Sarah Palin Was Right About Clarence Darrow, If Not the Quote

But the great lawyer would have a healthy scorn for the former Alaska governor

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Sarah Palin may have misquoted Clarence Darrow this weekend, but she didn’t misrepresent him. If Darrow didn’t say “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for,” he certainly said something like it, and more than once.

Palin has been getting some flak for borrowing the quote from the Frank Capra movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and attributing it to Darrow. She used it on Twitter to encourage Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller to fight to the campaign’s end.

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I can’t find a reliable citation that puts the words in Darrow’s mouth. But in 1913, when he narrowly escaped prison in California after being charged with bribing a jury while defending union terrorists, Darrow was welcomed home to Chicago by some liberal and radical friends at a dinner.

“At times I felt that I stood alone in the world, and it is not a bad feeling,” Darrow told them. “It is well enough for a man once in a while to feel that he stands alone and is ready to fight the world. It is good for your courage; it is good for your character.”

That is pretty close to the Capra quote. A few years later, in 1927, Darrow was asked by a newspaper reporter why he was so drawn to lost causes. “I’m for the underdog,” Darrow said. “He needs friends a damn sight more than the other fellow. The best fun in life is to fight for the underdog.”

It was true, said Darrow, that “if the underdog got on top he would probably be just as rotten as the upper dog.”

“But in the meantime I am for him,” Darrow said.

Darrow was a congenital skeptic, who never fit comfortably in any political camp. He was a leader of the Populist uprising in Chicago, and ran for Congress (unsuccessfully) as a Democrat, but had spirited clashes with the party’s heroes, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Socialists abhorred him.

“I am one of the old-time Democrats who ... abhor strong centralized governments," Darrow said in 1919. "The modern policy of our government … has entirely wiped out the state rights and brought on an era of centralization and power which is rapidly crushing the individual."

Darrow was consistent, only, as a libertarian. In his younger years he battled Big Business on behalf of Labor, insisting (when the mossback Supreme Court did not) that the American people had the right to tax and regulate the Robber Barons who ruled oppressively in the Gilded Age.

But Darrow always listed the State, along with Business, on his roster of the enemies of individual freedom.

Throughout his life, he fought society’s attempts to jail and hang individuals, to dictate religious doctrine in the schools, to prohibit the use of alcohol, and to limit free speech. He defended anarchists and Communists during the Red Scare, African-Americans charged with murder when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its powers, and bootleggers during Prohibition.

If he were alive today, Darrow would have a healthy scorn for Palin and other social conservatives. He venerated science and reason. He battled for liberalized birth control and divorce laws, and for sex education. And of course he defeated fundamentalist attempts to mix religion with the public school curriculum when defending Darwin’s theory of evolution at the famous Scopes trial in 1925. He would be aghast at the Tea Party’s substitution of feeling for thought, and happy self-delusion for truth.

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