The "Scopes Trial" (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 (Tenn. 1925), often called the "Scopes Monkey Trial") was an American legal case that tested the Butler Act, which made it unlawful, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The case was a critical turning point in the United States' creation-evolution controversy.
John Scopes, a high school teacher, was charged on May 5, 1925 with teaching evolution from a chapter in a textbook which showed ideas developed from those set out in Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species. The trial pitted two of the preeminent legal minds of the time against one another. Three-time presidential candidate, Congressman and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan headed up the prosecution, while prominent trial attorney Clarence Darrow spoke for the defense. The famous trial was made infamous by the fictionalized accounts given in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, the 1960 Hollywood motion picture and the 1965, 1988 and 1999 television films of the same name.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. George Rappleyea, who managed several local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, then a town of 1,756, that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton much needed publicity. With their agreement, he called in his friend, 24-year-old John Scopes, who was Clark County High School's football coach and had substituted for Principal Ferguson in a science class. Rappleyea asked Scopes to teach the theory of evolution.
Rappleyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook—George Hunter's Civic Biology (1914)—which explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law. Scopes could not actually remember having covered the section on evolution in Hunter's textbook, but he told the group, "If you can prove that I've taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial."
Scopes became an increasingly willing participant, even incriminating himself and urging students to testify against him. He was indicted on April 24, after three students testified against him at the grand jury, at Scopes' behest. According to Edward J. Larson, Judge John T. Raulston accelerated the convening of the grand jury and "…all but instructed the grand jury to indict Scopes, despite the meager evidence against him and the widely reported stories questioning whether the willing defendant had ever taught evolution in the classroom. Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to a May 7, 1925, high school class in violation of the Butler Act (and nominally arrested, though never detained). His bail of $500 was paid by Paul Patterson, owner of the Baltimore Sun.
Hoping to attract major press coverage, George Rappleyea went so far as to write to the British novelist H. G. Wells asking him to join the defense team. Wells replied that he had no legal training in Britain, let alone in America, and declined the offer. However, John R. Neal, a law school professor from Knoxville, announced that he would act as Scopes' attorney — whether Scopes liked it or not — and became the nominal head of the defense team.
Baptist pastor William Bell Riley, the founder and president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, was instrumental in calling lawyer and three-time Democratic presidential candidate and lifelong Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan to act as that organization's counsel. Bryan had originally been invited by Sue Hicks to become an associate of the prosecution and Bryan had readily accepted, despite the fact he had not tried a case in thirty-six years. As Scopes pointed out: "After [Bryan] was accepted by the state as a special prosecutor in the case, there was never any hope of containing the controversy within the bounds of constitutionality.
In response, Clarence Darrow, a staunch agnostic, volunteered his services to the defense. After many changes back and forth, the defense team consisted of Darrow, ACLU attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone, an international divorce lawyer who had worked at the State Department while Bryan was Secretary of State.
The prosecution team was led by Tom Stewart, district attorney for the 18th Circuit (and future United States Senator), and included, in addition to Herbert and Sue Hicks, Ben B. McKenzie and William Jennings Bryan. The trial was covered by journalists from around the world, including H. L. Mencken for The Baltimore Sun, which was also paying part of the defense's expenses. It was Mencken who provided the trial with its most colorful labels such as the "Monkey trial" of "the infidel Scopes." It was also the first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio.
The ACLU had originally intended to oppose the Butler Act on the grounds that it violated the teacher's individual rights, and was therefore unconstitutional. Mainly because of Clarence Darrow, this strategy changed as the trial progressed, and the earliest argument proposed by the defense once the trial had began was that there was actually no conflict between evolution and the creation account in the Bible. In support of this claim, they brought in eight experts on evolution. Other than Dr. Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins University, the judge would not allow these experts to testify in person. Instead, they were allowed to submit written statements so that their evidence could be used at the appeal. In response to this decision, Darrow made a sarcastic comment to Judge Raulston, for which he apologized the next day, keeping himself from being found in contempt of court.
By the later stages of the trial, Clarence Darrow had largely abandoned the ACLU's original strategy and attacked the literal interpretation of the Bible as well as Bryan's limited knowledge of other religions and science. Only when the case went to appeal did the defense return to the original claim that the prosecution was invalid because the law was essentially designed to benefit a particular religious group, which would be unconstitutional.
In what proved to be his only extensive speech of the trial, Bryan responded to this theory on behalf of the state. Following Stewart's strategy, Bryan argued that the proposed scientific testimony was neither competent nor proper, given the legal issue in the case, which he insisted was simply whether Scopes had taught evolution in the Rhea County High School. To support his contention that evolution was morally pernicious, Bryan cited the famous Leopold-Loeb trial involving Darrow the year before the Scopes Trial. Darrow had saved two rich young child murderers from the death sentence, and Bryan cited Darrow's own words:
This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19–year–old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.
Bryan chastised evolution for teaching children that humans were but one of (precisely) 35,000 types of mammals and bemoaned the fact that human beings were descended "Not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys" (World's Most Famous Court Trial, 174–78).
