As America emerged from World War I, a collective nostalgia swept the country for the relative simplicity and "normalcy" of prewar society . In rural areas, particularly in the South and Midwest, Americans turned to their faith for comfort and stability, and fundamentalist religion soared in popularity. Fundamentalists, who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, locked into Darwin and the theory of evolution as "the most present threat to the truth they were sure they alone possessed" (1). With evolution as the enemy, they set out to eradicate it from their society, beginning with the education system.
By 1925, states across the South had passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi had such laws, and narrow margins determined those in North Carolina and Kentucky. In Tennessee the Butler Law passed in early 1925, for although the governor was not a fundamentalist, many of his constituents were. As he said, "Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute" (2). No one that is, but the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, which was becoming increasingly more wary of what they saw as an infringement on their constitutional rights. With an eye on Tennessee, the ACLU set out to initiate a court case to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law.
Within days of the ACLU's decision to test the Butler Law, George W. Rappelyea spotted a press release in a Tennessee newspaper offering legal support to any teacher who would challenge the law. For Rappelyea, an ardent evolutionist and a Dayton booster, there was no better way to bring down the detested law and promote the small Tennessee mining town. On May 5, Rappelyea and other local leaders met at F.E. Robinson's drug store and hammered out the details of their plan. All they needed was a teacher to test the law, and they found him in John T. Scopes, a 24-year old science teacher and football coach. When questioned about his teaching of evolution as a part of teaching biology, Scopes replied, "So has every other teacher. Evolution is explained in Hunter's 'Civic Biology,' and that's our textbook" (3).
Scopes was hesitant, at first, to join the case, but Rappelyea was determined. The trial was to be a grand affair and bring fame and fortune to the small town. He began his scheme saying, "Let's take this thing to court and test the legality of it. I will swear out warrant and have you arrested ... That will make a big sensation. Why not bring a lot of doctors and preachers here? Let's get H.G. Wells and a lot of big fellows." With Scopes' agreement, Rappelyea wired the ACLU, and "the stage was set ... the play could open at once" (4).
The Scopes trial met all of Rappelyea's expectations and more. During the twelve hot July days in court, Dayton swarmed with politicians and lawyers, preachers and university scholars, reporters and even circus performers. The streets of Dayton took on the appearance of a small-town fair, with people selling food, souvenirs and religious books. On the side of the courthouse ran a banner blaring "Read Your Bible Daily!" The reporters came from as far away as Hong Kong, and collectively they penned more than two million words during the trial. Chief among the media was H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, known for his caustic wit and cynical observations.
Into this media circus meets religious revival rolled two of the greatest legal minds of the time, facing off to battle each other. William Jennings Bryan called the trial a "contest between evolution and Christianity ... a duel to the death" (5). Known as The Great Commoner to the people, Bryan was a three-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson. After a few years of retirement, he joined the Chautauqua circuit to rail against Darwin in tent revivals across the country.
Across the courtroom at the defendant's table was Clarence Darrow, with a sharp criminal lawyer's mind and an infamous reputation. To Bryan, he was "the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States." Darrow himself joined the defense table because "for years," he said, "I've wanted to put Bryan in his pace as a bigot" (6).
From the moment of Bryan's arrival in Dayton, the weight of public sentiment was in his favor. The records of the trial indicate that the townspeople came out for the trial in record numbers, packing the small country courthouse. Cries of "Amen" peppered the trial proceedings until the judge had to ask the observers to lower the noise level. Bryan planned to end the trial with a speech consummating his lifetime of preaching, one he had been preparing for seven weeks. Darrow, however, had other plans. Since the intention was to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law, Darrow wanted the jury to find Scopes guilty, so he could then appeal the decision in a higher court. He did not, however, plan to call Scopes to the stand, for if he were to do so, it might surface that Scopes had, in fact, not even been in school on the day mentioned in the indictment. He was meticulous in his effort to keep the trial free of technicalities. Just one could get the case thrown out with the law itself yet untested. Darrow also planned to call expert witnesses to give testimony about evolution. But when the judge ordered that Darrow could not call the scholars as witnesses, he shifted his plans.
After the judge moved the trial outside because of the 100-plus degree heat inside and
the instability of the courtroom floor under the weight of so many spectators, Darrow, in a fantastic gesture, called William Jennings Bryan to the stand. The interchange which follows targets the essence of Darrow's
argument and signals the turning point in the trial, which brought public sentiment decisively
over to Darrow's side:
"You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"
"Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."
"Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"
"I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there ..."
Darrow continued to question Bryan on the actuality of Jonah and the whale, Joshua's making the sun stand still and the Tower of Babel, as Bryan began to have more difficulty answering.
Q: "Do you think the earth was made in six days?"
A: "Not six days of 24 hours ... My impression is they were periods ..."
Q: "Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a very long time?"
A: "They might have been."
Q: "The creation might have been going on for a very long time?"
A: "It might have continued for millions of years ..."
Darrow had set his trap and Bryan walked right in. Darrow asked for and was granted an immediate direct verdict, thereby blocking Bryan from giving his speech. Within eight minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty and the judge ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed. In his last words to the court, Scopes, the man who was reluctant from the start, said, "Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future ... to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my idea of academic freedom" (7).
Just five days after the trial ended, Bryan lay down for a Sunday afternoon nap and never woke up. The diabetes with which he had contended for years had finally taken his life.
The trial itself also passed on when more than a year later, on January 14, 1927, the State Supreme Court in Nashville handed down a decision which reversed the earlier one. However, the court's decision stemmed from the very point Darrow sought to avoid - a technicality. By Tennessee state law, the jury, not the judge, must set the fine if it is above $50. The Butler Law, then, stood untested.
The Scopes trial came at a crossroads in history - as people were choosing to cling to the past or jump into the future. The trial itself was a series of conflicts, the obvious one being evolution vs. religion. But as John Crowe Ransom notes, there were a series of tensions throughout the trial, including questions of collective vs. individual rights and academic vs. parental concerns, which have persisted in American culture since the birth of the nation (8). At issue in both of these conflicts was who had control of the society. Who controlled the schools - the masses or the teachers? Who determined the law - the people or the leaders of the town? The resolution was even more unsettling because there was none. Scopes lost the case, but won the public's favor, and the Butler Law remained on the books in Tennessee.
For historical scholars, understanding the Scopes trial begins with a cultural framework. To Ransom, the trial was a product of "the modernist-fundamentalist conflict of the period." As R.M.Cornelius wrote in "Their Stage Drew All the World," "This controversy, whose stage was the battle over the nature of the bible, produced a whole cycle of dramatic confrontations, of which the Scopes trial was but one"(9).
The Scopes trial was not distinct, therefore, so much for its theme as it was for its was for its
presentation. Other school districts and other towns, struggling with this very issue, missed the
media circus. Dayton, however, came to center-stage, with the lawyers and business men
writing the script and the country enthralled with this true American drama.