Scopes Trial

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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the trial.
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the trial.

The Scopes Trial of 1925 pitted lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes) in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "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." This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. It has often been called the "Scopes Monkey Trial".


Butler Act

At issue was the Butler Act, which had been passed a few months earlier by the Tennessee General Assembly. The Butler Act provided:

"That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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"

At the time, the theory of evolution was still a somewhat controversial idea even within scientific circles, and many of its detractors often linked it with atheism.

William Jennings Bryan was highly influential in raising public and legislative support for the Butler Act, and he articulated many of the above concerns in his published work, In His Image in which he argued that evolution was both irrational and immoral.

In large part as a result of these concerns and Bryan's advocacy, the legislature of Tennessee determined that it was inappropriate to have the theory of evolution taught in public schools, and passed the Butler Act.

Testing the Butler Act

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) had offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. George Rappelyea, who managed a number of local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, then a town of 1,800, that the controversy of such a trial would put Dayton on the map. With their agreement he called in his friend, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was the Rhea County High School's football coach and who had substituted for the principal in a science class.

Rappelyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook - Hunter's Civic Biology - which explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law. Scopes couldn't 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."

Textbook in question

Although Hunter's Civic Biology was primarily a biology textbook, it reflected a marked bias towards eugenics - hence the use of the word "Civic" in the title. Indeed, part of the text was in fact authored by Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office, a privately funded research organisation. This was one of the main issues which fueled Bryan's opposition to evolutionary thought.

The text supported the notion of the inherent superiority of the white race, and promoted a eugenics-oriented policy as a means of eliminating the "genetically inferior" members of society:

"We do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country."

Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to a class at the high school on April 24th, in violation of the Butler Act.


The original prosecutors were Scopes' friends, Herbert E. and Sue K. Hicks, a pair of brothers who were local attorneys (the latter was named for the mother who died giving him birth). William Shannon Jackson was here to witness this amazing trial.

Hoping to attract major press coverage, George Rappleyea, the person primarily responsible for convincing Scopes to allow himself to be charged with breaking the law, 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 notional head of the defense team. William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian and three-time presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, offered to join the prosecution team. 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 with Bryan in 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 Bryan and Herbert and Sue Hicks, Ben B. McKenzie, and William Jennings Bryan, Jr. 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 separation of Church and State within the public education system and was therefore unconstitutional. In practice this was entirely the wrong way to challenge the constitutionality of a law under Tennessee procedure, but the ACLU were in far off New York and had little or no understanding of how things were done in Tennessee. And in any case, following the "proper procedure" would not have got them the publicity they were looking for. Mainly due to Clarence Darrow, this strategy changed as the trial progressed, and the earliest argument proposed by the defense once the trial had started 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, though only Dr. Maynard Metcalf was allowed to testify in person. The others were allowed to submit evidence in the form of written statements so that their evidence could be used at the appeal.

By the latter stages of the trial, Clarence Darrow had abandoned the ACLU's strategy altogether, and resorted to an all out attack on William Jennings Bryan. 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.

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 [evolutionary] 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.

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 gale-force 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 himself 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.

Cross-examination of Bryan

On the seventh day of the trial, Clarence Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling William Jennings Bryan, counsel for the prosecution, to the stand as an expert witness in an effort to demonstrate that belief in the historicity of the Bible and its many accounts of miracles was unreasonable. Bryan accepted, on the understanding that Darrow would in turn submit to cross-examination by Bryan.

Biblical miracles and creation days

Darrow questioned the story of Jonah, the account of the Earth standing still, and the Usher-Lightfoot Calendar. Bryan responded by steadfastly adhering to belief in the reported miracles, but asserted that he did not know how old the Earth was, as the Usher-Lightfoot Calendar was only a calculation of men. When asked to explain the use of the word "Day" in the first chapter, he said:

"I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter—let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," the word "day" there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, "the evening and the morning," as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, "in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth."

Unlike what happens in Inherit the Wind, where the Bryan-based character is essentially tricked into admitting the days of creation were not literal 24 hour days, Bryan knew where Darrow was trying to herd him and pre-empted the attack by admitting the point.

Darrow's motivation

The questioning continued into whether Eve was actually created from Adam's rib, where Cain got his wife, and how many people lived in Ancient Egypt. The celebrated "duel in the shade" was very heated with Darrow telling Bryan, "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion." In response Bryan declared: "The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him."

Bryan, correctly 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."

The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow lasted for approximately two hours on the afternoon of the seventh day of the trial. It is likely that it would have continued the following morning, but for Judge Raulston's announcement that he considered the whole examination irrelevant to the case and his decision that it should be "expunged" from the record. Thus Bryan was denied the chance to cross-examine the defense lawyers in return. Darrow responded by asking the judge to instruct the jury to find his client guilty and 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. In so doing, Darrow prevented William Jennings Bryan from making the speech which he had come to Dayton to deliver; the speech which Bryan hoped would be the pinnacle of his career as a defender of Christian principles.

Scopes himself never testified, as there was never a legal issue as to whether he had taught evolution. (It seems highly likely that Scopes never did in fact actually teach any aspect of evolution, but the point was not contested at trial.)

After eight days of trial, during which Darrow was charged with contempt but later apologized, Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a $100 fine. Bryan offered to pay it. It took the jury only nine minutes to decide Scopes' guilt.

Appeal to Supreme Court of Tennessee

Scopes' lawyers appealed, challenging the conviction on several grounds.

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' rights under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as 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 constitutional clause providing: "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 that the prohibition of the teaching of such theory is a violation of the legislative duty to cherish science.

The court rejected this argument, 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.

