Kansas City (July 10, 2000)
Seventy-five years ago to this very day, in the Rhea County Court House in Dayton, Tennessee, Judge John Raulston announced "I am calling the case of the State vs. John Thomas Scopes." And with those simple words, the trial of the century was under way.
This evening I will take you--using primarily transcript excerpts and news reports--through the eight days of the Scopes trial, from jury selection to the final verdict. The printed transcript runs several hundred pages, so of necessity this will be a "Greatest Hits from the Scopes Trial" rather than a full account. I also hope to put the trial in historical context and to offer--for whatever they may be worth--a few thoughts on the present controversy raging in Kansas. I hope to show both how we got where we are in this evolving controversy--and where we might be going.
Let me begin with haiku. Until this year, I'd never attempted to write haiku. I must have missed that class in seventh-grade English. But in April, inspired both by the evolution controversy and $25 in prize money offered in a university haiku contest-law professors will do anything for a few bucks--, I came up with this:
Did Darwin figure,
Examining finches' beaks,
There'd be a Kansas?
I won't answer that question other than to note that if Darwin knew his history as well as he did his biology, he'd have reason to anticipate that his theory of evolution might generate some controversy.
Some dates and observations--and here I'll resist the temptation to start with the Cambrian Explosion and the assembling of the Old Testament texts over a 1400 year period.
1600 A. D.: Friar Giordano Bruno is burned at the stake in Rome for insisting on heresies tied to his belief that the earth traveled around the sun, rather than remaining motionless in the center of the universe as the Bible suggests.
1632: Galileo publishes a book supporting the sun-centered universe. The next year Galileo is tried and convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest. His book, "Dialogue on Two World Systems," remains on the Vatican's list of prohibited books for the next 200 years.
(I mention these two dates, long before Darwin visited the Galapagos, to remind us that the evolution controversy is part of a longer and much older controversy between Science, which follows the facts wherever they lead it, and Religion (or at least some religions) that assume the infallibility of holy texts. I suspect that long after Religion comes to fully accept evolution as the explanation for life on earth--and I believe it eventually will, as facts are stubborn things--there will be other conflicts between Science and Religion--most likely ones relating to an understanding of the first nanoseconds of our universe's history. Whether the evolution controversy takes another 20 years or another 200 years to fade away is anyone's guess--It IS surprising that it has lasted this long--it is a pretty huge leap of faith to believe that the vast quantity of evidence of evolution--carbon-dated fossils of transition species, genetic and other evidence--was planted by God all over the planet as some sort of practical joke to fool scientists.)
1856: After visiting the Galapogos Islands, Charles Darwin begins work on The Origin of the Species.
Early 1920's: Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan has remade himself as a sort of Fundamentalist Pope and is traveling around the country, especially the South, campaigning against the teaching of evolution. He offers $100 to anyone that can prove he personally was descended from a monkey. His goal is an anti-evolution amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
March 13, 1925: Tennessee, one of 15 states debating the issue, enacts "The Butler Act," a law banning the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The Governor--supporting the law as a symbolic statement--says that he expects that the law will never be enforced.
May 4, 1925: The ACLU offers to pay for the defense of any Tennessee schoolteacher who challenges the new law. A Dayton, Tennessee businessman--and a supporter of evolution in the classroom--convinces town leaders that an evolution trial could "put Dayton on the map" and might even attract new residents and businesses to their fair city, which had been rapidly losing population. John Scopes, a popular football coach and science teacher is located on a local tennis court and recruited to challenge the Act. Scopes had assigned readings on evolution for a 10th grade biology class.
(Note: If your understanding of the Scopes Monkey trial comes from watching the movie "Inherit the Wind," you've got at least half your facts wrong. Contrary to the suggestion in the movie, for example, the theory of evolution had been taught for several years in Dayton without protest. Darwinism was widely accepted. President Woodrow Wilson, speaking several years earlier on the evolution issue said, "I am surprised at this late date that anyone would question" the tenets of Darwinism.)
Mid May, 1925: William Jennings Bryan, who has not practiced law in thirty years, volunteers to prosecute the case. Clarence Darrow, the nation's most famous defense attorney, for the first time in his career, also volunteers his services. Says Darrow: "For the first, the last, the only time in my life, I volunteered my services in a case...because I really wanted to take part in it." Bryan--three-time Democratic candidate for President is at the time regarded as the greatest living orator in America; Darrow--apart from his interest in the issue--wants to use the trial to seize the crown. The ACLU is worried; its leaders fear that Darrow's zealous agnosticism will turn the trial into a broadside attack on religion, but the call belongs to Scopes, and he takes Darrow, along with two additional ACLU lawyers dispatched from New York.