Malone responded for the defense in a speech that was universally considered the oratorical triumph of the trial. Arousing fears of "inquisitions," Malone argued that the Bible should be preserved in the realm of theology and morality and not put into a course of science. In his conclusion, Malone declared that Bryan's "duel to the death" against evolution should not be made one-sided by a court ruling that took away the chief witnesses for the defense. Malone promised that there would be no duel because "There is never a duel with the truth." The courtroom went wild when Malone finished, and Scopes declared Malone's speech to be the dramatic highpoint of the entire trial and insisted that part of the reason Bryan wanted to go on the stand was to regain some of his tarnished glory.
On the sixth day of the trial, the defense ran out of witnesses. The judge declared that all of the defense testimony on the Bible was irrelevant and should not be presented to the jury (which had been excluded during the defense). One of the defense attorneys, probably Darrow, asked "Where are we to find an expert on the Bible who is acceptable to the court?" Bryan interjected "I am an expert on the Bible."
Stewart objected, demanding to know the legal purpose of Darrow's questioning. Bryan, gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States." (299)
A few more questions followed in the charged open-air courtroom. Darrow asked where Cain got his wife; Bryan answered that he would "leave the agnostics to hunt for her" (302–03). When Darrow addressed the issue of the temptation of Eve by the serpent, Bryan insisted that the Bible be quoted verbatim rather than allowing Darrow to paraphrase it in his own terms. However, after another angry exchange, Judge Raulston banged his gavel, adjourning court and bringing the drama to a sudden close (303–04).
After the defense's final attempt to present evidence was denied. Darrow asked the judge to bring in the jury only to have them come to a guilty verdict:
We claim that the defendant is not guilty, but as the court has excluded any testimony, except as to the one issue as to whether he taught that man descended from a lower order of animals, and we cannot contradict that testimony, there is no logical thing to come except that the jury find a verdict that we may carry to the higher court, purely as a matter of proper procedure. We do not think it is fair to the court or counsel on the other side to waste a lot of time when we know this is the inevitable result and probably the best result for the case.
After they were brought in, Darrow then addressed the jury, telling them that:
We came down here to offer evidence in this case and the court has held under the law that the evidence we had is not admissible, so all we can do is to take an exception and carry it to a higher court to see whether the evidence is admissible or not. . . . we cannot even explain to you that we think you should return a verdict of not guilty. We do not see how you could. We do not ask it.
Darrow closed the case for the defense without a final summation. Under Tennessee law, when the defense waived its right to make a closing speech, the prosecution was also barred from summing up its case.
Scopes never testified since there was never a legal issue as to whether he had taught evolution. Scopes later admitted that, in reality, he was unsure of whether he had taught evolution (another reason the defense did not want him to testify), but the point was not contested at the trial (Scopes 1967:59–60).
After eight days of trial, it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a US$100.00 fine (approximately $1,165 when adjusted for inflation). Raulston imposed the fine before Scopes was given an opportunity to say anything about why the court should not impose punishment upon him and after Neal brought the error to the judge's attention the defendant spoke for the first and only time in court:
Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust (World's Most Famous Court Trial 313).
First, they argued that the statute was overly vague because it prohibited the teaching of "evolution," a very broad term. The court rejected that argument, holding:
Evolution, like prohibition, is a broad term. In recent bickering, however, evolution has been understood to mean the theory which holds that man has developed from some pre-existing lower type. This is the popular significance of evolution, just as the popular significance of prohibition is prohibition of the traffic in intoxicating liquors. It was in that sense that evolution was used in this act. It is in this sense that the word will be used in this opinion, unless the context otherwise indicates. It is only to the theory of the evolution of man from a lower type that the act before us was intended to apply, and much of the discussion we have heard is beside this case.
Second, the lawyers argued that the statute violated Scopes' constitutional right to due process because it prohibited him from teaching evolution. The court rejected this argument, holding that the state was permitted to regulate his speech as an employee of the state:
He was an employee of the state of Tennessee or of a municipal agency of the state. He was under contract with the state to work in an institution of the state. He had no right or privilege to serve the state except upon such terms as the state prescribed. His liberty, his privilege, his immunity to teach and proclaim the theory of evolution, elsewhere than in the service of the state, was in no wise touched by this law.
Third, it was argued that the terms of the Butler Act violated the Tennessee State Constitution which provided that "It shall be the duty of the General Assembly in all future periods of this government, to cherish literature and science." The argument was that the theory of the descent of man from a lower order of animals was now established by the preponderance of scientific thought, and that the prohibition of the teaching of such theory was a violation of the legislative duty to cherish science.
The court rejected this argument (Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 1927), holding that the determination of what laws cherished science was an issue for the legislature, not the judiciary:
The courts cannot sit in judgment on such acts of the Legislature or its agents and determine whether or not the omission or addition of a particular course of study tends "to cherish science."
