State v. John Scopes

The Monkey Trial

The Scopes Trial, known as the “Monkey Trial,” remains one of the most pivotal moments in the history of American education and jurisprudence, embodying the clash between modern science and traditional religious beliefs. At the heart of this confrontation was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, a scientific concept that, while widely accepted in scientific circles, continued to stir controversy well into the 20th century.

In March 1925, Tennessee legislators, opposing this scientific consensus, passed the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution statewide. This law quickly sparked a national outcry, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to step in with a pledge to defend anyone charged under this Act.

John Thomas Scopes

John Thomas Scopes

John Scopes, a young, daring high school science teacher from Dayton, Tennessee, boldly became the trial’s defendant. Authorities arrested Scopes on May 7, 1925, for teaching evolution, setting the stage for a historic legal battle.

Determined to overturn the Butler Act, Clarence Darrow took up Scopes’ defense pro bono. An acclaimed attorney, Darrow was known for his formidable courtroom presence. Alongside ACLU General Counsel Arthur Garfield Hays, their mission was to show that the law was unconstitutional by using a religious text as a main guide in public schools. They also wanted to question the rigid way some Christian teachings were interpreted.

On the opposite side, William Jennings Bryan, a celebrated fundamentalist Christian and political heavyweight, led the prosecution. His goal was straightforward: to demonstrate Scopes’s guilt under state law.

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial

The Scopes Trial quickly escalated into a national spectacle. Darrow and Bryan, having previously locked horns in public debates, were now head-to-head in a trial that packed the courtroom with spectators and journalists from across the globe. It also became the first trial in American history to be broadcast live on the radio.

As the trial’s gravity pulled national attention, Dayton itself transformed into a buzzing hub, with street vendors and attractions that capitalized on the trial’s theme, including exhibits with chimpanzees and a so-called “missing link.”

Anti-Evolution League stand during the Scopes Trial

Anti-Evolution League stand during the Scopes Trial

Despite the conservative Christian judge’s daily prayers and dismissal of scientific testimony, Darrow executed a brilliant strategy. He called Bryan to testify on biblical matters, leading to a dramatic courtroom showdown that saw Bryan ridiculed over his literal interpretation of the Bible.

Darrow’s masterstroke came during his closing arguments, where he urged a guilty verdict to enable an appeal. This maneuver prevented Bryan from delivering his own closing statement. The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict, accompanied by a nominal $100 fine.

William Jennings Bryan (seated, left) is being questioned by Clarence Darrow.

On the seventh day of the trial, proceedings were moved outdoors because of excessive heat. William Jennings Bryan (seated, left) is being questioned by Clarence Darrow.

Although Bryan secured a legal victory, the trial dealt a devastating blow to his reputation, and he passed away just five days later.

The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the verdict on a technicality, rather than the constitutional grounds Darrow had anticipated. The case’s legal journey concluded there, but its impact was far-reaching. The Butler Act fell into disuse, and within two years, similar anti-evolution laws were defeated across 22 states.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” —Aldous Huxley

“If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing.” —Margaret Thatcher

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” —Isaac Newton

“Each person must live their life as a model for others.” —Rosa Parks


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