Monkeying Around in the 1920's

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Overview

The Scopes Monkey Trial was a case intentionally created by the ACLU to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act, a Tennessee law that made the act of teaching evolution in schools illegal (3). The importance of this case is not to be understated, as it paved the way for the teaching of modern science as we know it in public schools.
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Cartoon from the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The Teacher

After tireless searching for a candidate that would be the face of their case, the ACLU found their man: John Scopes. John Scopes was a football coach at a local high school that occasionally filled in as a substitute teacher. He graduated from the University of Kentucky with a major in law and a minor in geology (3). He lived an average, unassuming life in an otherwise average, unassuming town. But one day he found himself being persuaded to take part in the trial of the century. Business men saw it as an opportunity to draw money to the small town of Dayton, and Scopes finally gave in to the pressure surrounding him (3). Though he was accused of violating the Butler Act, he had only taught evolution because there was a section on it in the state mandated text book (2). Scopes stated, "I don't see how a teacher can teach biology without teaching evolution" (2). He was a vocal supporter of academic freedom and freedom of thought, but his participation in the trial was founded primarily on these beliefs, not his actual guilt.

The Trial

The significance of this trial lies in what it represents. The Modernists, who believed that evolution was not inconsistent with religion, had long struggled with the Fundamentalists, who believed that the Bible took priority over human knowledge (3). The trial represented (at least to the people of the time) the culmination of the conflict.

The prosecution consisted of attorney generals A.T. Stewart and Ben B. McKenzie, as well as federal prosecutor William Jennings Bryan Jr., son of William Jennings Bryan, a long time supporter of the Butler Act (1). The defense consisted of law school dean John Neal, notorious defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, free speech advocate Arthur Garfield Hays, and international divorce attorney Dudley Field Malone (1). The judge, Judge Raulston, was a heavily conservative christian who had attended a sermon by William Jennings Bryan the Sunday after the first day of trial. The trial was heavily anticipated, and the turnout was astounding. Nearly a thousand people, 300 of whom were standing, were in the courthouse to watch the first day of the trial. The trial was moved to the lawn outside of the courthouse from fear that the courthouse floor would collapse under the weight of the spectators.

The trial was heated, and Darrow even went as far suggesting that the judge was biased against the defense, though he later apologized. In a ground breaking move, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible, turning Bryan's argument on its head when he admitted that he didn't interpret all parts of the Bible literally, though he had previously claimed he did (1).

Outcome

Darrow requested that a guilty verdict be returned so that the case could be brought to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision, though only by a technicality rather than the constitutional grounds the ACLU was hoping for (1). The court stated that, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case" (1). The trial marked a major setback to the anti-evolution forces, and tensions between the Modernists and the Fundamentalists increased. 13 states considered some form of anti-evolution law by 1927, and the struggle over evolution in schools continued for several more decades, when the Butler Act was repealed in 1967 (3). In a tragically metaphorical coincidence, William Jennings Bryan died six days after the trial.