The reputation of Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) as one of the greatest of American lawyers rests largely on two courtroom performances: in the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb in Chicago in 1924, and the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Both were extensively covered by the news media and later became the subject of numerous plays, books, and movies. Darrow’s 12-hour-long closing argument at the sentencing hearing in the case (the teenaged “thrill killers” had confessed, and Darrow convinced them to plead guilty for tactical reasons), which persuaded the trial judge to spare the defendants’ lives, is regarded as a classic of courtroom oratory. The bizarre case was fictionalized in the 1956 book and 1959 film Compulsion, and inspired aspects of the play and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 movie Rope (and, some believe, the ransom delivery sequence in 1971’s Dirty Harry).
For decades, defenders of liberty and self-rule have been fighting what seems like a continuous battle about the power, reach, and accountability of the federal government. Thoughtful critics of the federal invasion of our liberties draw from rich intellectual, political, and constitutional arguments. But few think as deeply about the cultural conditions of a free and self-reliant people.