The theory of evolution, as presented by Charles Darwin and others, was a controversial concept in many quarters, even into the 20th century.
Concerted anti-evolutionist efforts in Tennessee succeeded when in 1925, the Tennessee House of Representatives was offered a bill by John W. Butler making teaching evolution a misdemeanor. The so-called Butler Act was passed six days later almost unanimously with no amendments.
When the ACLU received news of the bill’s passage, it immediately sent out a press release offering to challenge the Butler Act.
What became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial began as a publicity stunt for the town of Dayton, Tennessee.
A local businessman met with the school superintendent and a lawyer to discuss using the ACLU offer to get newspapers to write about the town. The group asked if high school science teacher John Scopes would admit to teaching evolution for the purposes of prosecution.
Scopes wasn’t clear on whether he had precisely taught the subject, but was sure he’d used materials that included evolution. Scopes taught physics and math, and while he said he accepted evolution, he didn’t teach biology.
It was announced to newspapers the next day that Scopes had been charged with violating the Butler Act, and the town wired the ACLU to procure its services. The Tennessee press roundly criticized the town, accusing it of staging a trial for publicity.
William Jennings Bryan
A preliminary hearing on May 9, 1925, officially held Scopes for trial by the grand jury, though released him and didn’t require him to post bond.
Three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryanvolunteered to present for the prosecution. The politician was already well-known as an anti-evolution activist, almost single-handedly creating the national controversy over the teaching of evolution and making his name inseparable from the issue.
Author H.G. Wells was approached early on to present the case for evolution, but he turned down the offer.
Clarence Darrow – a famous attorney who had recently acted for the defense in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial – found out about the Scopes trial through journalist H.L. Mencken, who suggested Darrow should defend Scopes.
Darrow declined since he was preparing to retire, but news of Bryan’s involvement caused Darrow – who was also a leading member of the ACLU – to change his mind.
Darrow and Bryan already had a history of butting heads over evolution and the concept of taking the Bible literally, sparring in the press and public debates.
Darrow’s goal in getting involved was to debunk fundamentalist Christianity and raise awareness of a narrow, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. It was the only time in his career he offered to give free legal aid.
Bryan and Darrow set the tone by immediately attacking each other in the press. The ACLU attempted to remove Darrow from the case, fearing they would lose control, but none of these efforts worked.
William Jennings Bryan Arrives
The grand jury met on May 9, 1925. In preparation, Scopes recruited and coached students to testify against him. Three of the seven students attending were called to testify, each showing a sketchy understanding of evolution. The case was pushed forward and a trial set for July 10.
Bryan arrived in Dayton three days before the trial, stepping off a train to the spectacle of half the town greeting him. He posed for photo opportunities and gave two public speeches, stating his intention to not only defend the anti-evolution law but to use the trial to debunk evolution entirely.
Darrow, meanwhile, arrived into Dayton the day before the trial to little fanfare.
Scopes Monkey Trial Begins
The trial day started with crowds pouring into the courthouse two hours before it was scheduled to begin, filling up the room and causing onlookers to spill into the hallways. There was applause when Bryan entered the court and further when he and Darrow shook hands.
The trial began – somewhat ironically – with a lengthy prayer. The first day saw the grand jury being reconvened and repeating testimony from Scopes’ students who had appeared in that trial and jury selection.
Outside the courthouse a circus-like atmosphere reigned, with barbecues, concessions and carnival games, though that died down as the trial was adjourned for the weekend, over which Bryan and Darrow sparred through the press and tensions mounted.
Clarence Darrow’s Speech
It was to a packed courthouse on Monday that arguments began by the defense working to establish the scientific validity of evolution, while the prosecution focused on the Butler Act as an education standard for Tennessee citizens, citing precedents.
Darrow responded by laying out the case in an aggressive way, part of a strategy related to the defense planning to waive their closing argument and preventing Bryan’s own carefully prepared closing argument.
The statement Darrow made is considered an example of his best passionate public speaking. Darrow’s chief argument was that the Butler Act promoted one particular religious view and was therefore illegal. He spoke for over two hours.
Clarence Darrow’s Plan
The trial itself began on Wednesday with opening statements. Witnesses followed, establishing that Scopes had taught evolution and zoologist Maynard M. Metcalf gave expert testimony about the science of evolution, a signal that Scopes himself would not take the stand during the trial.
Subsequent days saw prosecutors argue about the validity of using expert witnesses. This provided Bryan with the opportunity for an extended speech on the subject. Defense attorney Dudley Field Malone then countered with a speech of his own and received a thunderous standing ovation.
The next day, the judge ruled that any experts on the stands could be cross-examined. That night, Darrow quietly prepared to call Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible.
William Jennings Bryan on the Stand
Calling Bryan to the stand was a shock for the court. Darrow interrogated him on interpreting the Bible literally, which undercut his earlier sweeping religious speeches. It also cornered him into admitting that he didn’t know much about science since the Bible didn’t provide any answers.
When the judge ruled Bryan’s testimony be taken from the record, Darrow suggested that to save time his client should be found guilty. This prevented Bryan from making a closing statement.
The jury took nine minutes to pronounce Scopes guilty. He was fined $100.
After the Scopes Trial
After the trial, Bryan immediately began to prepare his unused closing statement as a speech for his rallies. He never got to use that speech, since he died in his sleep in Dayton the following Sunday.
Scopes was offered a new teaching contract but chose to leave Dayton and study geology at the University of Chicago graduate school. He eventually became a petroleum engineer.
Supporters of both sides claimed victory following the trial, but the Butler Act was upheld, and the anti-evolution movement continued.
The controversy over the teaching of science and evolution has continued into the 21st century. In 2005, the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District battled over the constitutionality of teaching “intelligent design” in Pennsylvania schools alongside evolution.
The court ruled against intelligent design – now largely discredited as a pseudoscience – as a legitimate topic suitable for education.
- Scopes Trial, History, 10 June 2019, by History.com editors https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial?cmpid=email-hist-inside-history-onequestion-2021-0709-07092021&om_rid=