The Monkey Trial: A Flashback

Friday, March 23, 2012
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan
On an afternoon in May 1925, two entrepreneurs sat scheming in a drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee. George Rappelyea and F. E. Robinson pored over a notice in the Chattanooga Times, placed by a little-known New York organization called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The notice sought a biology teacher willing to be the defendant in a case
to test a new Tennessee law, the Butler Act. The Butler Act forbade the teaching in the public schools of any theory that claimed that human beings had evolved from lower forms of animal life.
To Rappelyea and Robinson, a test case of the Butler Act looked like a heaven-sent opportunity for the sleepy village of Dayton. Pitting Fundamentalist Christians against the proponents of the modern, scientific approach to creation, it would bring reporters, famous lawyers, experts on science and religion, and flocks of spectators—all with money to spend in Dayton's shops and boardinghouses. With the help of one willing biology teacher, they could put Dayton, Tennessee, on the map.
Dates: July 10–21, 1925.
John T. Scopes was not a teacher of biology. He coached football and basketball at Dayton's Central High School, where he also taught math, physics, and chemistry. But when the actual biology teacher refused to get involved, Scopes agreed to help build the ACLU's case. Rappelyea and Robinson arranged for him to tutor three high-school boys, making sure that the subject of evolution came under thorough discussion. Then Robinson, chairman of the Dayton School Board, arranged to have Scopes arrested. John Scopes, a soft-spoken young man with a bent for scientific inquiry, suddenly found himself at the vortex of a national maelstrom.
 Scopes was charged with teaching “a certain theory or theories which deny the story of the divine creation of man taught in the Bible, and teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Such teaching was in flagrant violation of the Butler Act. If convicted, Scopes could be fined $100.
Named for its creator, legislator John Washington Butler, the Butler Act was intended to protect the Christian children of Tennessee from the growing menace of agnosticism. As Butler put it, “The Bible is the foundation upon which our American government is built. . . . The evolutionist who denies the Biblical story of creation . . . cannot be a Christian. It makes Jesus Christ a fakir, robs the Christian of his hope, and undermines the foundation of our government.”
Christian Fundamentalists, with their interpretation of the Bible as literal truth, were a strong political force in Tennessee. While many legislators privately questioned the wisdom of the Butler Act and feared it would make their state a laughingstock, few dared to offer public opposition. The Butler Act sailed through the legislature almost unchallenged. When Governor Austin Peay signed it into law on March 21, 1925, he remarked off the record that he never expected to see the law enforced.
The Prosecution's Case:
From the first, the issue was not to determine whether Scopes had taught evolution. Clearly and deliberately, he had broken the law. But the ACLU wanted to test whether the Butler Act was constitutional. The prosecution set out to defend the law itself, to show that it protected the right of Christians to raise their children with the belief that the Bible was the only truth. Leading the prosecution was the venerable William Jennings Bryan.
A brilliant speaker, Bryan was sometimes called “the golden-tongued orator.” He had had a long and notable career as lawyer, lecturer, and statesman. Three times he was the Democratic presidential candidate. He served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. He was a pacifist in the years before World War I, and a vocal champion of woman suffrage. He was also a devout Christian with an unshakeable conviction that the Bible should be interpreted literally.
The prosecution sought to prove that the theory of evolution was in direct conflict with the tenets of Christianity. At home and at church, Scopes' students learned that God created the earth and all its creatures in six days. Yet Scopes told them that human beings had evolved from lower life-forms over uncountable millions of years. The teaching of this scientific theory sabotaged the students' Christian beliefs, in violation of their constitutional right to freedom of religion.
“All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis.”
William Jennings Bryan, 1923
The Defense's Case:
