In the ongoing debate here regarding what constitutes a great American—sparked by reader valkygrrl’s guest post on the topic as well as the President’s recent remarks at Mount Rushmore, the question of whether abolitionist John Brown belongs has been the most contentious. I don’t believe that one can ethically assign a murderer and law-breaker (and unraveling fanatic) like Brown to the “great American” category, but a figure unquestionably smarter than I whom I believe unquestionably was one of the greatest Americans did, and his argument deserves attention and thought. That figure is Clarence Darrow.
Brown was much admired by Darrow’s iconoclast father, Amirus Darrow, and his mother was an anti-slavery activist, turning the Darrow home into a stop on the Underground Railroad. Born in 1857, Darrow was too young to remember the pre-Civil War period, and Brown was hanged in 1859. Nonetheless, the admiration for Brown was passed on from father to son, and there are moments in Darrow’s career where his actions seemed consistent with Brown’s philosophy of the ends justifying the means when the stakes were important enough, notably the conduct that almost got him disbarred and imprisoned for jury tampering. (Darrow was guilty, but was acquitted because he had a great defense attorney—Clarence Darrow.)
John Brown was a hero of Darrow’s , who didn’t have many: the abolitionist, Voltaire, and his friend and mentor John Peter Altgeld were about it, as far as I can tell. Periodically, on the anniversary of Brown’s birthday (May 8), Darrow would give a speech eulogizing Brown to a progressive group. Its final sentence is the most quoted:
The radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow, and other martyrs take up the work through other nights, and the dumb and stupid world plants its weary feet upon the slippery sand, soaked by their blood, and the world moves on.
Incredibly, Darrow’s John Brown Eulogy is impossible to find on the web now; I have no idea why. (Enter that sentence in Google, and what pops up is…me!) Thus I am reproducing Darrow’s speech here, for two purposes: first, to let you consider Clarence Darrow ‘s argument for why we should honor John Brown, and second, to have an online home for it.
It is not the whole speech, but my own shortened and edited version. I am still hunting for the whole document in a form I can post (I have it in several books), and when I find it, I’ll substitute the complete version for this: Continue reading