The Significance of the Scopes Trial

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On July 10, 1925, the culturally most important trial in American
history began: Tennessee vs. John Scopes. It was the first
trial to be covered on the radio. Hundreds of reporters showed up
in Dayton, Tennessee, from all over the world. The monkey trial
became a media circus.

The trial ended on July 24. William Jennings Bryan died in Dayton
on July 26. With this, the American fundamentalist movement went
into political hibernation for half a century, coming out of its
sleep fifty-one years later in the Ford-Carter Presidential race.

There is a great deal of confusion about the details of the trial,
but not its fundamental point: the legitimacy of teaching Darwinism
in tax-funded schools, kindergarten through high school. On this
point, all sides agree: the trial was a showdown between Darwinism
and fundamentalism.

What is not recognized is the far greater importance of the far
more important underlying agreement, an agreement that had steadily
increased for half a century by 1925 and still prevails: the legitimacy
of tax-supported education.

What I write here is a summary of a lengthy, heavily footnoted chapter
in my 1996 book, Crossed
Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church
That book is on-line for free. So is
the chapter: “Darwinism, Democracy,
and the Public Schools


The origins of the trial are generally unknown. It was begun as
a public relations stunt by a group of Dayton businessmen. They
had heard of the challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) regarding a test case for the Tennessee law against teaching
evolution in the public schools. They thought that if they could
get someone in Dayton to confess to having taught evolution in the
local high school, the town would get a lot of free publicity. We
can hardly fault their assessment of the potential for free publicity
— monetarily free, that is.

Scopes agreed to be the official victim. The irony is this: he was
not sure that he had actually taught from the sections of the biology
textbook that taught Darwinism. Had he been put on the witness stand
and asked by the defense if he had taught evolution, he would have
had to say he did not recall. He was never put on the stand.

Also forgotten is the content of the textbook in question. The Wikipedia
encyclopedia entry has refreshed our memories. The textbook, like
most evolution textbooks of the era, was committed to eugenics and
a theory of racial superiority. The textbook declared:

anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest
type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between
the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an
immense mental gap between monkey and man. At the present time
there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each
very different from the others in instincts, social customs, and,
to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type,
originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands
of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race,
including the natives of China, Japan and the Eskimos; and finally,
the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized
white inhabitants of Europe and America.” (pp. 195—196).

. . if such people were lower animals, we would probably kill
them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow
this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums
or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage
and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate
race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe
and are now meeting with success in this country.” (pp. 263—265).

was the wisdom of high school biology textbooks, circa 1925. The
ACLU came to its defense. This information had to be brought to
the children of Tennessee, the ACLU decided.


city’s merchants did very well from the influx of media people who
could not resist seeing William Jennings Bryan take on Clarence

ACLU’s strategy was to lose the case, appeal it, get it confirmed
at the appellate court level, and appeal it to the U.S. Supreme
Court, which they believed would overturn it. And why not? This
was the Court that, two years later, determined that the state of
Virginia had the right to sterilize a mentally retarded woman, without
her knowledge or consent that this was the operation being performed
on her. While she had a daughter of normal intelligence, this had
no bearing on the case in the joint opinion of eight of the nine
members of the Court. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.,
who wrote the Court’s opinion: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

offered to pay Scopes’ fine. Both sides wanted conviction. Darrow
threw the case. He told the jury it had to convict, which it promptly

ACLU hit an iceberg. The Dayton decision was overturned by the appellate
court on a legal technicality. The case could not reach the Supreme
Court’s docket. Sometimes judges are more clever than ACLU attorneys


with the publication of his book, In His Image in 1921, Bryan
began calling for state laws against the teaching of Darwinism in
tax-funded schools. What is not widely understood was his motivation.
It was ethical, not academic. Bryan understood what Darwin had written
and what his cousin Francis Galton had written. Galton developed
the “science” of eugenics. Darwin in The
Descent of Man
(1871) referred to Galton’s book favorably.
Also, Bryan could read the full title of Darwin’s original book:
the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation
of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

was a populist. He was a radical. In terms of his political opinions,
he was the most radical major party candidate for President in American
history, i.e., further out on the fringes of political opinion compared
with the views of his rivals. Clarence Darrow had no advantage with
respect to championing far-left political causes.

