The Scopes Trial, 1925
The Scopes Trial, 1925
Darrow's Eloquent Appeal
By: Henry L. Menken
Date: July 14, 1925
Source: Mencken, H. L. "Darrow's Eloquent Appeal Wasted on Ears That Heed Only Bryan, Says Mencken." Baltimore Evening Sun, July 14, 1925.
About the Author: H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) was a prolific and a pre-eminent American journalist, editor, and social commentator. A life-long resident of Baltimore, Maryland, Mencken's commentaries combined an often biting wit with keen analyses regarding American life. Mencken paid particular attention to those public issues where morality or personal freedoms were engaged, such as the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in national politics in the 1920s and 1930s, the role of organized religion in American society, and the impact of Prohibition (1919–1933) on national life. Two lasting testaments to Mencken's lengthy career are his unparalleled coverage of every American presidential nomination convention between 1920 and 1948 and his insights regarding the conduct of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925.
In 1925, the United States was a nation of remarkably divergent views concerning the interrelated issues of public morality and religion. The Volstead Act of 1919, which prohibited the purchase, distribution, or consumption of alcohol in the United States, had been a victory for America's conservative, fundamentalist constituency, while the so called "Jazz Age" of increasing social freedoms was in full swing in the nation's cities. Important national issues, such as those of education and religion, were approached in distinctly regional ways across America.
The predominately rural state of Tennessee was a leading example of such regional diversity. Tennessee was a part of America for which H. L. Mencken coined the phrase the "Bible Belt," a swath of the American heartland where fundamentalist religion and conservative social values were usually powerful forces in politics, public education, and social life. The prosecution of John Scopes (1900–1970) for teaching the theories of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and evolution in his Dayton, Tennessee, classroom brought into focus, for the first time on a national stage, the relationship between education and religious teachings in public schools
By 1925, Mencken was an established journalist, with a following of his daily columns in the Baltimore Sun newspaper that went beyond the then usual local impact of an urban political newspaper reporter. His series of reports from the Scopes trial describe not only the daily battles between two American titans, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) and Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), but also Mencken's personal contempt for what he perceived as the largely negative impact of fundamentalist religious thought on the community at large.
The blunt and often acerbic language employed by Mencken in describing the Scopes trial is remarkable, considering the more conservative journalistic temper of those times. He refers to the local people variously as hillbillies and peasants and Dayton as a place where religion was hammered into the heads of an unsophisticated population. Mencken makes no attempt to provide balanced, even-handed reporting of this event; he clearly sides with the arguments advanced by Darrow for the teaching of evolution. However, the strength of the Mencken commentary is in his skill as an observer. As personally repellant the person and the arguments of William Jennings Bryan were to Mencken, he gave each significant play. The underpinnings of the fundamentalist Christian faith in Tennessee and elsewhere, both as a religious fact and as a part of the social fabric, were the subject of extensive comment in the Mencken trial articles.
Dayton, Tenn., July 14— The net effect of Clarence Darrow's great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan. That is, locally, upon the process against the infidel Scopes, upon the so-called minds of these fundamentalists of upland Tennessee. You have but a dim notion of it who have only read it. It was not designed for reading, but for hearing. The clanging of it was as important as the logic. It rose like a wind and ended like a flourish of bugles. The very judge on the bench, toward the end of it, began to look uneasy. But the morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.
During the whole time of its delivery the old mountebank, Bryan, sat tight-lipped and unmoved. There is, of course, no reason why it should have shaken him. He has those hill billies locked up in his pen and he knows it. His brand is on them. He is at home among them. Since his earliest days, indeed, his chief strength has been among the folk of remote hills and forlorn and lonely farms. Now with his political aspirations all gone to pot, he turns to them for religious consolations. They understand his peculiar imbecilities. His nonsense is their ideal of sense. When he deluges them with his theological bilge they rejoice like pilgrims disporting in the river Jordan.
The town whisper is that the local attorney-general, Stewart, is not a fundamentalist, and hence has no stomach for his job. It seems not improbable. He is a man of evident education, and his argument yesterday was confined very strictly to the constitutional points—the argument of a competent and conscientious lawyer, and to me, at least very persuasive.
