Determinism in the Courtroom: The Other Legacy of Clarence Darrow

Dale DeBakcsy

At the turn of the twentieth century, the American legal system was a grotesquerie wrapped in graft and stuffed with corruption. Lawyers for the prosecution and defense alike regularly hired hooligans to profile potential jurors, bribing those who could be bribed and physically intimidating those who couldn’t. The accused were illegally kidnapped by their prosecutors and dragged across state lines while bought judges looked the other way. The path of law and order was conspicuously greased by cash, and for decades the Rockefellers and Morgans effectively dictated the law while workers, immigrants, and minorities were made to understand that justice was not for them.

Many great lawyers stood against the corruption, but none succeeded so often, against such long odds, and while openly espousing such a radically deterministic notion of human nature as defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938). We in the humanism business tend to remember him as John Scopes’s lawyer during the “Monkey Trial,” the man who put William Jennings Bryan on the stand and, through close cross-examination of his beliefs, showed creationism to be a hopeless muddle of half-notions and quarter-hunches that belonged nowhere near a classroom.

We love that story. We tingle with anticipation when Bryan stammers, “I do not think about things I don’t think about” knowing that Darrow is about to fire back with, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” But as significant a turning point as that court case was for American education, and as foundational a moment it was for the modern battle between rigorous science and a stripe of fundamentalism that considers itself strongest precisely where its evidence is weakest, it is but a small part of why Darrow belongs in the roll call of humanist immortals.

In case after case—from his landmark trials defending the downtrodden and insane to his work representing millionaires and mobsters that he tried to keep as quiet as possible—though the clients changed, Darrow’s approach remained the same: a full and frank determinism with a boundless empathy at its core. “The worst of all cruel creeds and of all the bloody wrongs inflicted by the past can be found in the barbarous belief that man is a free moral agent,” Darrow told a freethinking organization in a speech in 1888. He was in fact the first high-profile attorney to show the world what justice might look like from a purely materialist, determinist perspective. He threw out millennia of jargon about God and retribution and penance and replaced it all with a simple and tireless appreciation for the iron force of circumstance.

His closing arguments took days, delivered without notes to packed courtrooms, as he detailed for the judge and jury the purely mechanical steps that led his clients to do what they did. In defending a union man accused of dynamiting a building, he walked the jury through the history of the mining industry’s control of legislation, its accumulation of power, and how it used that power to end dozens of lives every day in search of profit. Children were sent to work dangerous machines while their fathers struggled and died deep in the earth and their mothers were locked in windowless rooms and told to sew for ten-hour shifts at a time.

That grinding pressure created hopeless men; hopelessness, continuously fed by an industry that found its profit there and sustained by a government whose business was business, will and must create monsters. The secret behind Darrow’s success was his ability to trace a crime, decision by decision, to its larger social roots, to find and expose the shadowy titans who knew the desperate type of human they were breeding but who couldn’t be moved to care so long as they could count on government troops to keep order and an acquiescent press to keep scrutiny well away.

Darrow demonstrated that a deterministic point of view did not spell the end of humanity or of conscience. He possessed a deep empathy for the accused, for those standing alone against a machine that wanted their blood, hungering for vengeance while naming it dissuasion. He would often break into tears during his closing arguments, bringing his audience with him as he contemplated a world that took children and pitilessly shaped them into murderers and sociopaths, only to then blame those broken husks of humans for the fruits of its own systemic negligence. While his friends despaired at his defense of Jazz Age Chicago gangsters and high-society murderesses, he explained that he couldn’t do otherwise, that the death penalty was such a horrid wrong that he couldn’t refuse doing his best to protect people from it.

Of course, the money helped. Clarence Darrow was not gifted with financial sense—like Samuel Clemens and Robert Green Ingersoll, he had a predilection for investing in unwise schemes that forced him to hit the lecture circuit deep into his seventies and take cases that often alienated his liberal friends just to stave off bankruptcy. His womanizing, while we’re on the subject of Darrow the All Too Human, was also monumental in scope. Both his wives had to put up with serial infidelity marching under the philosophical banner of Free Love, and the stories of him repeatedly pressing women to have sex with him are severely unpleasant.

There’s also every reason to believe that he participated in the bribing of jurors and witnesses (he was tried and acquitted twice), but as that was so overwhelmingly common a practice at the time and as the corporations and government agencies his clients were up against indulged in such tactics (and worse) on such a massive, organized scale, I think most of us are inclined to call the whole shambling mess a moral draw.


Darrow was a man of deep faults that had their origin in a childhood filled with intellectual stimulation but no love. His mother didn’t believe in showing affection to her children, and his father was a radical who never managed to make himself much more than the town crank in his son’s eyes. Darrow would make up for all that—he would be a radical that people listened to, and he would make himself loved by extending his compassion to even the most seemingly unworthy. All his worst flaws come from that mad scramble for success and adoration.

And his greatness too. He looked at Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young men who murdered a fourteen-year-old just for the “thrill of it,” and convinced the country to look past its rage and fear and let their intellect linger a while on what strands of consequence made their creation inevitable. It saved their lives.

He looked at Ossian Sweet, an African-American doctor accused of murder after he and his brothers shot into an angry mob of white men who threatened his home and made centuries of systemic racial terror viscerally present to a hitherto indifferent middle-class America. And so Sweet’s life, too, was saved.

The Scopes Trial was a departure of form, if not of spirit, from all Darrow had done before. Instead of a struggle to bring the pitiless snarls of causality to the attention of a jury predisposed to free choice and the state vengeance it permitted, it was an artfully crafted test trial set up by the American Civil Liberties Union, invited by the town elders of Dayton for reasons of tourism, and consciously entered into by its defendant to put the question at last to the law: Do the people get to vote on what is taught as science and what is not?

By putting Bryan on the stand and letting the creationist position talk itself into a magnificently incoherent corner, Darrow answered that question for anybody of passing reason. It was a triumph, providing the most memorable set-piece in twentieth-century American law, and after it Darrow went right on doing what he always had, working with the leading edge of social conscience (now in the form of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to snatch human beings from the hands of the executioner.

For a life conspicuous in dramatic voice-of-the-downtrodden heroism, Clarence Darrow’s end was a tragic whimper. He spent his last six months rambling about his apartment, mumbling nonsense, his mind gone and his affairs in the hands of his long-put-upon second wife, Ruby. Conservatives who had been foiled by his defense of unions, evolution, and ethnic minorities saw in his end the just reaping of sin long sown. And even the liberal friends who had benefited so often from his genius saw this as a prime opportunity to distance themselves from a murky figure they never quite trusted and never remotely understood.

Darrow’s ashes were dumped in a Chicago lagoon by his son. There was no ceremony.

Further Reading

John A. Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Vintage, 2012) is a great biography that delves deep into the seedy legal scene of the early twentieth century and explores fully Darrow’s tortured and brilliant place within it. The Story of My Life, Darrow’s autobiography (Da Capo Press, 1996), is a good place to go for a thorough statement of his personal philosophy, though the accounts of his famous trials don’t quite have the same punch and pathos that Farrell is able to convey.

Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the author of The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One (The Humanist Press, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to FI’s Great Minds column and also writes the weekly Women in Science series at

“Darrow’s approach remained the same:
a full and frank determinism with a boundless empathy
t its core.”

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