had read what Darwin had written, and he was appalled. He recognized
that a ruthless hostility to charity was the dark side of Darwinism.
Had Darwin’s theory been irrelevant, he said, it would have been
harmless. Bryan wrote: “This hypothesis, however, does incalculable
harm. It teaches that Christianity impairs the race physically.
That was the first implication at which I revolted. It led me to
review the doctrine and reject it entirely.” In Chapter 4, Bryan went on
the attack. He cited the notorious passage in Darwin’s Descent
of Man (1871):

savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those
that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized
men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of
elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and
the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their
utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.
There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands,
who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to
small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate
their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic
animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race
of man.” (Modern Library edition, p. 501)

could have continued to quote from the passage until the end of
the paragraph: “It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care
wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race;
but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant
as to allow his worst animals to breed” (p. 502). It is significant
that Darwin at this point footnoted Galton’s 1865 Macmillan’s
magazine article and his book, Hereditary

that year, Bryan began to campaign in favor of state laws against
teaching evolution in tax-funded schools. He did not target universities.
He knew better. That battle had been lost decades before. He targeted
high schools. A dozen states had introduced such bills. Tennessee
passed one.

Establishment recognized the threat. It saw that its monopoly over
the curriculum of the public schools was its single most important
political lever. So did Bryan. Bryan was targeting the brain of
the Beast. He had to be stopped.

America, newspapers and magazines of the intellectual classes began
the attack. I survey this in my chapter, citing from them liberally
— one of the few things liberal that I do. The invective was remarkable.
They hated Bryan, and they hated his fundamentalist constituency
even more.

the Democrats had nominated his brother for Vice President less
than a year earlier. His brother had developed the first political
mailing list in history, and the Democrats wanted access to it.

wrote in a 1922 New York Times article (requested by the
Times, so as to begin the attack in response):

Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the
ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public
taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies
of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the
Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit
the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

surely was a legitimate question, one which has yet to be answered
in terms of a theory of strict academic neutrality. But Paxton Hibben,
in his 1929 biography of Bryan (Introduction by Charles A. Beard),
dismissed this argument as “a specious sort of logic. . . . [Tax-funded]
schools, he reasoned, were the indirect creations of the mass of
citizens. If this were true, those same citizens could control what
was taught in them.” If this were true: the subjunctive mood
announced Paxton’s rejection of Bryan’s premise.

had to be stopped. They stopped him.

most famous reporter at the trial was H. L. Mencken. That Mencken
was drawn to Dayton like a moth to a flame is not surprising. He
hated fundamentalism. He also loved a good show, which the trial
proved to be. But there was something else. He was a dedicated follower
of Nietzsche. In 1920, Mencken’s translation of Nietzsche’s 1895
book, The
, was published. Bryan had specifically targeted
Nietzsche in In
His Image
. “Darwinism leads to a denial of God. Nietzsche
carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion.” Mencken was determined
to get Bryan if he could.

months before the trial, Mencken approached Darrow to suggest that
Darrow take the case. In a 2004 article posted on the University of Missouri (Kansas City)
website, Douglas Linder describes this little-known background.

shaped, as well as reported, the Scopes trial. On May 14, 1925,
he met Darrow in Richmond, and — according to one trial historian
— urged him to offer his services to the defense. Hours after
discussing the case with Mencken, Darrow telegraphed Scopes’s
local attorney, John Randolph Neal, expressing his willingness
to “help the defense of Professor Scopes in any way you may suggest
or direct.” After Darrow joined the defense team, Mencken continued
to offer advice. He told defense lawyers, for example, “Nobody
gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher” and urged them instead
to “make a fool out of Bryan.”


sides accepted the legitimacy of the principle of tax-funded education.
Both sides were determined to exercise power over the curriculum.
But there was a fundamental difference in strategies. Bryan wanted
a level playing field. The evolutionists wanted a monopoly. Bryan’s
defeat did not get the laws changed in the three states that had
passed anti-evolution laws. It did get the issue sealed in a tomb
for the rest of the country.

evolutionists made it clear during the war on Bryan that democracy
did not involve the transfer of authority over public school curriculums
to political representatives of the people.