But Stewart, after all, is a foreigner here, almost as much so as Darrow or Hays or Malone. He is doing his job and that is all. The real animus of the prosecution centers in Bryan. He is the plaintiff and prosecutor. The local lawyers are simply bottle-holders for him. He will win the case, not by academic appeals to law and precedent, but by direct and powerful appeals to the immemorial fears and superstitions of man. It is no wonder that he is hot against Scopes. Five years of Scopes and even these mountaineers would begin to laugh at Bryan. Ten years and they would ride him out of town on a rail, with one Baptist parson in front of him and another behind.
But there will be no ten years of Scopes, nor five years, nor even one year.
Such brash young fellows, debauched by the enlightenment, must be disposed of before they become dangerous, and Bryan is here, with his tight lips and hard eyes, to see that this one is disposed of. The talk of the lawyers, even the magnificent talk of Darrow, is so much idle wind music. The case will not be decided by logic, nor even by eloquence. It will be decided by counting noses—and for every nose in these hills that has ever thrust itself into any book save the Bible there are a hundred adorned with the brass ring of Bryan. These are his people. They understand him when he speaks in tongues. The same dark face that is in his own eyes is in theirs, too. They feel with him, and they relish him.
I sincerely hope that the nobility and gentry of the lowlands will not make the colossal mistake of viewing this trial of Scopes as a trivial farce. Full of rustic japes and in bad taste, it is, to be sure, somewhat comic on the surface. One laughs to see lawyers sweat. The jury, marched down Broadway, would set New York by the ears. But all of that is only skin deep.
Deeper down there are the beginnings of a struggle that may go on to melodrama of the first caliber, and when the curtain falls at least all the laughter may be coming from the yokels. You probably laughed at the pro-hibitionists, say, back in 1914. Well, don't make the same error twice.
As I have said, Bryan understands these peasants, and they understand him. He is a bit mangey and flea-bitten, but no means ready for his harp. He may last five years, ten years or even longer. What he may accomplish in that time, seen here at close range, looms up immensely larger than it appears to a city man five hundred miles away. The fellow is full of such bitter, implacable hatreds that they radiate from him like heat from a stove. He hates the learning that he cannot grasp. He hates those who sneer at him. He hates, in general, all who stand apart from his own pathetic commonness. And the yokels hate with him, some of them almost as bitterly as he does himself. They are willing and eager to follow him—and he has already given them a taste of blood.
Darrow's peroration yesterday was interrupted by Judge Raulston, but the force of it got into the air nevertheless. This year it is a misdemeanor for a country school teacher to flout the archaic nonsense of Genesis. Next year it will be a felony. The year after the net will be spread wider. Pedagogues, after all, are small game; there are larger birds to snare—larger and juicier. Bryan has his fishy eye on them. He will fetch them if his mind lasts, and the lamp holds out to burn. No man with a mouth like that ever lets go. Nor ever lacks followers.
Tennessee is bearing the brunt of the first attack simply because the civilized minority, down here, is extraordinarily pusillanimous.
I have met no educated man who is not ashamed of the ridicule that has fallen upon the State, and I have met none, save only judge Neal, who had the courage to speak out while it was yet time. No Tennessee counsel of any importance came into the case until yesterday and then they came in stepping very softly as if taking a brief for sense were a dangerous matter. When Bryan did his first rampaging here all these men were silent.
They had known for years what was going on in the hills. They knew what the country preachers were preaching—what degraded nonsense was being rammed and hammered into yokel skulls. But they were afraid to go out against the imposture while it was in the making, and when any outsider denounced it they fell upon him violently as an enemy of Tennessee.
Now Tennessee is paying for that poltroonery. The State is smiling and beautiful, and of late it has begun to be rich. I know of no American city that is set in more lovely scenery than Chattanooga, or that has more charming homes. The civilized minority is as large here, I believe, as anywhere else.
It has made a city of splendid material comforts and kept it in order. But it has neglected in the past the unpleasant business of following what was going on in the cross roads Little Bethels.
The Baptist preachers ranted unchallenged.