Fourth, the defense lawyers argued that the statute violated the Establishment Clause, unconstitutionally establishing a state religion.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice Grafton Green rejected this argument, holding that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent the establishment of a state religion as had been the experience in England and Scotland at the writing of the Constitution, and held:
We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution. Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things.
Further, the court held that while the statute forbade the teaching of evolution (as the court had defined it), it did not require the teaching of any other doctrine, so that it did not benefit any doctrine over the others.
Nevertheless, having found the statute to be constitutional, the court set aside the conviction on appeal because of a legal technicality: the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, since Tennessee judges could not at that time set fines above $50. Green added a totally unexpected recommendation:
The court is informed that the plaintiff in error is no longer in the service of the state. We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think that the peace and dignity of the state, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be the better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein. Such a course is suggested to the Attorney General.Attorney General L.D. Smith immediately announced that he would not seek a retrial, while Scopes' lawyers offered angry comments on the stunning decision.
In 1968, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 (1968) that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious. Tennessee had repealed the Butler Act the previous year.
The media's portrayal of Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan, and the play and movie Inherit the Wind, caused millions of Americans to ridicule religious-based opposition to the theory of evolution.
The trial also brought publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, and was hatched as a publicity stunt From The Salem Republican, June 11, 1925:
"The whole matter has assumed the portion of Dayton and her merchants endeavoring to secure a large amount of notoriety and publicity with an open question as whether Scopes is a party to the plot or not."
The trial did not stop the anti-evolution movement. Before Dayton only the South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky legislatures had dealt with anti-evolution laws or riders to educational appropriations bills. In 1927, there were 13 states, both in the North and South, that considered some form of anti-evolution law. At least 41 bills, riders, or resolutions were introduced into the state legislatures, with some states facing the issue repeatedly. While most of these efforts were rejected, both Mississippi and Arkansas put anti-evolution laws on the books after the Scopes trial that would outlive the Butler Act. The Butler Act ended up serving as a model for the anti-evolution crusade, and the ACLU could not find a teacher to volunteer for another test case.
THE SCOPES TRIAL
Here, from July 10 to 21, 1925 John
Thomas Scopes, a County High School
teacher, was tried for teaching that
a man descended from a lower order
of animals in violation of a lately
passed state law. William Jennings
Bryan assisted the prosecution;
Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield
Hays, and Dudley Field Malone the
defense. Scopes was convicted.
Overwhelmingly, the butt of these jokes was the prosecution and those aligned with it: Bryan, the city of Dayton, the state of Tennessee, and the entire South, as well as fundamentalist Christians and anti-evolutionists. Rare exceptions were found in the Southern press, where the fact that Darrow had saved Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty continued to be a source of ugly humor. The most widespread form of this ridicule was directed at the inhabitants of Tennessee. Life described Tennessee as "not up to date in its attitude to such things as evolution. Time related Bryan's arrival in town with the disparaging comment, "The populace, Bryan's to a moron, yowled a welcome. Attacks on Bryan were predictably frequent and nasty: Life awarded him its "Brass Medal of the Fourth Class," for having "successfully demonstrated by the alchemy of ignorance hot air may be transmuted into gold, and that the Bible is infallibly inspired except where it differs with him on the question of wine, women, and wealth. Papers across the country routinely dismissed the efforts of both sides in the trial, while the European press reacted to the entire affair with amused condescension.
Famously vituperative attacks came from the literary gadfly H.L. Mencken, whose syndicated columns from Dayton for the Baltimore Sun drew vivid caricatures of the "backward" local populace, referring to the people of Rhea county as "Babbits," "morons," "peasants," "hill-billies," "yaps" and "yokels." He chastised the "degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls." The nicest thing Mencken managed to say about the community was that "The Klan has never got a foothold here, though it rages everywhere else in Tennessee. Mencken attempted to perpetuate a hoax, distributing flyers for the "Rev. Elmer Chubb," but the claims that Chubb would drink poison and preach in lost languages were ignored as commonplace by the people of Dayton and only the Commonweal bit. Mencken's most venomous assault was his withering obituary of Bryan, "In Memoriam: W.J.B," in which Mencken became one of the few people ever to accuse Bryan of insincerity. Years later Mencken did question whether dismissing Bryan "as a quack pure and unadulterated" was "really just," but the damage could hardly be undone. Mencken's columns made the Dayton citizens irate and drew general fire from the Southern press. After Raulston ruled against the admission of scientific testimony, Mencken left Dayton, declaring in his last dispatch "All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. Consequently, the journalist missed Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan on Monday.
Since 1987, the city of Dayton has staged a reenactment of the trial using the original transcripts, performing it in the very same courtroom in which the trial took place. The annual event occurs during Dayton's Scopes Trial festival with several performances showing over the weekend. In 2007, Bryan College, the institute founded in memory of Bryan, purchased the rights to the production and made a filmed version for DVD release using the same performers entitled "Inherit the Truth" in an attempt to clear up any misunderstandings regarding the trial due to Inherit the Wind.