Marshaled by the ACLU, Scopes' defense lawyers set out to prove that there was no conflict between Christianity and the theory of evolution. The defense sought to show that millions of people found evolution compatible with their Christian beliefs. It was purely a matter of personal interpretation. Each individual was free to listen and to learn, to weigh and decide as he or she saw fit.
Heading the defense team was the renowned Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow, who had volunteered his services free of charge. Like Bryan, Darrow had had a long and illustrious career. He upheld the rights of labor organizers and expounded radical ideas on criminal psychology. Darrow was an avowed agnostic to whom Christian Fundamentalism was anathema. Like Bryan, he was a gifted speaker, passionately committed to his own idea of justice.
“I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure—that is all that agnosticism means.”
Clarence Darrow, Scopes trial, Dayton, Tennessee, July 13, 1925
The Trial:
As Rappelyea and Robinson had hoped, the trial made Dayton famous. Each day telegraph operators tapped out the latest developments for newspapers across the country. Radio station WGN, based in Chicago, broadcast the proceedings over the air waves; never before
had a trial been aired live for a radio audience.
People poured into Dayton. Despite the stifling July heat, spectators packed the courthouse and spilled onto the lawn. Photographers clambered onto chairs to snap pictures over the heads of the crowd. Vendors hawked ice cream, pop, and souvenirs. The theory of evolution suggested that humans had descended from the apes, so many of these mementos took the form of monkeys. There were stuffed toy monkeys, monkey rings, and umbrellas with grinning monkey-head handles. The trial in Dayton, Tennessee, came to be known as the Monkey Trial.
For the first several days of the trial, the lawyers argued over technical points of law. The crowd grew restless, and some people drifted away. Then, on July 21, Darrow stunned the courtroom by calling Bryan himself to the stand. The two men faced each other for the final confrontation that had been unfolding throughout the trial.
No longer were John Scopes and the Butler Act on trial. Darrow's razor-sharp questioning was a direct assault on Fundamentalism, on the belief system that Bryan held dear. Mercilessly, Darrow exposed the Bible's inconsistencies one after another. If God created only two people, Adam and Eve, whom did their son, Cain, marry? Bryan said he didn't know—he would let the agnostics look for her. Did Bryan believe that God made snakes crawl on their belly because a serpent tempted Eve? How did snakes move about before that time—on the tips of their tails? Did Bryan truly believe that God created the earth in six days? Well, Bryan admitted, perhaps the days at that time were not really twenty-four hours long.
After an hour and a half, Bryan was exhausted and beaten. He had been unable to counter Darrow's arguments, and his deeply held beliefs had become the object of public ridicule. Five days after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack.
After Bryan's testimony, both sides conceded that the trial had gone on long enough. The judge asked the jury to reach its verdict.
The Verdict and Its Aftermath:
The jury (twelve men, ten of them farmers) deliberated for nine minutes. To the satisfaction of both sides, it brought in a guilty verdict. Darrow had hoped Scopes would be found guilty so that
the case could be appealed, perhaps to the U.S. Supreme Court. It did reach the supreme court of Tennessee a year later, and Scopes' conviction was overturned on a legal technicality. The Butler Act remained on the books until 1967, unchallenged and unenforced.
John Scopes left Central High to pursue further studies in science. He shunned publicity, but he always clung to his belief in the power of ideas. In 1960, in a rare interview, a reporter asked him why the battle for academic freedom continued to rage. “Well,” Scopes replied, “people just don't change that quickly.”
-Deborah A. Kent

The People's Almanac Presents the Twentieth Century: History with the Boring Bits Left Out by David Wallechinsky 


Brandt Hardin 10 years ago
tennessee is dead-set on herding its citizens back to the dark ages. in the past two years, the governor and republican party have squashed gay rights statutes in the city of nashville, developed laws targeting peaceful protesters and made it illegal to post “potentially offensive images” to the internet. the “monkey law” now brings religion back into the classroom by opening debate for creationism. in addition, a new law puts the ten commandments back in public buildings around the state. there is a clear cut suppression of progressive thinking by the republican party and i addressed these issues “illegally” on my artist’s blog at with a portrait of the governor to address his party’s absurd agendas.

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