This July marks the eightieth anniversary of the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The case involved a challenge to a State law forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. But the trial was actually a contest between science and religion — "city cynicism" versus "rural piety" — showcasing two renowned celebrities of the day: William Jennings Bryan, the premiere spokesman for Christianity, and the irreligious attorney, Clarence Darrow.
The Scopes Trial has been described as both the trial of the century and a media circus. It was indeed a media circus but hardly the trial of the century. No great legal arguments were made and no legal precedents were set. And to this day, certain details are omitted from media versions of the trial. Their omission is deliberate and illustrates the power of media stereotypes; how media, news reports and entertainment sources, reinterpret historical events in order to influence public opinion.
Stanley Kramer’s 1960 film adaptation of the play Inherit the Wind is the version of events most people view as factual. But this is a fictionalized account only loosely based on the actual proceedings. In fact, the film includes invented characters to help dramatize the message Kramer wanted to bring home. To understand Stanley Kramer, we must remember that although he produced some fine films, many were simply "message" films driven by a "leftist liberal" agenda. Indeed, he was called "Hollywood’s Conscience."
Kramer is credited with producing the first Hollywood film to deal with racism: Home of the Brave (1949). This film concerns acts of bigotry against a black soldier. The Defiant Ones (1958) portrays the racial conflict between two escaped convicts, one black and one white. In his 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer addresses the problems of interracial romance.
Like his other message films, Kramer’s Inherit the Wind is melodramatic and contrived, even laughable in points. The characters are one-dimensional and their good and bad traits are highly exaggerated. As you view this 45-year-old film today you will find it embarrassingly corny. (Kramer should have heeded the advice of MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union.")
But a synopsis of the film will set the stage for our discussion. To avoid confusion, I will use actual names of participants rather than their Hollywood stage names.
The film opens in downtown Dayton, Tennessee, with Give Me That Old Time Religion being sung in the background to achieve a Southern fundamentalist effect. The local sheriff has just arrested high school biology teacher John Scopes for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in violation of state law. A violent mob of bigoted religious fanatics hurls rocks at the window of Scopes’ jail cell while shouting "Devil" at him. These narrow-minded yokels hold noisy prayer meetings and parades throughout the film.
When he arrives at the train station, William Jennings Bryan receives a warm-hearted reception. Bryan is portrayed as a loud-mouthed, close-minded, religious blowhard who believes that every word in the Bible is literally true. In contrast, Clarence Darrow’s arrival is greeted with boos and someone shouts "Devil" at the famous attorney. Darrow is depicted as the opposite of Bryan — a brilliant, courageous, self-sacrificing attorney willing to risk his own safety in order to restrain the forces of ignorance and intolerance.
The unfolding events are a pastiche of the comic antics of backwater local citizens as well as the ineptitude of the prosecution team contrasted with Clarence Darrow’s masterful courtroom defense that culminates in his dramatic cross-examination of Bryan, exposing him as an ignorant, pontificating, Bible-thumper. In the film, Darrow’s intense questioning pushes Bryan into a shouting frenzy resulting in a paroxysm. He collapses onto the courtroom floor and dies.
In the film’s closing scene, Clarence Darrow holds Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the palm of one hand and the Bible in the other as though weighing them. He smiles, claps the two books together, places them in his briefcase and leaves the courtroom as (I’m not making this up) The Battle Hymn of the Republic is sung in the background.
As we might expect, this film is still being used as an instructional tool in many public schools. Other versions of the event, written for young adults, although not as simplistic as the film, follow what has been called "the standard version of the Scopes trial."
Any understanding of the Scopes trial must begin with the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union. In the early 1900s, many elites were fascinated by the Russian implementation of a Communistic society. To lift workers from oppression, Marxism sought the elimination of private ownership of property so that the state could allocate economic benefits to workers, according to their needs. Marx viewed religion as an obstacle to Socialism because it promised paradise in an afterlife as a reward for hardship in this life. To Marx, this aspect of religion accommodated Capitalism’s exploitation of workers. Communism, on the other hand, offered rewards in the earthly life which workers would demand if the promises of religion were eliminated.
We must remember that at this early stage the Russian experiment with Communism seemed to be working — this was years before Stalin’s brutal purges. So groups such as the Communist Party of the USA, the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Friends of the Soviet Union were actively involved in implementing Socialism in the United States. It was in this environment that the American Civil Liberties Union was conceived. When it was formed in 1920, its board of directors contained many of the prominent members of these organizations and the ACLU shared an office with the Communist Party’s newspaper, New Masses.
