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Clarence Darrow 
​(1857 - 1938)


The Absolute King of Trial Lawyers, Clarence Darrow was a powerful and skilled attorney whose work highlighted and triggered much needed legal and social reform. He began as a specialist of labor law, and transformed from a corporate lawyer into a civil rights activist, backing the working class and other marginalized populations.

Underlying Darrow’s entire career was a humanist project and devotion to race and gender inclusive civil rights, which became increasingly apparent as his practice and ideologies developed. Darrow called out the prejudice and injustice in law and society, as well as the socio-cultural stagnation represented by the persecution of secular based education. 

Portrait of Clarence Darrow. Head and shoulders.
Darrow, Clarence. 20" x 26". 2013. Collection of James Humphries. Charleston, WV.

Life and Early Career in Labor Law

Darrow was born in Ohio, where he enrolled in and dropped out of two universities before taking up an independent reading of the law. He was sworn into the bar in 1878 and then made his way to Chicago. There, he befriended one of the most influential figures in his life, Judge John Altgeld. He passed on a number of influential ideas to Darrow, prime among them a vehement opposition to capital punishment. 

Darrow began his legal career as the chief counsel of the Chicago and North Western Railway. He was known as a persuasive speaker, giving summations that subversively wove testimony with social and political treatise. He stood apart from the corruption that was characteristic of Chicago lawyers at the time, but only nearly evaded a reputation for it himself. He faced two charges of jury bribery while defending American Federation of Labor members John and James McNamara in 1911 against murder charges. With Earl Rogers at his defense, his reputation was marked but not marred. As a consequence, though, Darrow did shift his practice away from labor law. 

Pursuit of Civil and Criminal Law

A desire to assist individuals, as well as to transform a flawed criminal justice system, drove Darrow’s decision to pursue civil and criminal law. He was one of the first renowned figures whose work vehemently and successfully called out the justice system for its racism, sexism, and fraudulence. 

His most influential trials criticized “capital punishment as retributive rather than transformative justice.” In the summation of the case Illinois v. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb, known as the “The Trial of the Century,” he argued an eloquent and profound statement against the death penalty. Emphasizing the inhumanity in such a form of ‘justice,’ Darrow appealed to the courtroom’s emotions by questioning if hanging the two defendants would “make the human heart softer or would it make hearts harder.”

Darrow fought racial intolerance, segregation, and called out the racial discrimination underlying [the Ossian Sweet] case and many others.

He further stated: “Gradually the laws have been changed and modified, and men look back with horror at the hangings and the killings of the past. […] You can scarcely find a single book written by a student, and I will include all the works on criminology of the past, that has not made the statement over and over again that as the penal code was made less terrible, crimes grew less frequent.” Helping clients escape the death penalty became a trademark of Darrow's practice: of the fifty murder defenses in the whole of his career, only one (People v. Prendergast) ended in execution.

Darrow worked to keep this course of humanizing law in motion throughout his career. In Illinois v. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb, Darrow argued for the implications of psychology and the environment on decision making. The Scopes Monkey Trial (State of Tennessee v. Scopes), famously recreated in the play Inherit the Wind, brought into common dialogue the tension between creationism and evolutionism. In the Ossian Sweet trial, People v. Ossian Sweet et al., the defense of an African American family against murder charges that arose from a violent mob attack in a white Detroit neighborhood, Darrow fought racial intolerance, segregation, and called out the racial discrimination underlying this case and many others.

Social Impact

The controversial cases Darrow represented, as well as his own scandal, did not undermine his career. In fact, his practice generated changes in how human life, behavior, and diversity are understood and treated in jurisprudence and the court. By bringing prejudice to light, Darrow forced law and society to broaden and deepen their perspectives. 

Darrow’s outstanding career inspired an onslaught of theatre performances, film, and publications that depicted both his practice and personal life. They demonstrate how Darrow brought together and altered jurisprudence, politics, and society, and tease out the common thread woven through his practice.

Through sharp, eloquently delivered socio-political commentary, Darrow both made transformations in public consciousness about civil rights and race politics and altered the lives of those he defended. Darrow’s position on these matters is well explained in the closing statement of the Ossian Sweet trial, entitled, “I Believe in the Law of Love”:

“I am the last one to come here to stir up race hatred, or any other hatred. I do not believe in the law of hate. I may not be true to my ideals always but I believe in the law of love, and I believe you can do nothing with hatred. I would like to see a time when man loves his fellow man, and forgets his color or his creed. We will never be civilized until that time comes.”

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Theodore Roosevelt

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