QUESTION: I understand that at some time around 1930 G.K. debated Clarence Darrow in New York City and did quite well. Where is this reported at any length? Is a transcript available? What else is known of this debate? How can I find more information about it? Thank You for your response.
ANSWER: In January of 1931, during his second trip to America, Chesterton did indeed debate with Clarence Darrow, at New York City’s Mecca Temple. The topic was “Will the World Return to Religion?” There is no known transcript of the proceedings, but perhaps the following clippings will give you the flavor.
The following is a passage from Chesterton As Seen by His Contemporaries, complied by Cyril Clemons, Webster Groves: International Mark Twain Society, 1939, pp. 66-68.
Mr. Joseph J. Reilly attended a debate at Mecca Temple in New York City, between Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, which dealt with the story of creation as presented in Genesis.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the Temple was packed. At the conclusion of the debate everybody was asked to express his opinion as to the victor and slips of paper were passed around for that purpose. The award went directly to Chesterton. Darrow in comparison, seemed heavy, uninspired, slow of mind, while G.K.C. was joyous, sparkling and witty …. quite the Chesterton one had come to expect from his books. The affair was like a race between a lumbering sailing vessel and a modern steamer. Mrs. Frances Taylor Patterson also heard the Chesterton-Darrow debate, but went to the meeting with some misgivings because she was a trifle afraid that Chesterton’s “gifts might seem somewhat literary in comparison with the trained scientific mind and rapier tongue of the famous trial lawyer. Instead, the trained scientific mind, the clear thinking, the lightning quickness in getting a point and hurling back an answer, turned out to belong to Chesterton. I have never heard Mr. Darrow alone, but taken relatively, when that relativity is to Chesterton, he appears positively muddle-headed.”
Although the terms of the debate were determined at the outset, Darrow either could not or would not stick to the definitions, but kept going off at illogical tangents and becoming choleric over points that were not in dispute. He seemed to have an idea that all religion was a matter of accepting Jonah’s whale as a sort of luxury-liner. As Chesterton summed it up, he felt as if Darrow had been arguing all afternoon with his fundamentalist aunt, and the latter kept sparring with a dummy of his own mental making. When something went wrong with the microphone, Darrow sat back until it could be fixed. Whereupon G.K.C. jumped up and carried on in his natural voice, “Science you see is not infallible!” Whatever brilliance Darrow had in his own right, it was completely eclipsed. For all the luster that he shed, he might have been a remote star at high noon drowned by the bright incandescent light of the sun. Chesterton had the audience with him from the start, and when it was over, everyone just sat there, not wishing to leave. They were loath to let the light die!
“Clarence Darrow wrote the author shortly before his death, ‘I was favorably impressed by, warmly attached to, G.K. Chesterton. I enjoyed my debates with him, and found him a man of culture and fine sensibilities. If he and I had lived where we could have become better acquainted, eventually we would have ceased to debate, I firmly believe.'”
The following is excerpted from the February 4, 1931, issue of The Nation. Here Henry Hazlitt gives his impressions of the debate:
In the ballot that followed, the audience voted more than two to one for the defender of the faith, Mr. Chesterton of course, and if the vote was on the relative merits of the two debaters, and not on the question itself, it was surely a very just one. Mr. Chesterton’s argument was like Mr. Chesterton, amiable, courteous, jolly; it was always clever, it was full of nice turns of expression, and altogether a very adroit exhibition by one of the world’s ablest intellectual fencing masters and one of its most charming gentlemen.
Mr. Darrow’s personality, by contrast, seemed rather colorless and certainly very dour. His attitude seemed almost surly; he slurred his words; the rise and fall of his voice was sometimes heavily melodramatic, and his argument was conducted on an amazingly low intellectual level.
Ostensibly the defender of science against Mr. Chesterton, he obviously knew much less about science than Mr. Chesterton did; when he essayed to answer his opponent on the views of Eddington and Jeans, it was patent that he did not have the remotest conception of what the new physics was all about. His victory over Mr. Byran at Dayton had been too cheap and easy; he remembered it not wisely but too well. His arguments are still the arguments of the village atheist of the Ingersoll period; at Mecca Temple he still seemed to be trying to shock and convince yokels.
Mr. Chesterton’s deportment was irreproachable, but I am sure that he was secretly unhappy. He had been on the platform many times against George Bernard Shaw. This opponent could not extend his powers. He was not getting his exercise.
A note on the vote from an article by Timothy S. Goeglein in Catholic Heritage, Jan-Feb, 1996, p. 28.
At the debate’s close, those in the hall were asked to vote for the man they thought had won the debate. Darrow received 1,022 votes. But Chesterton received 2,359 votes, a decisive win.
EXCLUSIVE! A BRIEF RECOLLECTION REPORTED HERE FOR THE FIRST TIME.
The Quotemeister recalls listening to a brief report on the debate delivered sometime in 1953 by a Jesuit priest at Marquette University. Father Madigan, who had been in the audience for the debate, recalled that Chesterton’s rebuttal began with, “It may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Darrow, and perhaps to all of you in the audience, but I agree entirely with everything you have said.” According to Madigan, this approach threw Darrow into utter confusion.