The ACLU went out of its way to avoid being perceived as a political organization; even its name was carefully chosen to sound innocuous — after all, who could object to an organization that protected civil liberties? But its founder, Roger Baldwin, let the cat out of the bag with his statement: "Civil liberties, like democracy, are useful only as tools for social change." The newly formed ACLU needed a high profile case as a vehicle to establish its significance and it thought it had found one when Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. So it placed ads in major Tennessee newspapers seeking a volunteer to teach evolution with the promise of free legal protection.
Although the little town of Dayton was certainly provincial compared to large metropolitan centers, it was hardly the stagnant backwoods collection of hayseeds portrayed in the "standard version" of the Scopes trial. Its men had participated in World War One and, in the process, sipped French wine in Paris and German beer in Berlin. The women of Dayton had also served in the war effort in Europe as nurses and aides. A popular song of the time asked: "How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?" But these soldiers, although permanently altered by their years overseas, did return to their farms and picked up where they had left off.
In 1925, Dayton’s population contained quite a number of inhabitants transplanted from other parts of the nation including George Rappleyea, manager of a local mine, who had recently relocated from New York. It was Rappleyea who convinced the city fathers to accept the ACLU’s offer and find a teacher who would claim to have taught evolution in violation of state law. Rappleyea maintained that media coverage of the trial would boost the city’s economy. So John Scopes, math teacher and football coach, agreed to play the role of a biology teacher who violated state law.
William Jennings Bryan agreed to assist the city’s prosecution of Scopes and, because of his famous oratorical skills, Bryan would also present the closing argument to the jury. Upon learning of Bryan’s participation, Clarence Darrow offered to assist the ACLU’s defense team. The ACLU did not want Darrow’s services because it knew he would use the trial as a forum to attack religion and attempt to humiliate Bryan. As a fledgling organization trying to establish its reputation, the ACLU did not want to be perceived as anti-religious but rather as an impartial defender of the right of educators to present alternative views on the origin of life. Upon the urging of H.L. Mencken and others however, the ACLU reluctantly added Darrow to its defense team.
The most misunderstood and maligned player in this drama was William Jennings Bryan, a complex man who is simplistically portrayed in the "standard version." Bryan was also an attorney with several years experience as a trial lawyer and with his immense skills of persuasion could have become one of the most famous lawyers in the nation. Bryan, at age 36, became the youngest presidential candidate in American history. In fact, although he was never elected, the Democrats made Bryan their presidential candidate three times. President Woodrow Wilson selected Bryan as his Secretary of State but Bryan, because of his strong anti-war views, resigned the office because he felt Wilson’s policies might involve the United States in World War One
Contrary to the "standard version," Bryan was not a rigid religious fundamentalist who took every word in the Bible literally. In fact, he showed an early interest in Darwin’s theory of evolution because he felt it was compatible with the creation of the world by God. Bryan thoroughly studied all of Darwin’s ideas — not just On the Origin of the Species but also The Descent of Man (I have always wondered why Darwin didn’t call his work, The Ascent of Man?) Bryan’s research effectively ended his support of Darwin’s ideas, especially for what has been labeled "Social Darwinism." Consequently, Bryan strongly objected to the textbook used to teach evolution in 1925; a textbook that the "standard version" does not mention.
Today, that textbook, A Civic Biology by George William Hunter, would be considered racist and callous. Following Darwin’s example, Hunter classified humans into racial groupings and ranked races according to how far each has advanced up the evolutionary scale. Hunter’s book contains this language: There are "five races or varieties of man…the Ethiopian or Negro type…the Malay or brown race…the American Indian…the Mongolian or yellow race…and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America."
Hunter, also like Darwin, proposes what has been called a "soft" form of eugenics. Again from Hunter’s textbook: "If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection." The book maintains that undesirable behaviors — criminality, alcoholism, prostitution, low intelligence, etc. — are inherited and passed on to family members. After providing examples, the textbook claims: "Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country … just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society." Hunter’s textbook maintains that these people should be separated from others and not allowed to proliferate or intermarry.
Darwin’s radical theories had a strong following throughout Europe. In Germany, Ernst Haeckel even used fraudulent data to further Darwin’s agenda. Darwinian ideas strongly influenced Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Darwin’s grouping of races into a hierarchy was a central impetus for Hitler’s concept of creating a "master race." When Hitler came to power, he appointed psychiatrist Ernst Rudin to draft the Nazi Sterilization Law; the blueprint for the elimination of "unwanted ethnic groups." This law was an extension of the solutions posed in Hunter’s A Civic Biology; the textbook the ACLU went to court to defend.
In addition to omitting important facts, the "standard version" of the trial deliberately falsifies incidents. There were no angry mobs nor raving religious fanatics roaming the streets of Dayton or holding noisy aggressive rallies during the trial. The local populace never turned against John Scopes nor did it throw rocks at his jail window. Indeed, Scopes was never even arrested much less placed in jail. The most serious thing Scopes endured was a reprimand from the judge for returning late to court after a noon break when Scopes and three members of the prosecution team went for a swim together to get relief from the heat.
