The Scopes Trial | The Nation

The Scopes Trial



The historic "Monkey Trial" in 1925 for the crime of teaching evolution had its origins in a friendly conversation between John T. Scopes and George Rappalyea in a Dayton, Tennessee, drugstore. That March, the state legislature had passed a law forbidding the teaching of any theory of creation that ran counter to what was written in the Bible. Scopes's friend, George Rappalyea, had read that the American Civil Liberties Union was looking for a teacher who would be willing to challenge the law. Rappalyea thought that a trial in Dayton would be great publicity for the town of 1,800, and so did the school superintendent. Sitting at Fred Robinson's Drugstore, Scopes, 24, who taught evolutionary theory to his high school biology students, readily agreed to become the country's most famous defendant.The ACLU and the creationists recognized that this was more than a fight over how to teach high school biology. Theirs was a tug-of-war for America's soul. The years following World War I brought prosperity and new freedoms for many Americans. Women shed their corsets and flaunted their sexuality. Radio waves carried the wild rhythms of jazz to seemingly every corner of the country. Writers and moviemakers stretched the boundaries of popular taste. Not for nothing was the decade called "The Roaring '20s." Although fundamentalists garnered enough support to make Prohibition the law of the land, the Eighteenth Amendment failed spectacularly to curb the consumption of alcohol. Its chief impact was to create a generation of Americans willing to thumb their noses at authority. But in the teaching of evolution, fundamentalists saw the ultimate liberal heresy.

They convinced several states, mostly in the South and West, to consider -- and, in some cases, pass -- anti-evolution statutes. Now, with the rest of the country watching, the two armies met in tiny Dayton. Hordes of newspaper correspondents, radio broadcasters and political activists from all over the country descended on the town. In fact, so many people arrived to witness the action, the town considered holding the trial in a circus tent.

And what a battle it promised to be. The fundamentalist side was led by four-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the "Boy Orator of the Platte," whose "cross of gold" speech ignited the 1896 Democratic convention and nearly carried him to the White House. Opposing him was Clarence Darrow, the nation's preeminent defense attorney and an agnostic, who was so eager to do battle with Bryan that he volunteered to take the case. The Nation, which had several correspondents on the scene, believed the separation of church and state hung in the balance in Judge Raulston's courtroom. It called the trial "Tennessee vs. Truth."


In This Pack

Tennessee vs. Truth
John T. Scopes is about to be put on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee. According to the writer, this is not a matter for the courts to decide, but one which must be addressed by churches and educators (July 8, 1925).

In Tennessee
H. L. Mencken | One of the country's great journalists says that freedom of speech is just an illusion when it comes to teaching (July 1,1925).

Saving Genesis?
An editorial discusses how throughout its history the church has suppressed the search for scientific truth (June 12, 1954).

Tennessee: Where Cowards Rule
Joseph Wood Krutch | The author leaves the courtroom for a visit around the town where the trial is being held and listens to what its citizens have to say. He also discusses the political situation in Tennessee and the reasons why worldwide attention is focused on Dayton (July 15, 1925).

What Lies Beyond Dayton
Rollin Lynde Hartt | The author discusses the state of fundamentalism in America at the time of the trial (July 22, 1925).

The Strategy of the Scopes Defense
Arthur Garfield Hays | One of John T. Scopes's attorneys discusses the conflict between religion and science and explains the goals of the defense and how it believes it will ultimately prevail (August 5, 1925).

William Jennings Bryan
An appreciation of the life and career of Bryan, who died shortly after testifying for the prosecution in the Scopes trial and was subject to a withering cross examination by Clarence Darrow (August 5, 1925).

Clarence Darrow
A profile of John T. Scopes's chief lawyer and maybe the greatest defense attorney in US history (April 20, 1927).




  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

If you like this article, consider making a donation.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.