A tightly packed biography of “labor’s lyrical lawyer” and civil-liberties advocate.
In pursuing Darrow’s lifetime (1857–1938) of passionate public service, Kersten (History and Labor Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II, 2006, etc.) is mostly forgiving of his subject’s foibles—for example, his ends-justifies-the-means approach that tested friends’ loyalties and got him indicted for attempted bribery of a juror in the 1911 Los Angeles Times bombing case. Darrow was driven to address the inequity between rich and poor, no doubt influenced by his activist parents among a big family in Kinsman, Ohio. Darrow was a teacher before he was drawn to study law, which promised riches and fame. Moving from the small town to Chicago changed his life, both by introducing him to Henry George’s Progress and Poverty and immersion into Democratic politics. From his work as a lawyer for the Chicago North Western Railroad, he was jolted by the Pullman strike of 1894, organized by Eugene Debs; he joined the defense of the railway strikers to fight what he believed was a pernicious conspiracy “against the Constitution and the laws and the liberties of the people.” His first few defeats were shattering and public, tempered resounding triumphs like the trial of the Oshkosh sawmill unionists in 1898, the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission of 1904 and defense of “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners in 1907. His life was often in shambles—two troubled marriages, a lack of money, ill health—but Darrow was also remarkably resilient until a late age, making stump speeches for the Allies during World War I and defending evolution in the notorious Scopes trial of 1925. Kersten explodes Darrow’s messy, complicated life, and concludes with a helpful bibliographic essay for students.
This is no hagiography, but rather a portrait of a truly human character trying to effect change while battling private demons.