July 10, 1925 (3/4 of a century ago today): Banners decorate the streets of Dayton, chimpanzees perform in a sideshow on Main Street, members of the Anti-Evolution League sell copies of Bryan's book, Hell and the High School. In the surrounding hills, holly rollers roll.
This is how one observer, Marcet Haldeman-Julius, described the opening day scene: "One was hard put on the tenth of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and twenty-five, to know whether Dayton was holding a camp meeting, a Chautauqua, a street fair, a carnival, or a belated Fourth of July celebration. Literally, it was drunk on religious excitement. "Be a sweet angel," was the beginning of a long exhortation printed on a large signboard posted at the entrance of the court house door. Evangelists' shouts mingled with those of vendors; the mournful notes of the hymns of a blind singer who accompanied himself on a little portable organ, stentorian tones shouting, "For I say unto you, except ye repent and be baptized," "Ice cream and hot dogs here!"--all poured into one's ear in a conglomerate stream. The entire courthouse yard literally was given over to preachers who peddled their creeds as if they were so many barbecue sandwiches. Against the north wall of the courthouse a platform, surrounded by benches, had been arranged for their greater convenience. On the second floor of the old brick court house one entered a wide, spacious, freshly-painted court room with a normal seating capacity of about four or five hundred. I felt as if I had stepped into pandemonium. Men and women jostled each other; a battalion of newspaper photographers and movie men literally wrestled for advantageous positions; just outside the bar enclosure muffled telegraph instruments ticked and reporters for the big dailies, Associated Press, and similar services, sat dripping with sweat, writing in pencil or on typewriters as if for their very lives; people stood in aisles and three deep against the back walls; in spite of the big open windows the air was stifling. . . ." [MH-J]
In opening statements, the trial is characterized grandly. Bryan says, "If evolution wins, Christianity goes." Darrow says, "Scopes isn't on trial, civilization is on trial." Jury selection begins on the afternoon of the 10th. One of the first potential jurors called is a minister named
J. P. Massingill. Darrow asks Massingill if he'd ever preached on the subject of evolution. Massingill admits that he had. "Did you preach for or against evolution?" Darrow asks. "I preached against it of course!" Massingkill answers to loud applause.
This is how the famous reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, H. L. Mencken, described the opening day scene: "The selection of a jury to try Scopes, which went on all yesterday afternoon in the atmosphere of a blast furnace, showed to what extreme lengths the salvation of the local primates has been pushed. It was obvious after a few rounds that the jury would be unanimously hot for Genesis. The most that Mr. Darrow could hope for was to sneak in a few bold enough to declare publicly that they would have to hear the evidence against Scopes before condemning him. The slightest sign of anything further brought forth a peremptory challenge from the State. Once a man was challenged without examination for simply admitting that he did not belong formally to any church. Another time a panel man who confessed that he was prejudiced against evolution got a hearty round of applause from the crowd....In brief this is a strictly Christian community, and such is its notion of fairness, justice and due process of law. Its people are simply unable to imagine a man who rejects the literal authority of the Bible. The most they can conjure up, straining until they are red in the face, is a man who is in error about the meaning of this or that text. Thus one accused of heresy among them is like one accused of boiling his grandmother to make soap in Maryland...." And that's the way it was, July 10--75 years ago today.
Day 2 of the Trial: The defense strategy is to challenge the constitutionality of the law. On the second day of the trial, Darrow argues that a ruling upholding the law threatens not just the education of Tennessee school children, but the Enlightenment:
"If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After awhile, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."
Day 3 of the Trial: For the third day in a row, court opens with a prayer by a local clergyman. The defense objects, provoking this exchange between Darrow, defense co-counsel Dudley Malone and Tennessee Attorney General Thomas Stewart:
Darrow--I do not object to the jury or anyone else praying in secret or in private, but I do object to the turning of this courtroom into a meeting house in the trial of this case. You have no right to do it.
Stewart--We, for the state, think it is quite proper to open the court with prayer if the court sees fit to do it, and such an idea extended by the agnostic counsel for the defense is foreign to the thoughts and ideas of the people who do not know anything about infidelity and care less.
Malone--I would like to reply to this remark of the attorney general. Whereas I respect my colleagues, Mr. Darrow's right to believe or not to believe as long as he is as honest in his unbelief as I am in my belief. As one of the members of counsel who is not an agnostic, I would like to state the objection from my point of view....There was no exception felt to the opening of these proceedings by prayer the first day, but I would like to ask your honor whether in all the trials over which your honor was presided, this court has had a clergyman every morning of
every day of every trial to open the court with prayer? We believe that this daily opening of the court with prayers...increase[s] the atmosphere of hostility to our point of view, which already
exists in this community by widespread propaganda....
