Towards the end of his days, Clarence wrote of Amirus, “My father [was] willing to meet all comers on the mysteries of life and death. As a listening youth, my moral support was with my father. I never doubted that he was right, and the fact that most of the community was on the other side made me feel surer that his was the just cause.”
Unfortunately, Amirus’ preoccupation with books placed the primary burden of looking after the needs of the family upon Clarence’s mother, Emily. “[Y]ears of drudgery for her visionary husband and her children at last took their toll.” Emily died at age 48 in 1871. Only14 years old at the time, Clarence would recall years later, “She had no religious beliefs. Her life was given fully and freely to her home and children, and she faced the future without hope or fear. On the day of her death, I was away from home…but I still remember the blank despair that settled over the home when we realized that her tireless energy and devoted love was lost forever.”
Following Emily’s death, Amirus continued to mentor his seven children, but he was limited by his eccentricities. The teaching philosophy that he tried to emulate was that of his personal hero, Englishman John Stuart Mill, best known for his work “On Liberty.” Yet with Emily gone, the household was in disarray and finances were always a major problem after his mother’s death.
Despite the hardship of his youth, Clarence inherited traits from Amirus which formed the core of his personality. He had a strong contempt for the “establishment” and authority generally, viewing government and institutions as a tool of the wealthy, used to suppress the working poor. Clarence rejected conventional wisdom, and was ready to challenge popular opinion on any issue: nothing was sacred. Finally, Clarence delighted in religious heresy, and was quick to ridicule sanctimonious people who wore religion on their sleeves; he viewed religion as a desperate attempt to make sense of the lonely situation of humans on earth. For him life was absurd. The only meaning it had was what we put into it through our deeds. Nonetheless, Darrow respected the tenets of Christianity, he just felt that too few people practiced them. Despite those perspectives on life, he was generally respectful of the beliefs of others as long as they weren’t proselytizers. He did not hide his feelings toward pompous people who spouted pious hokum.
As his career demonstrates, Clarence’s greatest inheritance from his father was the courage of his convictions. He had the strength to stand up resolutely to the crowd. He possessed the resilience to swim against the stream of popular opinion, never losing confidence in the face of overwhelming opposition, whether speaking for himself or a client.
At a young age, Clarence learned not only how to read books but also how to read an audience. He developed a feel for how to connect with a crowd of people through public speaking, at a level far advanced for his years. As a small boy, his older siblings frequently brought him to Friday night meetings of the Literary Society, where he was captivated by lectures, readings and especially debates on issues of the day. Like a sponge, he was taking it all in, most of which proved valuable years later. Finally, his parents and siblings introduced him to the great works of literature, science, and history. They taught him to appreciate early in life that knowledge was a prize worth pursuing unto itself.
Yet Clarence’s passion for learning did not translate into a love for formal education – quite the opposite. He was never a diligent student and viewed schools as just another institution bent on molding young minds. Schools generally, were to be tolerated no more than was necessary. Clarence never attained academic distinction at any school he attended, nor did he care to. What’s more, though the law was his chosen profession, and he had “to read the law” to gain admission to the bar, the only legal writings that interested him were his own.
Darrow’s attitude toward educational institutions was that they promoted conventional thinking at the expense of independent thought, suppressing spontaneity and creativity for no good purpose that he could discern. Reminiscing as an adult, Clarence concluded that his school days were “an appalling waste of time.”