100 Books for America: Gideon’s Trumpet

With 91 days until the election, let us continue looking at the 100 books every American should read. These write-ups will be short and not incredibly comprehensive looks at some books and novels that will help you become a better citizen. Check out all of the books that have been picked.

If John Grisham’s next manuscript is an accurate retelling of Clarence Earl Gideon’s legal escapades that ended up before the Supreme Court and changing the law and culture of the land, his editor will chuck it in the trash.

“John,” the editor will say, “This is too fantastical. No one will believe this.”

And he will be right. It’s an absolutely wild story, with an incredible plot twist.

Gideon was basically a town layabout. One 1961 evening, after he’d had a few drinks, he was picked up by the police and accused of robbing a pool hall.

Gideon’s story and legacy are the subject of Ed Lewis’ “Gideon’s Trumpet.”

Sounds like your basic small town crime. But it got interesting when Gideon represented himself in court.

He asked for a defense attorney. After all, the constitution said we all have a right to a defense. The problem, though, was he had no money.

So the judge said he couldn’t appoint an attorney for Gideon.

After his conviction, Gideon appealed, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The court decides it will hear his case, and appoints him a high powered lawyer named Abe Fortas.

Fortas is a character that an editor would strike from the story. Why, you ask. Because he ends up a Supreme Court Justice in real life.

Fortas, with the help of a young John Hart Ely – who would end up teaching constitutional law at Stanford and Harvard, writing a seminal work on the Constitution – helps get Gideon’s conviction reversed.

It’s the case that led to the famous “if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you” line that appears on every episode of every police procedural.

Gideon’s story doesn’t end there. I’m leaving out some fascinating stuff, including the wild plot twist.


Previously, we reviewed Maya Angelou’s “Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Up next, we look at the American Founding.

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