The New York Times (Feb. 2, 1922) ran an editorial that did
not shy away from the implications for democracy posed by an anti-evolution
bill before the Kentucky legislature. The Times repudiated democracy.
It invoked the ever-popular flat-earth analogy. “Kentucky Rivals
Illinois” began with an attack on someone in Illinois named Wilbur
G. Voliva, who did believe in the flat earth. Next, it switched
to Kentucky. “Stern reason totters on her seat when asked to realize
that in this day and country people with powers to decide educational
questions should hold and enunciate opinions such as these.” To
banish the teaching of evolution is the equivalent of banishing
the teaching of the multiplication table.

Three days later, the Times followed with another editorial,
appropriately titled, “Democracy and Evolution.” It began: “It has
been recently argued by a distinguished educational authority that
the successes of education in the United States are due, in part
at least, ‘to its being kept in close and constant touch with the
people themselves.’ What is happening in Kentucky does not give
support to this view.” The Progressives’ rhetoric of democracy was
nowhere to be found in the Times’ articles on Bryan and creationism,
for the editors suspected that Bryan had the votes. For the Progressives,
democracy was a tool of social change, not an unbreakable principle
of civil government; a slogan, not a moral imperative. Though often
cloaked in religious terms, democracy was merely a means to an end.
What was this end? Control over other people’s money and, if possible,
the minds of their children.

In the Sunday supplement for February 5, John M. Clarke was given
an opportunity to comment on the Kentucky case. He was the Director
of the State Museum at Albany. His rhetoric returned to the important
theme of the weakness of democracy in the face of ignorant voters.
I cite the piece at length because readers are unlikely to have
a copy of this article readily at hand, and when it comes to rhetoric,
summaries rarely do justice to the power of words. It began:

sovereign sister Kentucky, where fourteen and one half men in
every hundred can neither read nor write, is talking about adding
to the mirth of the nation in these all too joyless days by initiating
legislation to put a end to that “old bad devil” evolution. Luther
threw an ink bottle at one of his kind; the Kentucky legislators
are making ready to throw a statute which will drive this serpent
of the poisoned sting once and for all beyond the confines of
the State, and not a school wherein this mischiefmaker is harbored
shall have 1 cent of public moneys.

issue was democratic control over tax-funded education. Mr. Clark
was against any such notion.

the majority of the voters, of which fourteen and a half out of
each hundred can neither read nor write, have settled this matter,
if they are disposed to do the right thing they will not stop
at evolution. There is a fiction going about through the schools
that the earth is round and revolves around the sun, and if Frankfort
[Kentucky] is to be and remain the palladium of reason and righteousness,
this hideous heresay [heresy] must also be wiped out.

it was again: the flat earth. It has been a favorite rhetorical
device used against biblical creationists for a long time. The claim
that pre-Columbus medieval scholars regarded the earth as flat,
it turns out, is entirely mythical — a myth fostered in modern
times. Jeffrey Burton Russell, the distinguished medieval historian,
has disposed of this beloved myth. The story was first promoted
by American novelist Washington Irving. The modernists who have
invoked this myth have not done their homework.

Bryan was a great believer in tax-funded education, he entered the
fray as just one more politician trying to get his ideas fostered
in the schools at the expense of other voters. He professed educational
neutrality. His opponents professed science. He lost the case in
the courtroom of public opinion.


won the case and lost the war. The international media buried him,
as they had buried no other figure in his day. His death a few days
later in Dayton sealed the burial.

year later, liberals captured both the Northern Presbyterian Church
and the Northern Baptists. Bryan had a leader in the Northern Presbyterian
Church, running for moderator and barely losing in 1923. The tide
turned in 1926. In the mainline denominations, the conservatives
began to lose influence.

a famous 1960 article in Church History, “The American Religious
Depression, 1925—1935,” Robert Handy dated the beginning of
the decline in church membership from the Scopes trial. Handy taught
at liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1980,
Joel Carpenter wrote a very different article in the same journal:
“Fundamentalist Institutions and the Rise of Evangelical Protestantism.”
He pointed out that Handy had confined his study to the mainline
denominations. In 1926, he said, an increase in membership and church
growth began in the independent fundamentalist and charismatic churches.
The fundamentalists began to withdraw from the mainline churches.
What Handy saw as decline, Carpenter saw as growth. Both phenomena
began in response to the Scopes trial.

began to withdraw from national politics and mainstream culture.
The roaring twenties were not favorable times for fundamentalists.
Their alliance with the Progressives began to break down.

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