The National Catholic Review
Kimberly E. OLeary

When we think about the American legend Clarence Darrow, the images in our heads conjure a turn-of-the-century figure larger than life, a lawyer who fought for the underdog and tackled controversial issues of his day.

In Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast, Andrew E. Kersten, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, reveals these known images of Darrow and a lot more. Kersten relates an American ideological journey that is passionate and opinionated yet not always consistent or smooth. Darrow’s journey resonates with the ideological struggles our society experiences now, with many of them with roots in Darrow’s time. Whether it is Darrow’s ability to manage media trials, his struggles over supporting a war despite basic pacifist beliefs or his fierce frustration with being unable to convince the public that union struggles were important to their own well-being, Kersten portrays a man who could easily walk alongside us, struggling with our issues. How Darrow chose to think his way through big issues was as important to him as his ultimate choices, and these can teach us some important lessons.

Lesson 1. Surround yourself with people willing to take the intellectual journey, even if (especially when) they do not agree with all of your beliefs. Darrow was raised in a freethinking household by parents who bucked the norms of their small Midwestern town. In Chicago Darrow created a salon of thinkers to discuss and debate issues, and they included a diverse range of views. Today people tend to listen only to those who share their views, but Clarence Darrow modeled a very different approach. He had strong views but was famously open-minded. As Kersten writes: “…at no time in his life did Clarence Darrow subscribe to any clearly defined grand philosophical tradition. He remained dogmatically antidogmatic throughout his life. But he held dear a constellation of ideas and political commitments.”

Lesson 2. Focus on a few issues at a time; do not spread yourself too thin. Darrow worked on many causes throughout his long life. They included supporting union activists, working to abolish the death penalty, establishing mental illness defenses, advocating penal reform, advocating for safety in industry, advocating against prohibition, fighting for civil rights for African-Americans, fighting governmental intrusion into religious beliefs (including the right not to believe in any religion) advocating on behalf of government involvement in World War I and then, afterwards, advocating against the government for limiting the free speech rights of those who were against war.

Darrow worked as a political appointee, lawyer for companies, lawyer for famous and not-so-famous “cause” clients, public speaker, author of both fiction and non-fiction. But at any given time, Darrow limited himself to a few issues. His priorities changed, as did his methods for expressing his views, but limiting his work kept him influential and focused.

Lesson 3. Do not be afraid to change your mind publicly about issues. Darrow was always an original thinker. Darrow thought for himself, evaluated data and reached his own conclusions. Sometimes this process led him to disagree with important allies, at some cost to his personal and professional standing. One famous example was his support of America’s entry into World War I, which he believed was necessary to stop fascists from bullying ordinary workers in Europe. Most of Darrow’s friends were against the war, seeing it as large corporate interests pitted against each other. Darrow was public in his support of the war and alienated many friends. After the war, he was equally vigorous in defending antiwar groups against criminal sedition laws, alienating his government friends. He changed his mind about feminism, first supporting equal rights for women and then opposing women’s voting rights. Whether one agreed with his views or not, Darrow was always thinking for himself and unafraid to take a stand or change his mind.

Lesson 4. Hone your craft and give 100 percent of your talents. Darrow was an excellent lawyer and a great speaker. On behalf of paid or pro bono clients, he was brilliant. He worked a case thoroughly, with careful strategizing and analysis. A professional is someone who gets the job done through hard work and excellent craft, always keeping the client’s goals in mind.

Lesson 5. Sometimes a public person has to rest, regenerate and rejuvenate (what Kersten calls Darrow taking care of Darrow). Darrow lived more than 80 years. His work in politics and in the courtroom were stressful, and Darrow suffered from “dark moods.” There were periods when he chose less stressful ways to earn a living—public speaking, writing or taking on clients just for the money, for example. While he was criticized by some when he retreated from causes, respite always brought him back to important work.

Lesson 6. What goes around comes around. Hard-to-solve issues in American discourse are still hard to solve, but they are worth solving. Should lawyers shape media perception of big trials? Should unions be supported? Should religion play a role in public life? Should the government legislate to regulate controlled substances? Should the state execute people? Are prisons meant to reform or punish? Do all citizens enjoy equal rights? Darrow tackled some of the hardest issues of his day, which remain some of the hardest issues of our day. But there are differences. It is helpful to remember that in the late 1800s, labor was fighting for an eight-hour work shift, fighting for basic safety standards (many workers were killed in industry), fighting to keep children out of the workforce and fighting against the company town, where a worker could never free himself of debt. Many of the core positions for and against unions can be seen today in states discussing elimination of state employee collective bargaining or in the rhetoric blaming union wages for industry decline. The battle over whether to tax “millionaires and billionaires” follows these lines. Reading how Darrow analyzed issues helps frame them in a historical context.

In addition to these lessons, Kersten reveals Darrow’s human foibles—his difficulties with women, which unfortunately may have contributed to his philosophical distancing from feminism; his sometimes naked political ambition; and, most damning, his possible (some think probable) participation in bribing jurors, for which he was indicted but acquitted. Kersten does not ignore these significant flaws but weaves them into a human portrait. Darrow offers us not only lessons to follow but also lessons about what not to follow.

Kimberly E. O’Leary is a professor of law at Thomas Cooley Law School, Lansing, Mich.