Their buffooneries were mistaken for humor. Now the clowns turn out to be armed, and have begun to shoot.
In his argument yesterday judge Neal had to admit pathetically that it was hopeless to fight for a repeal of the anti-evolution law. The Legislature of Tennessee, like the Legislature of every other American state, is made up of cheap job-seekers and ignoramuses.
The Governor of the State is a politician ten times cheaper and trashier. It is vain to look for relief from such men. If the State is to be saved at all, it must be saved by the courts. For one, I have little hope of relief in that direction, despite Hays' logic and Darrow's eloquence. Constitutions, in America, no longer mean what they say. To mention the Bill of Rights is to be damned as a Red.
The rabble is in the saddle, and down here it makes its first campaign under a general beside whom Wat Tylor seems like a wart beside the Matterhorn.
The Scopes trial is a remarkable study of both the structure, as well as the tensions, present in American society in 1925. It is equally significant that the same issues that percolated through the so called "Monkey Trial" are the subject of renewed interest today throughout the Unites States.
Rural Tennessee in 1925 was a fitting battleground for the battle between fundamentalist religion and educational freedoms. John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was determined that his students would be prepared for a wider world, and he believed that preparation should include the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Such teachings conflicted with the law of Tennessee, known as the Butler Act, which had enacted a blanket prohibition against any public educational instruction that contradicted creationism, the word of God as set out in the Bible in the book of Genesis. Many southern American states had similar legislation in place in 1925.
The state prosecution of Scopes at Dayton was a classic test case, where each of the intermingled concepts of church and state, the freedoms of expression, religion, and education, the letter of the law, and rural versus urban ways of American life, would come into play. Ironically, these broad and compelling interests all arose in a matter where the maximum penalty was a one-hundred-dollar fine.
The potential for national impact from this local Tennessee prosecution was also reflected in its two chief combatants, William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow for the defense. A national figure, Bryan had run unsuccessfully for President three times; known as the "Great Commoner," his constituency was composed largely of religious fundamentalists. Bryan thrust himself into this conflict first by filing the formal complaint against Scopes and then leading the prosecution.
Clarence Darrow was a living legend, the most famed American lawyer of the age. Darrow's initial involvement in the Scopes defense had been facilitated by the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw an opportunity to advance their views of freedom of expression through Scopes to a national audience. In one of many footnotes to the Scopes trial, Darrow's remarkable address to the Scopes jury was later immortalized in the movie Inherit the Wind.
The trial reports of H. L. Mencken make it plain he saw the Scopes conviction as a foregone conclusion, given the fiercely conservative nature of the Dayton community, as reflected in the jury and the presiding judge. Mencken's observations were confirmed when the jury returned a guilty verdict in eight minutes after the conclusion of the twelve-day trial. In one sense, the Scopes result confirmed the ability of the state to impose educational rules that both advanced and protected traditional Christian values and beliefs.
From a vantage point of an observer in 1975, the Scopes ruling would have appeared somewhat archaic, even faintly humorous. Fifty years after Scopes's conviction, the exclusion of Darwin and his evolutionary theories from an American high school biology curriculum, in favor of the teaching of creationism, would have seemed nonsensical. By 1975, other aspects of religious instruction, such as the saying of the Lord's Prayer in classrooms, or religious education in public schools, had disappeared as a result of various high court rulings that held such practices to violate the United States constitutional rules regarding the separation of religion and public-funded institutions.
However, more than eighty years later, there is a profound, ever increasing significance to the arguments advanced by both sides in the Scopes trial. The rise of home schooling as a preferred method of education in America, particularly among members of conservative Christian denominations, is one example. Further, there has been a resurgence in the public debate concerning whether the teaching of evolution in American classrooms must necessarily exclude instruction in the principles "Intelligent Design," a modern rendering of creationism that is endorsed by many Christian fundamentalists in the United States.
Rogers, Mary Elizabeth, ed. The Impossible H. L. Mencken. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Famous Trials in American History. "Tennessee vs. John Scopes: The 'Monkey Trial', 1925." 〈http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm〉 (accessed November 1, 2005).