DOD: 313 Greatest American Litigator: Clarence Darrow
Clarence Seward Darrow (April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938) considered to be one of the greatest American litigators , best known for defending teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks (1924) and defending John T. Scopes in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial (1925), in which he opposed William Jennings Bryan (statesman, noted orator, and 3-time presidential candidate). Called a “sophisticated country lawyer“, he remains notable for his wit and agnosticism, which marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.
Clarence Darrow was born in rural northeastern Ohio on April 18, 1857. He was the son of Amirus Darrow and Emily (Eddy) Darrow. Both the Darrow and the Eddy farms had deep roots in colonial New England, and several of Darrow’s ancestors served in the American Revolution. Clarence’s father was an ardent abolitionist and a proud iconoclast and religious freethinker, known in town as the “village infidel.” Emily Darrow was an early supporter of female suffrage and a women’s rights advocate. Clarence attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School but did not graduate from either institution. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878. The Clarence Darrow Octagon House, which was his childhood home in the small town of Kinsman, Ohio, contains a memorial to him.
In 1925, Darrow defended John T. Scopes in the State of Tennessee v. Scopes trial. It has often been called the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” a title popularized by author and journalist H.L. Mencken. This pitted Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in an American court case that tested the Butler Act, which had been passed on March 21, 1925. The act forbade the teaching in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The law made it illegal for public school teachers in Tennessee to teach that man evolved from lower organisms, but the law was sometimes interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. The law did not prohibit the teaching of evolution of any other species of plant or animal.
During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan be called to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Over the other prosecutor’s objection, Bryan agreed. Popular media at the time portrayed the following exchange as the deciding factor that turned public opinion against Bryan in the trial:
- Darrow: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?”
- Bryan: “Yes, sir; I have tried to…. But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy.”
- Darrow: “Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?”
- Bryan: “I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.”
After about two hours, Judge John T. Raulston cut the questioning short and on the following morning ordered that the whole session (which in any case the jury had not witnessed) be expunged from the record, ruling that the testimony had no bearing on whether Scopes was guilty of teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $100.
A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality—not on constitutional grounds, as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case. The court commented, “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”
This event led to a change in public sentiment, and an increased discourse on the subject of faith versus science that still exists in America. It also became popularized in a play based loosely on the trial, Inherit the Wind, which later became a film.
In January 1931 Darrow had a debate with English writer G. K. Chesterton during the latter’s second trip to America. This was held at New York City’s Mecca Temple. The topic was “Will the World Return to Religion?”. At the end of the debate those in the hall were asked to vote for the man they thought had won the debate. Darrow received 1,022 votes while Chesterton received 2,359 votes. There is no known transcript of what was said except for third party accounts published later on. The earliest of these was that of February 4, 1931, issue of The Nation with an article written by Henry Hazlitt.