The Scopes Trial, Part II

The initial attention attracted by the new Tennessee statute expanded into media frenzy, when six weeks after the statute became law, John Scopes was indicted for violating it. From its bizarre beginnings to its inconclusive ends, the Scopes trial was never a normal criminal prosecution.

Soon after Tennessee enacted the anti-evolution statute, the ACLU, from New York, offered to defend any Tennessee school teacher willing to challenge this law’s constitutionality in court. Dayton, a small town in East Tennessee, was in an economic crisis because its main industries had closed recently. Its civic leaders invited a local science teacher named John Scopes to accept the ACLU challenge as a means to publicize their town. Scopes agreed to the scheme even though he was not a biology teacher, and he had never violated the statute.

Scopes’ indictment made front page news around the world. He was never arrested. Indeed, he was never even threatened with jail. He was assured his job back the following year, because he was invited to challenge the law by the President of the school board himself. He actually spent most of the time from the indictment to the actual trial making media appearances and traveling.

Both sides in the larger controversy saw the pending trial as an opportunity to make their case to the general public. Both Bryan and the ACLU lawyers recognized this as an opportunity to make their case. It became a show trial and in the actual trial John Scopes actually disappeared. He never testified or major appearance.

On the defense side, was America’s most famous trial lawyer, noted religious skeptic, who was known for talking and writing about the dangers of religion, Clarence Darrow. He volunteered his services to lead a team of crack ACLU lawyers to defend Scopes. It was the only time in Clarence Darrow’s entire career that he volunteered his legal services. His goal was to debunk religious law-making and to promote individual liberty.

On the other side, Jennings Bryan, who was a lawyer but hadn’t practiced law in over 30 years, volunteered too. He volunteered to make the case against the teaching of evolution. He knew that the law, and not John Scopes, was on trial.

The media promoted this heavyweight bout as “The Trial of the Century”. It was just a simple misdemeanor trial with a potential fine of 500$!! However, Scopes wasn’t really on trial, the teaching of evolution and academic freedom was on trial. It was the first broadcasted trial in American history. It was covered by over 200 reporters. It was said at the end that more words had been telegraphed from the United States to England about this trial than any event that had previously occurred in American history.

The trial itself was anticlimactic, as each side made their very familiar arguments. These had been circling around for five years. Neither side disputed that Scopes had violated the law. When the judge refused to strike the statute as unconstitutional, Clarence Darrow asked the jury to convict Scopes so that they could appeal the judges of a higher court. If Scopes wasn’t convicted there couldn’t be an appeal and they couldn’t challenge the law.

They convicted Scopes and he was fined the minimum amount of 100$, which was paid on his behalf by one of the reporters. The trial’s most memorable event occurred near its end, when Clarence Darrow invited William Jennings Bryan to take the stand as a witness in defense of the anti-evolution statute. Bryan agreed to do so. Darrow asked questions about biblical literalism, such as: Was Jonas inside the whale for three days? Was Eve made with Adam’s rib? These questions made Bryan and the biblical account look foolish.

Following the trial, Scopes accepted a scholarship to study Geology at the University of Chicago, and became a petroleum engineer in Venezuela, and later managed an oil refinery. Bryan died in Dayton, less than a week after the trial, maybe because of the stress of the trial. His crusade, however, continued. Scopes’ conviction went on to appeal into Tennessee’s Supreme Court and it was overturned on a technicality.

The anti-evolution statute was declared constitutional, which foreclose any further appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Other States imposed similar laws. Indeed, if you look at the textbooks of the time, the theory of evolution is virtually non-existent. This is really an interesting case of willful ignorance, which repeated itself later in our history.

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