Friday, July 14, 2006

Clarence Darrow in Fairhope

July 14

Old Fairhope was a refuge for thinkers, iconoclasts, and others with big ideas and strong convictions. Take Clarence Darrow, for example.

Darrow’s connection with Fairhope may be somewhat tenuous, but there is no question he had good feelings about the place. He may have heard about it from Upton Sinclair – whom he knew in Chicago as one of the club called the Intercollegiate Socialists Society, along with Jack London and others in the association. There is the possibility that he learned of Fairhope from one of his law partners, David Tone, whose children attended the acclaimed Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education. However it was, and in spite of his bias against the region in general, Clarence Darrow, the great American champion of the underdog, discovered a sympathetic Northern enclave in the Deep South.

In Chicago, Darrow, an avowed atheist and political maverick, had become interested in the Single Tax movement, and, as a member of Chicago’s Single Tax Club, began to attend political meetings. Of the Single Taxers he knew in those days, Darrow says in his autobiography, “This club met regularly every week for several years. In due time I realized that at every meeting the same faces appeared and reappeared, week after week, and that none of them cared to hear anything but a gospel which they all believed. It did not take long for Single Tax to become a religious doctrine necessary to salvation.”

With Darrow’s aversion to anything resembling a religious doctrine, he became somewhat disenchanted with the Single Tax supporters as well. However, his attachment to this group turned out to be a big stepping stone on his path toward making a name for himself.

He was invited to speak at the closing session of an event called the Free Trade Convention, on the same program with Henry George. This was the very man who had formulated the economic theory of Single Tax and written the best-selling book Progress and Poverty – which in turn had inspired the Utopians to form the colony called Fairhope that was to find a home on the shores of Mobile Bay in Alabama.

George, at the height of his fame when addressing the Free Trade Convention that night, was a huge draw for audiences. As a molder of public opinion through speeches and philosophic writing, believe it or not, he was as close to a rock star as anyone in his day.

Darrow wrote in his autobiography that the speech he heard Henry George make that night was excellent. He went on to say that everybody who heard it was euphoric except for himself, a struggling young lawyer who knew a tough act to follow when he saw one. “I was disappointed,” Darrow said. “I was sorry that he was so good.”

Unabashed by being the second speaker on the bill, young Clarence urged the chairman to introduce him quickly. He saw that people were already beginning to leave when George finished; they had heard what they came to hear. To his eternal credit, Darrow called upon his growing skill as an orator and conjured up every felicitous phrase in his arsenal to drive home the points in his speech. He watched as the listeners, as they were filing out of the hall, slowed down and began to take their seats again, one by one. The newspapermen down front, already grabbing their pencils and pads to head back to the press rooms, also sat back down to listen, some of them writing down what they were hearing. At the end of the speech, there was rousing applause. Darrow reveled in his new-found eloquence, and in the reaction it received. Henry George himself was impressed and warmly shook his hand.

When Clarence Darrow read the papers the next morning, he saw his name on the front pages. His speech had indeed been a triumph! He wrote, “I went to my office earlier than usual…No customers were there. Some of my Single Tax friend and Socialist companions began coming in to congratulate me on my speech. This was pleasing but not profitable. Socialists never come for business; they come to use your telephone and tell you how the world should be organized so that everyone could have his own telephone.”

All this was long before Darrow’s visit to Fairhope in 1927, but it will serve to explain a little about how he got there. There are lots of stories about Clarence Darrow in Fairhope, and I shall tell you a few more when there’s time – and if there appears to be any interest. The above is an excerpt from my chapter in The Fair Hope of Heaven, and it reveals some of the myths and some of true stories of the Darrow's impact in Fairhope.

The book is available at, Barnes and, and at the Page and Palette bookstore in Fairhope, as well as on my website. If you are interested in stories of Fairhope's history, you'll love it.


Bert Bananas said...

Do you know any stories about Roy Rogers' impact on Apple Valley?

Finding Fair Hope said...

No, but if you do, they can go into your next book. I hope you have better luck than I have with mine.