The Scopes Monkey Trial

The Scopes Monkey Trial” is the popular name for the legal proceedings that took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, which pit The State of Tennessee against 24-year-old John Thomas Scopes, a high school science teacher. The trial captured the nation’s attention and was broadcast via the radio and coverage of it dominated newspapers throughout its duration. It was eventually made into a movie called "Inherit the Wind" starring Spencer Tracy in 1960.

The trial drew national interest for a variety of reasons:

  • First, it included famous lawyers on each side: William Jennings Bryan (right) worked for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.
  • Second, it featured rival worldviews: modernists who had no problem adopting Darwinian evolution into their belief system and the fundamentalists in the Christian religion who held that the Bible’s teaching - particularly creationism - always trumped scientific consensus.

The trial found Scopes guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it against the law to teach evolution in any public school. Scopes, however, was set free when the guilty verdict was overturned due to a technicality.

Why was Scopes Charged?

“Powerful social forces converged on Dayton that summer: populist majoritarianism and traditional evangelical faith versus scientific secularism and modern concepts of individual liberty. America would never be the same again…”

~ Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods

Scopes was accused of breaking Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Butler Act was name after Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, an anti-evolution lobbying group.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (or ACLU) announced it would give financial backing to anyone accused of breaking that law. Dayton locals, including the superintendent of schools, Walter White, believed a trial of such magnitude would give the town the publicity it was seeking.

Scopes agreed to be a participant in the case and so purposefully taught Darwinian evolution as a substitute, and was subsequently charged with breaking Tennessee law on May 25, 1925.

Scopes, eager for the case to move forward, encouraged students to testify against him. Paul Patterson, owner of The Baltimore Sun newspaper, paid $500 charge to bail Scopes out of jail.

Aiming to attract attention for Dayton, a prominent local businessman named George Rappleyea asked British novelist H.G. Wells to join the defense team, even though the writer had no legal training whatsoever. Wells declined citing his lack of training in the field.

The founder and president of Butler’s World Christian Fundamentals Association was William Bell Riley. It was through his associations that three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan became part of the prosecution’s team even though he had not tried a case in 36 years.

In response to this high-profile acquisition for the prosecution, agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow volunteered to argue for the defense along with the ACLU’s representation.

What Happened at the Trial?

H. L. Mencken covered the trial for The Baltimore Sun and is thought to be responsible for the label “Monkey Trial.”

The ACLU set out to attack the Butler Act from the platform of individual rights and academic freedom. Influenced by Darrow, the defense adopted the argument that evolution and creation were compatible beliefs.

Judge John T. Raulston refusal to let seven out of eight evolutionists to testify in court contributed to the tension he and Darrow had throughout the trial. As the trial continued, Darrow abandoned the ACLU’s initial strategy and attacked the literal interpretation of the Bible and Bryan personally. It was not until the appear that the initial strategy of arguing that the Butler favored a particular religion, which was said to be unconstitutional, was returned to.

When the judge declared that the defense’s experts on the Bible would not be presented to the jury, the defense asked to call Bryan himself as a “Bible expert.” On day seven of the trial, Bryan called Bryan to testify.

Darrow began by saying to Bryan, “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.”

Bryan responded, “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.”

When the prosecution objected to Darrow’s line of questioning, Bryan – the testifier – answered for Darrow saying, “to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible.” Darrow himself then responded to the question saying, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.”

The questions and answers seemed to do little to progressive that trial. For example, when Darrow asked where Cain got his wife, Bryan answered, “leave the agnostics to hunt for her.” Judge Raulston eventually adjourned the proceedings and concluded that the two-hour testimony was irrelevant to the case and would be expunged from the record. Bryan was not given the opportunity the chance to cross-examine the defense.

What was the Verdict of the Trial?

The jury then rendered their 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.”

Scopes himself never testified and later said that he did not remember if he actually ever taught evolution. The jury took nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty in July 21 and fined $100, which Judge Raulston imposed. This prompted the only speech made by Scopes in the proceedings:

“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 p. 313).”

The defense appealed the ruling, saying that the prohibition of “evolution” is too broad a term, which the court rejected saying that the defendant understood what it meant. They also argued that Scopes was exercising free speech, which the court also rejected saying that as its employee the state of Tennessee could restrict his speech. Other arguments were also turned down by the court.

However, the court did recognize that the jury should have set the fine, not Judge Raulston and so set aside the conviction. The justice then added the following 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.”

The Attorney General then announced that he would not seek a retrial.

Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967.