The Court--I have instructed the ministers who have been invited to my rostrum to open the court with prayer, to make no reference to the issues involved in this case. I see nothing that might influence the court or jury as to the issues. I believe in prayer myself; I constantly invoke divine guidance myself, when I am on the bench and off the bench; I see no reason why I should not continue to do this.
Day 4: The prosecution begins its case. Howard Morgan, a 14-year-old student in Scopes's biology class is on the witness stand:
Q--Did you attend school here at Dayton last year?
Q--Did you study anything under Prof. Scopes?
Q--Did you study this book, General Science?
Q--Did he ever undertake to teach you anything about evolution?
Q--Just state in your own words, Howard, what he taught you and when it was.
A--It was along about the 2d of April.
Q--Of this year?
A--Yes, sir; of this year. He said that the earth was once a hot molten mass too hot for plant or animal life to exist upon it; in the sea the earth cooled off; there was a little germ of one cell organism formed, and this organism kept evolving until it got to be a pretty good-sized animal, and then came on to be a land animal and it kept on evolving, and from this was man.
Day 5: The two sides argue over whether the defense may present the scientific witnesses it has brought to Dayton. Defense attorney Dudley Malone makes an impassioned appeal that the evidence be admitted:
"There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it, where is the fear? We defy it, we ask your honor to admit the evidence as a matter of correct law, as a matter of sound procedure and as a matter of justice to the defense in this case."
The speech wins Malone sustained applause from the audience. The locals are beginning to root as much for the defense team as for the prosecution.
Wrote H.L. Mencken of Malone's speech: "It was simple in structure, it was clear in reasoning, and at its high points it was overwhelmingly eloquent. It was not long, but it covered the whole ground and it let off many a gaudy skyrocket, and so it conquered even the fundamentalist. At its end they gave it a tremendous cheer--a cheer at least four times as hearty as that given to Bryan. For these rustics delight in speechifying, and know when it is good. The devil's logic cannot fetch them, but they are not above taking a voluptuous pleasure in his lascivious phrases...."
Day 6: Judge Raulston rules that the defense cannot present the eight scientific experts that had been brought to Dayton to support Darwin's theory. Darrow says in response to the Court's ruling excluding his experts: "I cannot understand why a bare suggestion of anything that is perfectly competent on our part should be immediately overruled." Judge Raulston asks Darrow, "I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?" Darrow's reply, which earns him the first contempt citation of his career: "Well, your honor has the right to hope."
Expressing concern that the courtroom floor might collapse from the weight of the many spectators, Judge Raulston transfers the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. There, facing the jury, hangs a large banner--attached to the courthouse wall. Three words are on the banner: "Read Your Bible." Darrow asks either that the sign be removed or that a second sign of equal size saying "Read Your Evolution" be put up along with it. Raulston orders the sign removed.
Before a crowd--minus the jury--that has swelled to about 5,000, the defense reads into the record, for purpose of appellate review, excerpts from the prepared statements of the eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify. The statements of the experts are widely reported by the press. Darrow has turned the trial into a national biology lesson.
Day 7: Judge Raulston asks the defense if it had any more evidence. What follows is probably the most amazing court scene on Anglo-Saxon history. Williams Jennings Bryan is called to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Bryan assents, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. He takes a seat on the witness stand, and begins fanning himself.
Here's how one observer--a pro-defense observer to be sure--described the scene outside the Rhea County Courthouse:
"A duel the meeting of those two men was, Darrow, the apostle of knowledge and tolerance, and Bryan, the arch advocate of ignorance and bigotry, had engaged at last in single-handed combat. This was what the crowd had been hoping for; for this it had patiently waited through long sweltering hours of technical discussions. Now it gave a long sigh of delighted expectation. It was satisfied. And no wonder! Few who witnessed that dramatic moment in the history of this country's thought ever will forget it. Even the physical aspects of the scene carved themselves on one's memory.
Picture to yourself that vast throng. Imagine yourself to be a part of it. Before you the branches of two great maples, intertwining, form a natural proscenium arch, and behind it, in the ring, the two antagonists meet--Bryan, assured, pompous, his face half turned to the audience which, rather than the Judge, he frankly addresses, and Darrow, standing a few feet away, his eyes on his opponent, his mind concentrated on the task before him, vigilant, relentless.
