1925 The Scopes Trial

July 21, 1925

Life in America in the 1920s

By 1920 more than half of Americans lived in cities. (51.4 percent by the 1920 census.) The way Americans lived was being changed by the machines they brought into their homes; refrigerators, radios, washing machines, automatic ovens, vacuums, and toasters had all had the effect of making life easier and gave Americans more free time. The number of telephones doubled to more than 20 million between 1915 and 1929.

By the end of the 1920s more than half of all American families owned an automobile. New York City had more cars than all of Europe. Americans were on the go. By 1925 twenty thousand movie theaters had sprung up across the nation. Millions of people were getting news from the theater news-reels and from the expansion of the radio networks. Information and culture were moved at an unprecedented rate.

A Conflict of Values

A new morality standard came into play in a generation that by 1925 saw 60 percent of women using contraceptives. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution had banned the sale of alcohol, but people saw in their minds that it was about more than the control of the use of alcohol. Through the decade the “wets” and “drys” struggled to define America. As a result of the moral struggle the Ku Klux Klan grew in membership, especially in the northern states.

The progressive movement had brought into effect mandatory school attendance. In 1890, two hundred thousand students were enrolled in public high schools. That number swelled to 2 million by 1920. Tennessee, the location of the Scopes Trial, had only 10 thousand high school students in 1910, but by 1925 had fifty thousand.

Freedom of Education Legislation

Fundamentalist religious leaders elected to office passed laws against teaching evolution and against buying textbooks that denied the Divine Creation as taught in the Bible. On January 21, 1925, a Tennessee state representative, a first-time legislator and Baptist lay leader, introduced a bill banning the teaching of evolution in the public schools. It provided that teachers who broke the rule should pay a fine between $100 and $500. The legislation was poorly drafted, not defining sufficiently what it meant to “teach” evolution, and most members of the legislature would have voted against it had they not feared a backlash from their constituents.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) planned to fight the Tennessee law. They posted a press release carried in local newspapers asking for a teacher to volunteer to violate the law. A transplanted New Yorker, who opposed the Tennessee law restricting teaching, took the paper to Robinson’s drugstore, which served as a social center in Dayton. The store’s owner happened to be the head of the town’s school board. Together with the local school superintendent, Walter White, the three men approached John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old math and science teacher to ask him to volunteer for the test case. The teacher left the meeting to play a game of tennis, and the transplanted New Yorker wired the ALCU that Dayton had a test case.

The Trial

Both the prosecution and the defense planned their strategies for winning the battle in the courtroom, not in the media. The prosecution had one simple question for the jury: Did Scopes violate the Butler Act? They did not want to address the constitutionality of the act or engage in a debate over the relative merits of Darwin versus the Bible. For them it was just about enforcing the law. The defense team hoped to avoid getting pulled into a heated public exchange about the role of religion in public education. They wanted to convince the jury in Dayton, or the Tennessee Supreme Court on appeal, that religious belief and evolution were not compatible, and efforts to limit discussion infringed on free speech and academic freedom. Both sides were fighting to sway a jury of local residents who were mostly noncommittal on the subject.

But somethings unexpected happened on the way to the courthouse….

William Jennings Bryan volunteered his services to the prosecution. A three time candidate for the presidency, secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson until his resignation over growing involvement in World War I, Bryan used his oratorical skills and energy as an anti-evolution advocate.

In response to William Jennings Bryan, famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered to join the defense.

The Progressive Dayton club spent $5000 promoting local business during the trial.

John T. Raulston, judge in the case made special allowances for the reporters and crowds, ordering the courthouse painted and adding 500 seats, constructing a platform for movie cameras, and installing new toilets.

The Outcome

The defense made the prosecution look like fools. William Jennings Bryan opened his mouth and stuck his foot into it. Nevertheless, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.

In 1955, a Broadway play Inherit the Wind came out celebrating the trial. This was followed by a 1960 movie starring Spencer Tracy.

In 1926, the Christian Century observed: “Looking at it as an event now passed, anybody should be able to see that the whole fundamentalist movement was hollow and artificial,” predicting that it would be “a disappearing quantity in American life.”


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