Dayton residents were as excited to have Clarence Darrow in their city as they were to have William Jennings Bryan. Both men received warm welcomes and both were feted at local banquets. Darrow would later write that the treatment he received from the people of Dayton was the warmest and friendliest he had ever experienced.
An incident early in the trial tells us a lot about the people of Dayton as well as the character of Bryan. After Bryan made an impassioned speech attacking the Hunter textbook and the harmful effects it could have on young students — a speech that received an enthusiastic ovation — the defense was allowed to respond. Dudley Moore, a former assistant to Bryan in the State department, calmly and methodically assailed Bryan’s opinions and then made an ardent plea for open-mindedness regarding educational instruction. Moore’s powerful comments received a more animated ovation than Bryan’s speech. When the afternoon session ended, Bryan sought out Moore and took him aside: "Dudley," he said, "that was the greatest speech I have ever heard."
The high point of the "standard version" is Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan regarding the veracity of biblical stories in the Old Testament — the creation of the earth in seven days, Jonah and the whale, Noah’s Ark, etc. Darrow is supposed to have humiliated Bryan, but if you read the transcript you get a different picture. Throughout the trial, Bryan was always a strong contender. He was upbeat and his sense of humor frequently punctuated his responses.
Bryan viewed these biblical stories as allegorical, but his answers were cautious, as one would expect from someone with legal training. He responded to one question, "I believe the stories in the Bible should be taken as written." That answer leaves the door open for individual interpretations. As to creation of the earth, Bryan maintained that seven days in biblical creation language may not be the same as contemporary calendar days. Bryan maintained this guarded approach with all his answers. However, on the subject of miracles he stood firm. When Darrow scoffed at biblical miracles, Bryan responded: "It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing beyond what man can perform."
As an attorney, Bryan knew this line of questioning had no relation to the issue at hand and he probably wondered why the judge allowed it. However, Bryan continued to spar with Darrow until his exasperation provoked him to state: "They (the defense) did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion." This prompted Darrow to angrily respond: "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion." This was what the ACLU had feared might happen. Under the scrutiny of worldwide radio and newspaper coverage, Clarence Darrow had called Christianity a "fool religion." Darrow’s attempt to refute Bryan’s assertion inadvertently supported it.
Later in the trial Darrow questioned some of Scopes students in an attempt to demonstrate that they were not adversely affected by the teaching of evolution: "Did it hurt you any? Do you still believe in church although you were told all life comes from a single cell?" Bryan knew Darrow would eventually try to make the point. Indeed, he had been eagerly waiting for Darrow to do so. Now Bryan pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase; the transcript of the Leopold and Loeb case of the previous year. In that case, Darrow claimed that the defendants were led to commit their crime because they were taught the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche at the University of Chicago. Bryan read Darrow’s arguments which contained this comment: "Your Honor, it is hardly fair to hang a nineteen-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university." This was one-upmanship for Bryan and a significant moment in the trial.
But Darrow had one more card to play. When the testimony ended, Darrow declined the opportunity to make a closing speech to the jury. Under Tennessee law, if the defense waived its right to give a closing speech, the prosecution is barred from making one. So Bryan was denied the opportunity to make the speech he had worked on for weeks. To no one’s surprise, the jury found Scopes guilty and the judge fined him $100, the minimum fine.
The ACLU knew it would lose the case and indeed wanted to lose it. Now it could appeal the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court, where it was confident it would lose again. That would open the door for an appeal to the United State Supreme Court, the ACLU’s goal from the beginning — but the Tennessee Supreme Court outsmarted the ACLU. A technicality in state law prevented a local judge from assessing a fine in excess of $50 and Scopes had been fined $100. So the state court overturned Scopes’ conviction thereby preventing an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
We should remember that scientists felt confident about the theory of evolution in 1925 because they believed the "missing link" connecting humans with apes had been found. But their famous missing links, Nebraska Man and Piltdown Man, were later proven to be hoaxes. The missing link has never been found. Now, eighty years after the Scopes trial, scientists are beginning to have serious doubts about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
No recounting of the trial would be complete without a mention of the sloppy journalism involved. Some journalists covering the event missed significant portions of the trial because of long lunches and other absences. Many returned home while the trial was still in process, filing reports from their desks. One journalist never even attended a single court session. His justification is telling: " I don’t have to know what’s going on; I know what my paper wants me to write." This journalistic philosophy continues to this day and only authorized versions of the Scopes Trial as well as other important events are allowed to be printed.