[Preface by Professor Cunningham:

In 1878 Clarence Darrow was admitted to the bar in Ohio and became a solo practitioner in Ashtabula, a small port town on Lake Erie near the Pennsylvania border. Ten years later, in 1888, he was drawn to “the big city” and moved to Chicago. He soon gained a reputation as a speaker at political events, including campaign rallies for DeWitt Cregier, who was running for mayor of Chicago on the Democratic ticket. Cregier was elected and two months later invited Darrow to his office, an invitation which surprised Darrow because he had never actually met Cregier either during or after his successful campaign. Mayor Cregier offered Darrow a one-year position with the city law department as a “special assessment attorney” for the salary of $3000, which Darrow says in his autobiography seemed to him “a fabulous sum.” Ten months later the Corporation Counsel fell ill and moved out of Chicago to a warmer climate. Darrow became Acting Corporation counsel and thus was the head of the law department of the City of Chicago. Two years later an even more extraordinary job opportunity opened up for him ...]


Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life (New York: Da Capo Press 1996)



          After two or three years of service in the city law department, I resigned my position and became the general attorney of the Chicago and North-Western Railway Company. It was with a good deal of hesitation and consideration, and after all sorts of advice, that I undertook that position. I was aware that my general views of life were not such as fitted me for this kind of career. Every one connected with the offices of the company knew my opinions and attitudes, but gave me no cause for concern or uneasiness. I was treated with respect and all were most friendly.

          This position with the company brought me into a new and varied field. All sorts of questions were submitted to me. I rendered opinions on the liability of the company, in cases of personal injuries, in claims for lost freight, in the construction of the statutes and ordinances, and all the numerous matters that affect the interests of railroads. I also tried a considerable number of cases, some of them involving my old employer, the city of Chicago. In spite of the kindness and consideration of all my associates, I knew that the position was one that I should never really like. It was hard for me to take the side of the railroad company against one who had been injured in their service or against a passenger. I was aware that I always wanted the company to help them, and in this my services were made easier by the general claim agent, Mr. Ralph C. Richards, whose sympathies were the same. I am sure that both he and I were able to help a great many people without serious cost to the road. Later, Mr. Richards practically gave up his position to inaugurate a great work for the prevention of accidents. The policy that he brought about saved many lives and limbs, and has now been largely incorporated into the law.

          It was during my services for the Chicago and North-Western Railroad Company that the strike of the American Railway Union occurred, in 1894. Neither before nor since has any such railroad strike happened in America. Mr. Eugene Debs was the head of the organization. He was an intelligent, alert, and fearless man. The strike grew out of a demand for better wages and conditions. The railroads refused to grant the demands. I had then been in my new position about two years, as I now recall it.

          When I was sure that there was no chance to settle the difficulties, I realized my anomalous position. I really wanted the men to win, and believed that they should. This had for years been my attitude in cases of strike. I had no feeling that the members of labor unions were better than employers; I knew that like all other men they were often selfish and unreasonable, but I believed that the distribution of wealth was grossly unjust, and I sympathized with almost all efforts to get higher wages and to improve general conditions for the masses.

          Still, my duty was to the road, and as the strike loomed it seemed sure that in some way I should be put in positions where one side or the other would doubt my loyalty. Within a few days I found that I had been placed on a committee of all [the] [rail]roads to assist in the management of the strike. I at once went to both the general counsel and the president of the railway company. Both were friends and had full confidence in me. I told them of the situation, and that I could not act on the committee. I made them understand my general feelings and my peculiar position. They recognized it and said that they were perfectly willing to trust me to be neutral, and knew that I would be loyal. I felt then that I should resign my position, that the [rail]road had the right to men who were in full accord with their policy; but they urged me to stay and, of course, their confidence and fairness made a strong appeal to me. So I told them that I would remain, and that if it ever came to a point where either they or I should feel any embarrassment we would take up the question again.

          Day after day conditions grew more serious. There was a general interruption of railroad traffic from one end of the country to the other. In many of the great railroads the yards were crowded with idle freight cards. Deputy sheriffs and marshals were called out in all the large cities and many of the smaller ones. I watched the situation with anxiety. I preferred to stay with the North-Western Railway Company, but I could not avoid being in sympathy with the strikes. The Chicago and North-Western Railway Company was involved with all the rest of the [rail]roads, and all who came to the offices thought and talked of little else besides the strike. ...

          A great many cars were burned in the yards of Chicago and other cities. As in most cases, each side claimed that their enemies were responsible for the fires. One night I went to one of the railroad yards and saw many cars in flames. Crowds of people were gathered around to see the destruction; most of them were boys and young men. A number of them were deputies who had been sworn in to preserve the peace. The crowd was quiet and attempted no demonstration. They only stood and looked at the burning cars; and little, if any, effort was made to quench the flames. I presume that it was not possible to get much water so far from the city supply, but of this I am not certain.

          ... Industrial contests take on all the attitudes and psychology of war, and both parties do many things that they should never dream of doing in times of peace. Whatever may be said, the fact is that all strikes and all resistance to strikes take on the psychology of warfare, and all parties in interest must be judged from that standpoint. As I stood on the prairie watching the burning cars I had no feeling of enmity toward either side, I was only sad to realize how little pressure man could stand before he reverted to the primitive. This I have thought many times since that eventful night.

          The strike was hardly well under way before the railroads applied to the Federal Courts to get injunctions against the strikers. Neither then nor since have I ever believed in labor injunctions. Preserving peace is a part of the police power of the State, and men should be left free to strike or not, as they see fit. When violence occurs this is for the police department and not for a court of chancery. I had never been connected with a case involving strikes, but both by education and natural tendency I had a deep-rooted feeling for the men against whom injunctions were issued.

          A short time before I had stood on the prairie watching the cars in a cloud of smoke, the railroads asked the Federal Court for injunctions. ...

          When the interference in train schedules became general there was, of course, delay in carrying the mails. The railroads put mail cars on every train where there was any possible chance of sending them out. The strike leaders were always advised by their lawyers to try to let mail trains through, but the general stoppage of work nevertheless caused delay.

          The injunction cases were commenced by the United States Government. ... Soon after the injunctions were issued, Mr. Debs and a good many of my friends came to ask me to go into the case. I did not want to take it up, knowing about what would be involved. I knew that it would take all my time for a long period, with no compensation; but I was on their side, and when I saw poor men giving up their jobs for a cause, I could find no sufficient excuse, except my selfish interest, for refusing. So, again I went to the president of the company and told him that I felt that I should go into the case, although it would mean giving up my position; and I told him that I believed some one whose political views were more in keeping with their interests would be a much better man for the company. He was most cordial and attentive. He agreed that I must do whatever I considered right, but asked me to continue my connection with the [rail]road when I went into private practice and take such matters as we agreed upon, at about half the salary I had been receiving. This connection was thus kept up for a number of years. ...

          And so I gave up my position and became one of the attorneys for Mr. Debs in the great strike of the American Railway Union. I did not want to take the position, and felt that I should not, but I had not been able to justify my strong convictions with a refusal to aid them in their contest.