Skip to Content

Book Reviews: About Books

John Peter Altgeld and Clarence Darrow had much in common. Their lives overlapped and during the latter part of Altgeld’s life and the earlier part of Darrow’s they were close friends.

Both were lawyers, both were humanitarians. Each wrote books on crime and each defended the early American Trade Unions in the law courts of his day. Each gravitated to an extreme radical outlook during his life, “going over to the left” as it would be called in modern parlance. Each one sacrificed lucrative jobs through his strict adherence to his humanitarian principles, but neither of them scratched below the surface to find the causes of the social problems that stimulated their sympathies. Neither of them came anywhere near to being socialist.

The life of each of these two famous Americans is interestingly portrayed in books by Howard Fast and Irving Stone. In his book, 'The American', Mr. Fast gives us a very readable story of the life of John Altgeld from the days when his German farmer father used to stripe him across the buttocks with a leather belt, to the day when he was laid in his coffin for hundreds of thousands of Americans to file past in homage in the pouring rain.

When a boy, Altgeld ran away from his poverty stricken home and joined the army of the northern American states to fight in the civil war. Later he became a school teacher, a barrister, a judge and governor of the state of Illinois.

In the early days of his legal career, Altgeld wrote a book entitled, “Our Penal Machinery and its Victims,” which drew down on his head the opprobrium of the American ruling class. In this book he showed that the major portion of crime could be traced to the poverty, slums and lack of opportunity which result from the unequal distribution of wealth in a class society. This book was published in 1884, fifteen years before that internationally famous criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, arrived at the same point of view as Altgeld.

In the days when men like Phil Armour, George Pullman and John D. Rockefeller were piling up their vast fortunes out of the sweat and misery of the American working class, and men like Eugene V. Debs were risking their lives to try to organise the American workers to resist the intense exploitation—in those days Altgeld was driven to the support of “Labour.”

When he became governor of Illinois, Altgeld found himself in the embarrassing position that is experienced by all who seek to help the workers by undertaking to manipulate capitalism. The American newspapers vilified him in column and cartoon, presenting him to the people of America as a bloodthirsty ogre trampling on their rights and liberties. President Grover Cleveland moved federal troops into Illinois during the strike of the workers of the Pullman Company. Altgeld was powerless.

He tried to get his nominee elected as president of U.S.A. but failed. He tried to organise an independent political party, a sort of “Labour” party, but failed again.

Apart from all other merits, Mr. Fast's book is to be recommended for its detailed account of the Haymarket bombing incident of 1886 for which eight prominent working class leaders were “framed,” four of them executed and others imprisoned. This affair had international repercussions. Also, Mr. Fast presents us with an insight into the working of the American political elections, a most illuminating insight.

“Darrow for the Defence,” the book by Irving Stone, picks up the threads of American history at a date just a few years prior to the death of Altgeld. In it Darrow is presented as a man who would take on any task to help the “under dog” at no matter what cost to himself.

From the day that Clarence Darrow walked out of his job as attorney for the Chicago and North Western Railway to fight for Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union against whom the railway company had obtained an injunction, he became accepted as the man to represent trade unions and other workers' organisations when they were in trouble with the law.

It was a tough job in those days. Murder was committed and trade union officials were charged with the crime; an explosion occurred and a union organiser would be accused; men were bludgeoned into defending themselves and then accused of attacking; a union man was fair game to hang any crime on to and the American press worked up mob hysteria against the accused. Darrow defended brilliantly and with more than frequent success.

He argued that man had not a free will; that a man's actions were the product of his biological makeup worked upon by his social environment This was the basis of all his arguments whether he was defending a murderer, a thief, a prostitute or union officer. In fact, he did not defend his clients so much as he attacked their prosecutors.

His particular bête-noire was capital punishment against which he lectured, wrote and campaigned for many years. He also spent much time and money opposing prohibition and the colour bar. Probably his most sensational case was the Scopes Evolution Case at Dayton when he defended the right to teach evolutionary theories in public schools against William Jennings Bryan and his Fundamentalists who were moving to get an Anti-Evolution Law passed in each of the American states.

During his last years Darrow cast a friendly eye at “Russian Communism” whilst talking about a fair capitalism in America. He pleaded the case of the small business man. He died in 1938 at the age of eighty and, as when Altgeld died, thousands queued in the rain to do homage at his coffin.

These two men, Altgeld and Darrow, were admirable, but neither of them has left a mark on the History of the class from which they sprang and with which they sympathised. They spent their lives rescuing individuals from the morass of capitalist crime and class antagonisms, but left the bog undrained and uncharted for others to wander into. They fought against injustice by taking separate “injustices” and striving to straighten them out—make them just. The cause of all the injustices, the class nature of capitalist society, escaped their attention. The problems they sought to solve were being bred faster than they could eliminate them.. We may salute them for their endeavours but we cannot compliment them for their achievements.

W. Waters