Called the “world’s most famous court trial” at the time, the case of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925) concerned a young biology teacher who taught that man had descended from a lower order of animals rather than having been divinely created as described in the Bible.
The Scopes trial occurred as a result of legislation advocated by John Washington Butler, a Primitive Baptist and former farmer and schoolteacher who had learned that evolution was being taught in the public schools of Tennessee. As a member of the Tennessee legislature, Butler succeeded in passing a law that made it unlawful to teach evolution in the public schools. The Butler Act, as it came to be called, was also being promoted by William Jennings Bryan, former U.S. secretary of state and a three-time candidate for president, as an antidote to Darwin’s theory of evolution, a notion that he regarded as heresy.
The Butler Act was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was searching for a test case. The selection of Dayton, Tennessee, as the site for the testing of the anti-evolution law occurred as a result of opposition to the Butler Act by a small group of Dayton men who enlisted the help of the local science teacher, John Thomas Scopes. F. E. Robinson, owner of the local drug store and chairman of the school board, got things going when he called the newspaper in Chattanooga to report the arrest of a teacher who had taught evolution.
William Jennings Bryan volunteered to represent Tennessee in its prosecution of young Scopes. This brought Clarence Darrow and Dudley Field Malone, a New York barrister, into the fray as volunteers for the defense. At first, the ACLU did not want Darrow on its team, believing that the 68-year-old former attorney was too controversial and not technically as skilled a lawyer as they believed the case required. However, young Scopes insisted that the Darrow/Malone team was just the tandem he believed was necessary in the ugly legal brawl he knew would ensue in his hometown. The Scopes defense team was anchored by Darrow and Malone and joined by Arthur Garfield Hays, another New York attorney; W. O. Thompson, Darrow’s law partner from Chicago; and John Randolph Neal, a former Tennessee judge and dean of the law school at the University of Tennessee.
From the beginning, the Scopes “monkey” trial was more than a simple test of an anti-evolution law. Rather, as Darrow later said near the end of the trial, it was contested for the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling education in the United States. It was bitterly fought before a partisan crowd of what H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun described as “yokels,” a derogatory term for unsophisticated country folk who made up the town and the jury, one member of which was illiterate.
The Scopes defense team set up a dense battery of prominent scientists regarding the efficacy of the theory of evolution. However, the prosecution succeeded in overcoming this plan by showing that the trial was not about the theory of evolution, but rather was a simple question of whether Scopes had violated the Butler Act. After Judge John T. Raulston ruled that expert testimony on evolution was inadmissible, many considered the trial to be over and began to leave town. What then occurred propelled the Scopes trial into infamy. The defense team called William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. While his prosecutorial colleagues strenuously objected, Bryan succumbed to the lure of being a defender of the faith before the cross-examination skills of his legal nemesis Clarence Darrow, whose agnosticism was widely known. What then ensued was a clash of legal titans in a set piece battle that has subsequently become the verbiage of Broadway plays and Hollywood celluloid. Darrow walked, weaved, and sucker-punched Bryan through the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, the fable of Joshua making the sun stand still, the unnamed wife of Cain, and into the length of a day in the act of creation set forth in Genesis. In an acerbic courtroom fight in which both exchanged clenched fists at one another, Darrow showed plainly that in the face of textual ambiguity, a reader of the Bible had to interpret what was written, because a literal interpretation was not consistent with what was generally accepted as scientific fact, even by Christian literalists such as Bryan. While Bryan was not shown to be a complete idiot and was initially skillful in his rejoinders to Darrow, he was publicly humiliated and exposed as naïve and irrational.
Bryan knew he had made a major miscue. Even when Judge Raulston threw out his entire testimony, he was not satisfied, because he wanted the world to know that he had worked to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. He never got his chance, however, as Darrow pushed for the jury to find young Scopes guilty so that the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Under Tennessee law, such a request prevented the defense from offering a closing statement and thus deprived Bryan of the opportunity to present a final appeal. Darrow’s public relations coup was then complete. Scopes was brought before the jury, which convicted him of violating the Butler Act. Judge Raulston imposed a fine of $100. After the trial, Bryan traveled about Tennessee trying to find a suitable forum to redeem himself, but after having a heavy noon-day meal, he died in his sleep.
The ACLU appealed the decision of the lower court, and once again, there was acrimony over the continuing presence of Clarence Darrow as the case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court. This time the argument was engineered to avoid favoring Darrow, who was not a good lawyer in appellate cases. But Darrow doggedly stuck to his guns and argued the case with Arthur Garfield Hays in Nashville. The high court reversed the Scopes decision on a technicality: Scopes’s fine should have been determined by the jury rather than by Judge Raulston. It was not until 1967 that the Butler Act was repealed in Tennessee. A year later, an anti-evolution law in Arkansas was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legacy of the Scopes monkey trial lies largely today in the public imagination and in the court of public opinion. It was the first time that science and faith came face to face in the courtroom and were personified by two protagonists who were larger than life. The irony is that John Thomas Scopes never testified on his own behalf. Darrow was afraid that the jury would discover that Scopes had never taught biology. Once the trial began, Scopes himself was a bystander to the larger issues being argued.
Darrow, Clarence S.; Religious Activities in Public Schools
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