer. From there he migrated to a lucrative position as corporate counsel to the Chicago North Western Railroad. These are moves not just of a man with talent, but of a man with a plan and fiery ambition. Kersten makes no effort to understand what subterranean furnace fed Darrow’s ambition, a shortcoming a longer book might have addressed.
When labor unrest tore the country apart, Darrow walked away from the railroads and into the front lines of the struggle between labor and capital, representing Eugene Debs, then Bill Haywood, and then the McNamara brothers in the Los Angeles bombing case in which 21 works at the Lost Angeles Times were killed as a result of arsonist’s bomb. When Darrow was himself charged with trying to bribe jurors in the McNamara case, his labor support vanished. He stood trial twice on these charges, earning a mistrial as to one juror, and an acquittal as to a second. The state elected not to try him again on the mistried case if he agreed to leave California and never again attempt to practice law there. He agreed.
In his mid-fifties, Darrow returned to Chicago broke, disgraced and with few friends. I would argue that it was at this point that he became a real trial lawyer, putting aside loyalty to movements and interests beyond those of the client on whose behalf he was appearing. One cannot serve two masters in the well of the court. Whatever a movement may demand, a client’s interest remain the lawyer’s guide: a trial lawyer is Charon at the gates of Hell.
Darrow represented more than 100 men facing the death penalty; only one was sentenced to die and thereafter killed by the state. He represented Leopold and Loeb in the spectacular thrill-killing case in the Chicago, avoiding the death penalty for two wealthy assassins who killed for kicks. He represented Ossian Sweet in Detroit, winning an acquittal for a black man facing down a white mob in Detroit with lethal violence. And while he lost the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, he won the hearts and minds of many with his searing cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan. And while he did all this, he wrote and lectured.
Yet time and again, Darrow’s fortunes foundered and his outlook darkened. He was ruined by the Great Depression. Hopes to retire were frustrated again and again by the topsy-turvy character of his law practice: he could make a fortune in fees, only to be broke again and soon once a case ended. Kersten does not dwell on the political economy of the trial lawyer’s life, but he teases with just enough details to be tantalizing. Can it be true, even Darrow was from time to time forced to resort to selling off possessions to pay his bills? Yes, the bibliophile sold first editions from time to time. Kersten approaches the fact that Darrow would take cases simply because he needed income with an almost morbid sense of wonder: oh, to live the life of a privileged tenured professor. I have yet to read either a fictional portrayal or a real life account of what it is like to keep the lights on while practicing law -- Michael Connelly comes close, but a client with oodles of cash always appears at just the right moment, a Deus ex machina with a credit line. At least Kersten acknowledged that fees are a reality for most lawyers.
Kersten’s biography would be a great gift to any young lawyer. Darrow described himself late in life as ”a pessimist with hope.” He’d seen enough of what mass movements and the herd-like tendency of any group could do to individuals: there is no mob quite so dangerous as a self-righteous mob. He preferred a solitary course, fighting in each battle for the right of individuals to be let alone, demanding that even the damned be given their full measure of justice. He remains, despite having now long been dead, a worthy icon and guide for any lawyer. Fight, always and forever, with pen and voice. Yes, write, lecture, and rally around your favorite cause: but never forget, if you are a trial lawyer, that you belong in the forum, in the well of the court, fighting not for the people, but for the person standing at your side.
We live in noisy times. Everyone has something to say. Few lawyers can do what Darrow did: by walking the walk even as he talked the talk, he became almost immortal. Hence the endless fascination of biographies about the man. Kersten’s brief biography is a good snapshot of a life of broken dreams, promises unredeemed, and defiant hope, in other words, a life lived to the fullest by a great lawyer who fought for individuals even as he wrote about generalities.
Kersten, Andrew E. (2011-04-26). Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast (Kindle Locations 2655-2657). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Another great quote that seems to contradict my previous quote. "Darrow proclaimed that Hoover believed in socialism for the rich, but not for the poor. He told thousands of voters to ignore the Republicans' call to vote for their candidate. "It's like asking the ox to vote for the butcher," he thundered."
Kersten, Andrew E. (2011-04-26). Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast (Kindle Locations 4699-4701). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Things haven't changed much. The ox still votes for the butcher.