"It shall be unlawful for any teacher to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal" declared Tennessee's Butler Act (Larson 2003: 54). The Tennessee House of Representatives passed the act with virtually no debate, but the Senate heard considerable testimony both for and against it. Scientists almost uniformly opposed it, and the religious community was split, with fundamentalists strongly supporting the bill as a means of preserving children's faith and liberals opposing it on the grounds that the state should not favor one religious position over another. Public sentiment in Tennessee was so strong, though, that the state's senators felt great pressure to pass the bill, and they did.
Almost immediately, the young American Civil Liberties Union in New York took up the challenge of testing the new law. Because of restrictions on civil liberties imposed by the government during and after World War I, the ACLU was particularly concerned with free speech. The early 1920s and the preceding decade were a time of social unrest, economic insecurity, and agitation for workers' rights. Strikes in mills and mines over long hours, poor working conditions, and low pay resulted in considerable unrest. Many Americans feared that European anarchism and socialism were taking root in American soil, and establishing the rights of workers was a struggle. The ACLU focused on the free speech and other rights of workers—and teaching school qualified as labor. The ACLU leaders believed that the Butler Act infringed on the free speech rights of teachers by restricting what they could teach.
The ACLU took out advertisements in Tennessee newspapers, offering to defend any teacher willing to volunteer to be the defendant in a legal challenge to the Butler Act. Businessmen in the small town of Dayton concocted a plan to bring publicity and business to their community as the site of a high-visibility trial challenging a controversial law. They persuaded John T. Scopes, a young science teacher, to be the ACLU's test case. He would be accused of teaching evolution, the trial would be held, the law would be struck down, and Dayton would receive publicity and a welcome economic shot in the arm. The scenario played out almost as planned.
Scopes was a young man of twenty-four who taught science at the high school. As the tale is told, town leaders called him in from a tennis game to pitch the idea of challenging the Butler Act in Dayton.
Scopes was the ideal defendant for the test case. Single, easy-going, and without any fixed intention of staying in Dayton, he had little to lose from a summertime caper—unlike the regular biology teacher, who had a family and administrative responsibilities. Scopes also looked the part of an earnest young teacher, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a boyish face that made him appear academic but not threatening. Naturally shy, cooperative, and well-liked, he would not alienate parents or taxpayers with soapbox speeches on evolution or give the appearance of a radical or ungrateful public employee. Yet his friends knew that Scopes disapproved of the new law and accepted an evolutionary view of human origins. (Larson 1997: 90-91)
The amiable Scopes agreed, a warrant was sworn out, and Scopes was duly charged with the crime of violating the Butler Act, after which he returned to his tennis game. Plans were made to hold the trial in Dayton, the seat of Rhea County.
The plan to bring publicity to Dayton succeeded beyond the businessmen's wildest expectations, and certainly beyond what the young schoolteacher had anticipated. The 1925 trial was truly the trial of the century, being the first trial to be covered not only by the print media but also through live radio broadcasts. The trial would have received a lot of attention on its own merits: the Butler Act had received national publicity, and already battle lines had been drawn over the merit of passing antievolution laws. The unexpected appearance of two political giants of the day, William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense, only heightened public interest. All these factors transformed the trial into a three-ring circus.
Bryan was one of the nation's most famous and popular public figures. He had been three times the Democratic Party's candidate for president and had served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. He had made his political reputation as a well-known promoter of progressive causes such as women's suffrage, pacifism, and better working conditions for workers. Always a devout man, in his later years he became known as much for his fundamentalist Christian views as for his progressivism. Today—largely because of the Scopes trial—much of his political progressivism has been forgotten. But in the late 1910s and 1920s, laissez-faire capitalism—the source of poor working conditions, child labor, and worker exploitation—was believed to be supported by evolution, which in addition was believed to be antireligious. Of course, robber barons like Andrew Carnegie were neither the first nor the last to latch onto science to promote an ideological view; the fact that natural selection theory has been used to support both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism suggests that the link is more in the eyes of the proposers than in reality. But Bryan's combination of political progressivism and fundamentalist Christian antievolutionism well fit the social and political views of the times
On Scope's side was Clarence Darrow, the most famous defense attorney in the country. Like Bryan, he was a political progressive; he had supported Bryan in the latter's early attempts to become president. Darrow was also a pacifist and a supporter of free speech—which were not uniformly popular positions in the second decade of the twentieth century. He also was a well-known atheist, thus contrasting sharply with Bryan. With two such giants squaring off against one another, the public found the trial irresistible.
The Scopes trial originally had been conceived of as a test of the truth of evolution. Both sides—especially the antievolution side—were eager to testify regarding evolution's validity and to whether evolution was inherently anti-Christian or led to immoral or unethical behavior. But the prosecution began to lose enthusiasm for this approach when it became clear that the defense was quickly lining up scientists and theologians who would affirm that evolution was scientific and assert that it was not necessarily anti-Christian. The prosecution had a difficult time finding scientists who rejected evolution (Larson 1997: 130). It then switched its strategy to argue the case narrowly: did or did not Scopes break the law? Fortunately for the prosecution, once the trial began, the judge quickly took its point of view, ruling that, indeed, the trial would focus only on whether Scopes had broken the law (i.e., had taught evolution). The defense's carefully chosen scientific witnesses (from biology, anthropology, and geology) and its three theologians were not permitted to testify.
One of the most memorable moments in the trial involved a daring legal move: Darrow requested that Bryan take the witness stand as an expert on religion. Bryan accepted, against the advice of his cocounsels. He planned to use the opportunity to witness his Christian faith to both supporters and those not yet converted, and to defend Christianity against the atheist Darrow. Unfortunately for him, however, it became clear that he was an expert neither on the Bible nor on comparative religion, and he was certainly no expert on science or evolution.
Throughout Bryan's examination, Darrow sought to show that certain passages of the Bible cannot rationally be accepted as literally true. Bryan fell for this scheme by admitting that despite his reputation as a promoter of fundamentalism, he had no explanation for how Joshua lengthened the day by making the sun stand still. Similarly, he could not answer Darrow's questions about whether the Noachian Flood that allegedly destroyed all life outside the ark also killed fish, where Cain got his wife, and how the snake that tempted Eve moved before God made it crawl on its belly as punishment. Bryan acknowledged his acceptance of a long Earth history and a day-age interpretation of the Genesis account, which of course allowed enough time for evolution to take place. Further undermining his stance against evolution, Bryan confessed that he knew little about comparative religion or science (Hileary and Metzger 1990). The cross examination was widely viewed as a public relations disaster for Bryan, although it had little effect on the outcome of the trial.
And in fact, given the narrow grounds on which testimony was allowed, it was a foregone conclusion that Scopes would lose. Both sides anticipated the verdict; to a large degree, both sides viewed the Dayton trial as a preliminary step toward the appeals process: eventually the Supreme Court would test the legality of antievolution laws. Scopes was convicted of having taught evolution (though in reality he may never have actually taught that chapter of the textbook). The defense also lost its appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court: the ACLU's concern that individual freedom should take priority over the government's authority over public employees was rejected in favor of the state's right to set conditions for employment.
In a surprise move, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court then reversed the Scopes conviction on a technicality. The trial judge (as was not uncommon in such minor cases) had assigned the $100 fine, but the law required the jury to set the penalty. On those grounds, the Supreme Court threw out Scopes's conviction, which made further appeal moot. The ACLU's plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court was thwarted.
Was this article helpful?