The Court 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 due to a technical issue: the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, as Tennessee judges could not at that time set fines above $50. (There is no evidence that the fine money had ever changed hands in any event.) The prosecution did not seek a retrial.

Not until 1968 did the US Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 (1968) that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious. (Tennessee had previously repealed the Butler Act the prior year.)

Publicity and drama


The press coverage of the "Monkey" Trial was overwhelming. The front pages of newspapers like the New York Times were dominated by the case for days. More than 100 newspaper reporters from all parts of the country and two from London were in Dayton. 22 telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day on the trial. Chicago's WGN radio station broadcast the trial with announcer Quin Ryan via clear channel broadcasts for the first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. Two movie cameramen had their film flown out daily in a small plane from a specially prepared airstrip. H. L. Mencken's trial reports were heavily slanted against the prosecution and the jury which was "unanimously hot for Genesis." He mocked the town's inhabitants as "yokels" and "morons". He called Bryan a "buffoon" and his speeches "theologic bilge". In contrast, he called the defense "eloquent" and "magnificent". Some evolutionists have claimed that Mencken's trial reports turned public opinion against creationism, though few people seem to have actually noticed this at the time.

The trial is described in detail in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson (ISBN 0465075096); also useful is Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever? (ISBN 0195197844). Another detailed resource is The Great Monkey Trial by L. Sprague de Camp. Although the play Inherit the Wind, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, is very loosely based on the events, it is important to note that this was a "literary device" since many believe that the play was actually about Senator Joseph McCarthy and the proceedings of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities, which McCarthy was not associated with. See also The World's Most Famous Court Trial, State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes: Complete Stenographic Report of the Court, by John Scopes (ISBN 0306719754)

The trial also brought publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, leading some to speculate that it was 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 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. If Bryan had been alive to throw the magic of his name into the controversy these numbers may well have increased. 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 site of the trial, the Rhea County Courthouse, has in recent years largely been restored to its 1925 appearance, and a museum of the trial events is located in its basement. Every summer the locals re-enact key moments of the trial in the courtroom.

Humor and the Scopes Trial

Anticipating that Scopes would be found guilty the press fitted the defendant for martyrdom and created an onslaught of ridicule. Time's initial coverage of the trial focused on Dayton as "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war." Life adorned its masthead with monkeys reading books and proclaimed "the whole matter is something to laugh about." Hosts of cartoonists added their own portrayals to the attack (the greatest collection of cartoons available would be the 14 reprinted in L. Sprague de Camp's The Great Monkey Trial). Both Literary Digest and the popular humor magazine Life (1890-1930) ran compilations of jokes and humorous observations garnered from newspapers around the country.

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-Loeb from the death penalty continued to be a source of ugly humor. 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.

Inherit the Wind

Main article: Inherit the Wind

The stage play Inherit the Wind (1955) by Lawrence and Lee, later adapted into a film in 1960 by Stanley Kramer, was (very loosely) based on this trial. It was not intended to depict the trial accurately, but rather to decry the excesses of the Joseph McCarthy era in 1950s politics. It starred Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond/Darrow, Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady/Bryan and Gene Kelly as E. K. Hornbeck/Mencken. In 1965 the play aired on television with Melvyn Douglas as Drummond and Ed Begley as Brady. In 1988, a rewrite of the Kramer movie shown on NBC starred Jason Robards as Drummond and Kirk Douglas as Brady. Another version aired in 1999 with another pair of Oscar winners, Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott as Drummond and Brady. Playing the role of Drummond, Tracy was nominated for an Oscar, Robards won an Emmy, and Lemmon won a Golden Globe award. The 1988 production also won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special. American schools' (sometimes exclusive) use of the film to teach about the trial has led to many public misconceptions about the subject.

There were a number of substantial deviations from actual events in the movie:

  • Whereas Brady was portrayed as refusing to read Darwin, Bryan was better acquainted with Darwin's ideas than were the defense team lawyers, not to mention several of the so-called expert witnesses. (In the McCarthy hearings it was clear that the prosecutors had a poor understanding of Communism and its implications.)
  • It has the Bryan character ("Brady") claiming that sexual intercourse was original sin, although nothing at all was said about sex during Darrow's examination of Bryan. (The McCarthy prosecutors accused some defendants of being anti-American simply for having had a boyfriend or girlfriend who was or had been a member of the Communist Party.)
  • While the play had Brady betraying Cates' girlfriend, the local preacher's daughter, the real Scopes didn't have a girlfriend at all. (A major ploy by the McCarthy prosecutors was the promise that they would be more lenient to witnesses who named people who they knew were, or had been, members of the Communist Party.)
  • In the play Brady protests that the fine is too lenient; in real life Bryan, as noted above, actually offered to pay the fine himself. (This is part of Brady's final rant in the film, which mirrors McCarthy's outburst when the Army-McCarthy Hearings were abandoned, but relates to nothing in the Scopes trial.)
  • Brady dies, in the courtroom, almost as soon as the trial's outcome is decided; Bryan did not die until five days after the trial ended. It says much for the influence of Inherit the Wind that the Congressional biography of Bryan has him dying in the courtroom!

The Scopes trial did not appear in the Encyclopædia Britannica until 1957 when the inclusion was spurred by the successful run of Inherit the Wind on Broadway, which was mentioned in the citation. It was not until the 1960s that the Scopes trial began to be mentioned in the history textbooks of American high schools and colleges, usually as an example of the conflict between fundamentalists and modernists, and often in sections that also talked about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. Most entries followed the trail of misinformation first laid in Only Yesterday, by F.L. Allen, subsequently echoed in Inherit the Wind, and focused on Darrow reducing Bryan to a figure of ridicule and several substituted the substance of the drama for the reality of the actual trial.

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