The Significance of the Scopes Trial

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:

“Although 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).

This 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.


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

The 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.”

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

The 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 expect.


Beginning 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: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Bryan 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.

Bryan 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):

With 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)

He 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 Genius.

Beginning 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.

The 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.

Across 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.

Yet 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.

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

The 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?

This 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.

Bryan had to be stopped. They stopped him.

The 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 Antichrist, 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.

Two 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.

Mencken 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.”


Both 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.

The 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:

Our 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.

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

When 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.

Here 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.

Because 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.


Bryan 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.

A 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.

In 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.

Fundamentalists 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. This alliance had gotten the eighteenth amendment passed. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the fundamentalists had begun their Long March into the hinterlands. Only in the 1976 Presidential election did they begin to re-surface. In 1980, they came out in force for Reagan. Two events mark this transformation, neither of which receives any attention by historians: the “Washington for Jesus” rally in the spring of 1980 and the “National Affairs Briefing Conference” in Dallas in September.


The Scopes trial was a media circus. The play and movie that made it famous three decades later, Inherit the Wind, was an effective piece of propaganda. The website of the law school of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, offers a good introduction to the story of this trial. But this version has a hard time competing with the textbook versions and the documentaries.

The victors write the textbooks. These textbooks are not assigned in Bryan College, located in Dayton, Tennessee — or if they are, they are not believed.

There is no Darrow College.

July 12, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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