Historian and author Andrew Kersten gave this speech at the unveiling of the Clarence Darrow statue on July 14 in Dayton, Tenn.
By Andrew Kersten
It has been 92 years since Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan have stood together. A lot has happened since. But a lot remains the same.
There are four things that one should know about Darrow, Bryan and this case.
First, you should know that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were not mortal enemies. If anything, were we to see them in action today, we would call them frenemies. They had known each other for decades, had their moments of close cooperation, friendship and comradery. And they had their disagreements, too.
But we should never lose sight of the fact that the lives of these two great Americans were interconnected and interwoven. Falling into "who wore the white hat and who wore the black hat" is a serious misread of history and an abuse to the memory of them both.
They were both born in the Midwest — Darrow in Ohio and Bryan in Illinois. Both of them spent a good portion of their lives in Illinois. Both were lawyers. Both were intensely political and involved in party politics. Both were life-long Democrats. Together they were instrumental in remaking the Democratic Party.
Knew each other well
In short, they knew each other well, had the same circle of colleagues, worked together for years, and had known each other's criticisms for decades. That they would square off here in Dayton was not a surprise to each other or anyone who knew them. Nor should it surprise anyone that they were friends. And when Bryan died shortly after the trial, Darrow was shocked and saddened, saying of his fallen friend that he was "a man of very extraordinary powers. . . . I sincerely regret his death, and extend my sympathy to his grief-stricken family."
Second, there were several issues that defined their lives, not just one. Not just the debate between evolution and creationism.
Here's where they agreed — at least for some moments in time.
They both thought that American politics should serve working people first. In the 1890s, Darrow and Bryan worked together to transform the Democratic Party, and in so doing, American politics. The 1890s was a period — Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age — when corporations and the propertied had power and sway over the American system of laws, politics and economics. It did not work for the average person; it did not work for families. A few daring young politicians and their allies stood up against the system which they considered unjust, if not immoral. Darrow worked behind the scenes to achieve change while Bryan was out in front.
Darrow and Bryan at various moments were in and out of touch with American politics for most of their lives. Yet, neither of them ever abandoned their basic agreement that our system of governance should work for everyone, not simply those who have more than others.
Let's listen to their words for a moment. Bryan put his political views this way in 1896: "We shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
Darrow wrote this to a friend in 1894 at the height of the Chicago railroad strike: "Do you know that they are making history very fast in America, and all the history is against freedom? Can anything be done to stop them before liberty is dead?"
They both were dedicated to freedom and liberty.
Didn't always agree
Here then is the third thing: Like any pair of old friends, they did not agree on everything. In fact, these two disagreed about some big issues and in a very public way. They each believed that they were right and the other was wrong. And, they each believed that the other was meddling in what should happen and what should be the future. And, they squared off right here in this marvelous place.
The road to Dayton was a long one. Darrow and Bryan had been sparring for a couple years in the newspapers. As we all know, Bryan criticized evolution based on his religious views. To him, the scientific principles and thoughts constituted a systematic attack on Christianity. Darrow did not share that view for two reasons, one public and one private. Darrow believed that science was the key to the future of the United States and of humanity. Evolution and investigations into it were a part of that. He did not mind at all where the research took us as long as it did not harm anyone in the process and led to a brighter, more peaceful world. He also saw it as his role in society to push back on what he saw was a "war on science." Darrow's public debate in the newspapers hit the road in 1925, stopping here in Dayton, Tennessee.
Darrow an iconoclast
The other reason that Darrow wanted to take a stand in Dayton is that he valued public education. As a boy, his own experiences with public schools had not been very positive. He wanted schools to be places of engagement with ideas that challenged the views inherited from kith and kin. He wanted schools to be places where debate and discussion molded minds. He was an iconoclast and wanted others to have the opportunity to jettison or to accept received wisdom through study and not through rote memorization. According to Darrow, learning your ABCs or multiplication tables or your Latin conjugations was the opposite of what an education should provide. Education was the road to freedom and liberty.
Let's listen again to Darrow: "Unless there is left enough of the spirit of freedom in the state of Tennessee, and in the United States, there is not a single line of any constitution that can withstand bigotry and intolerance when it seeks to destroy the rights of the individual."
Finally, the fourth thing we should think about at this reunion of the Old Lion (Darrow) and the Great Commoner (Bryan) is that the American experience is defined by a jockeying of ideas. In fact, the nation itself is an idea, perhaps only that. As we all continually strive to fashion that "more perfect union," we should recall that our nation under the Constitution was forged from great debates.
Today we see a monument to Darrow and Bryan, to their contest of ideas here in Dayton, and to the great American tradition of debate to engage and to advance civil society.
Andrew Kersten, author of Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast, is the dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho-Moscow and a political historian who has specialized in modern U.S. history (1880s through the 20th century).