Scopes “Monkey” Trial

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Scopes “Monkey” Trial

Twenty-four-year-old John T. Scopes (1900–1970) was a high school football coach and science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee , in the 1920s. In January 1925 the state passed the Butler Act, a law forbidding the teaching in public schools of any theories other than the story of creation as told in Genesis, a chapter in the Holy Bible.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) promised to defend any teacher who would test the constitutionality of the new law. Scopes discussed the possibility of his teaching Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theory of evolution (a scientific theory of the origin of species and plants) to his class with the school board and the superintendent of schools. With their consent Scopes went ahead with his plan and was arrested.

Trial preparations

The Butler Act was written because many fundamentalist Christians (those who take the text of the Bible literally, without room for individual interpretation) feared that teaching evolution would undermine the authority and validity of the Bible. Between 1921 and 1929 thirty-seven similar bills were introduced in twenty states.

Within days of the report that Scopes had been arrested, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) announced he would help District Attorney A. T. Stewart prosecute the case. Bryan was a three-time

Democratic presidential candidate from Nebraska (he lost all three times) as well as a vocal Christian fundamentalist.

Scopes would be represented by Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), the most famous trial lawyer in Dayton County. Darrow was an agnostic (someone who neither believes in nor denies the existence of God) who became interested in the case only after learning Bryan would be the prosecutor. At that point Darrow volunteered his services free of charge. Darrow would be aided by Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hayes, a divorce lawyer and famous civil liberties (freedom from arbitrary government interference, such as freedom of speech) lawyer, respectively.

A trial or a circus?

Because of the nature of the case and the fame of the lawyers involved, Dayton became the center of attention across the world. Reporters from all the major newspapers flocked to the small town, and readers followed the story with obsessive interest. The courthouse was wired for telegraph, and radio equipment was installed. It was the first trial broadcast in American history.

The usually quiet town went crazy. Locals rented out rooms of their homes when hotels and boardinghouses filled to capacity. Food and drink stands were built, and the streets looked like a carnival. Chimpanzees were brought in to perform on side streets. Some jokesters claimed they would testify for the prosecution, and the trial became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

The trial begins

The trial opened with a prayer on Friday, July 10, 1925. After jury selection the state presented its case: Three students testified that Scopes had taught evolution in their biology class.

Darrow had no plans to put Scopes on trial. He and the ACLU were more interested in proving that the Butler Act violated the civil rights of the state's teachers. The defense's plan was to show that evolution was not contrary to the Bible, nor was it nonreligious. In this effort the lawyers put together a panel of expert scientists who were both Christian and believers in evolution.

The prosecution objected to the use of scientists because any interpretation of evolution or the Bible would be opinion, not fact, and thus not admissible as evidence. The judge agreed and refused to allow the panel to testify. He advised the jury to remember that the only relevant question was whether Scopes had actually taught evolution. At that point the defense's case was destroyed.

Bryan testifies

The trial could have ended there if Bryan had not allowed Darrow to put him on the stand. He called Bryan to testify as an “expert” on the Bible, a title Bryan was honored to accept. It would be the turning point in the trial.

Darrow relentlessly interrogated Bryan on his beliefs. In the one-and-a-half hour he was on the stand, Bryan was made to look a fool. In the end Bryan admitted he did not truly believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. His admission shocked and dismayed his followers. Bryan's experience on the stand took a physical toll on his health. He was dead within five days, never having had the chance to leave Dayton.

No closing summaries were ever presented because the defense did not make one so the prosecution was not allowed one. Scopes was found guilty and fined a measly one hundred dollars. His lawyers appealed the verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the teacher was cleared on a technicality in 1927. The lower court had gone beyond its scope of authority by fining Scopes.

The Butler Act was upheld as within the boundaries of the Constitution , and it remained law until it was repealed in 1967.