Monday, November 08, 2004

One More Old Fashioned Stem-Winder

Last week, for moral resolve, I reached back to the "Cross of Gold Speech" which propelled William Jennings Bryan from obscure young Congressman to the standard bearer of the Democratic Party and Progressivism at the dawn of the 20th Century. The Great Commoner was born, not to die until a trial in Tennessee some three decades hence.

But there was more to progressivism in that era of course. We are, I believe, currently entering into another such era, when it will be necessary for we progressives to stay together and demand our cause be heard.

"Trials of the Century" used to mean something. Say what you want about Scott Peterson, at its core it is just another murder, tragic, of course, but nothing sadly out of the ordinary except to the extent the media slathers over it, same with Martha Stewart. No, in the first half of the last century, Trials of the Century used to mean something (except for Fatty Arbuckle of course).

And no lawyer was ever involved in more of them than the patron-saint of trial lawyer's, Clarence Darrow -- later to hold the distinction of driving his former progressive ally Bryan into the grave over the idea of rationality.

In 1906, Darrow defended a small group of union leaders in Idaho against the charge of murdering a former governor of Idaho; who, during his term, had used the Pinkerton's and a small army to try to break the back of miners in the state. Darrow was up against the prosecution led by a young man, and future progressive Republican William Borah. The whole trial, and the time, including bald abuses, was captured beautifully by J. Anthony Lucas in 'Big Trouble', a book I highly recommend.

In his closing argument, Darrow specifically defended "Big Bill" Haywood (on trial for his life), a union-leader, and sometimes thug (as opposed to the perfumed and allowed bald thuggery of mine owners) in stark terms that still speak to us across the century.

Other men have died, other men have died in the same cause in which Bill Haywood has risked his life, men strong with devotion, men who love liberty, men who love their fellow men have raised their voices in defense of the poor, in defense of justice, have made their good fight and have met death on the scaffold, on the rack, in the flame and they will meet it again until the world grows old and gray. Bill Haywood is no better than the rest. He can die if die he needs, he can die if this jury decrees it; but, oh, gentlemen, don't think for a moment that if you hang him you will crucify the labor movement of the world.

Don't think that you will kill the hopes and the aspirations and the desires of the weak and the poor, you men, unless you people who are anxious for this blood--are you so blind as to believe that liberty will die when he is dead? Do you think there are no brave hearts and no other strong arms, no other devoted souls who will risk their life in that great cause which has demanded martyrs in every age of this world? There are others, and these others will come to take his place, will come to carry the banner where he could not carry it.

Gentlemen, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, upon you twelve men of Idaho tonight. Wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever any foreign tongue known to the civilized world is spoken, men are talking and wondering and dreaming about the verdict of these twelve men that I see before me now. If you kill him your act will be applauded by many. If you should decree Bill Haywood's death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for those twelve good men and true who killed Bill Haywood . In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat--from all those you will receive blessings and unstinted praise.

But if your verdict should be "Not Guilty," there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank these twelve men for the life and the character they have saved. Out on the broad prairies where men toil with their hands, out on the wide ocean where men are are tossed and buffeted on the waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the earth, thousands of men and of women and children, men who labor, men to suffer, women and children weary with care and toil, these men and these women and these children will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your judgment. These men and these women and these little children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world will stretch out their hands to this jury, and implore you to save Haywood's life.

We are out of power now, we do not have the Presidency, nor Congress, nor the Supreme Court.

But we do have the ideals, justice, the brains and the brawn to make our voices heard. The rhetoric of the early 20th Century, the voices of Bryan and Darrow (and Robert LaFollette, Floyd Olson and Eugene Debs) still call to us across the span of time, waiting to be heard again. They are America's legacy, they are the Progressive legacy, remember them, honor them, use them.

They are so much more meaningful than wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt.

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