So easily he began! Almost as if he were questioning a child. . . ." [MH-J]
Darrow begins his interrogation of Bryan with a quiet question: "You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?" Bryan replies, "Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years." Thus begins a series of questions designed to undermine a literal interpretation of the Bible. Bryan is asked about a whale swallowing Jonah, about Joshua making the sun stand still, about Noah and the great flood, about the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and about the creation according to Genesis.
After initially contending that "everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there," Bryan finally concedes that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. In response to Darrow's relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan says "My impression is that they were periods." Bryan, who began his testimony calmly, stumbles badly under Darrow's persistent prodding. At one point the exasperated Bryan says, "I do not think about things I don't think about." Darrow asks, "Do you think about the things you do think about?" Bryan responds, to the derisive laughter of spectators, "Well, sometimes." Both old warriors grow testy as the examination continues. Bryan accuses Darrow of attempting to "slur at the Bible." He says that he will continue to answer Darrow's impertinent questions because "I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee--." Darrow interrupts, "I object to your statement" and to "your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes." Raulston orders the court adjourned.
Day 8, the final day of the trial: Judge Raulston strikes Bryan's testimony from evidence. The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow is reported by the press as a defeat for Bryan. His performance is described as that of "a pitiable, punch drunk warrior." Darrow asks the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Darrow waives his right to offer a summation, thereby--under Tennessee law--preventing William Jennings Bryan from delivering the closing argument he had spent weeks honing into shape. The jury complies with Darrow's request, and Judge Raulston fines Scopes $100.
The judge asks if any of the lawyers would like to offer a few final words. Bryan jumps at the chance. "Dayton," he says, "is the center and the seat of this trial largely by circumstance. We are told that more words have been sent across the ocean by cable to Europe and Australia about this trial than has ever been sent by cable in regard to anything else that has happened in the United States. That isn't because the trial is held in Dayton. It isn't because a schoolteacher has been subjected to the danger of a fine $100.00, but I think [it] illustrates how people can be drawn into prominence by attaching themselves to a great cause. Causes stir the world....Here has been fought out a little case of little consequence as a case, but the world is interested because it raises an issue, and that issue will some day be settled right, whether it is settled on our side or the other side. It is going to be settled right...."
Then Clarence Darrow: "Of course, there is much that Mr. Bryan has said that is true. And nature...does not choose any special setting for events. I fancy that the place where the Magna Carta was wrested from the barons in England was a very small place, probably not as big as Dayton. But events come along as they come along. I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this--upon this modern world, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum. That is all I care to say."
Then Arthur Garfield Hays, defense co-counsel, makes a final gesture: "May I, as one of the counsel for the defense, ask your honor to allow me to send you the "Origin of Species and the Descent of Man," by Charles Darwin?" Laughter. "Yes; yes" says the judge. Court adjourns. The trial of the century is over.
An aside: I know what some of you are thinking: "What about the OJ trial?--Wasn't THAT the trial of the century?" No. Here's five reasons why:
1. The Scopes Trial already has stood the test of time. Seventy-five years later it stands as the most talked about trial of the first part of the twentieth century. How many people will give a hoot about the OJ Trial in the year 2070?
2. The Scopes Trial brought together America's greatest defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, its greatest political orator, William Jennings Bryan, and its greatest journalist, H. L. Mencken ....Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Geraldo Rivera.
3. The Scopes Trial produced what the New York Times called "the most amazing courtroom scene in Anglo-American history," the calling of prosecutor William Jennings Bryan to the stand by Clarence Darrow for examination on the question of whether every story in the Bible was literally true....Yes, there were those gloves that didn't fit.
4. The Scopes Trial inspired "Inherit the Wind," one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever starring Spencer Tracy as Darrow, Fredric March as Bryan, and Gene Kelly as Mencken....And the Simpson Trial inspired what?
5. The OJ Trial was a domestic murder, one of thousands that happen each year. The main significance of the Simpson trial is as a lesson for judges and prosecutors in how not to conduct a trial....The Scopes Trial, on the other hand, was about ideas. It was a symbolic struggle for America's culture between the forces of Traditionalism and the forces of Modernism. It was about whether we look for guidance from, as Bryan said, "the faith of our fathers," or from our own intellects. The Scopes Trial was about what much of the twentieth century has been about.
Let us return to Dayton. There is yet one more dramatic turn. Six days later, William Jennings Bryan is still in Dayton. After eating an enormous dinner, he dies in his sleep. Asked by a reporter whether he though Bryan died of "a broken heart," Darrow replies, "No, he died of a busted belly."
1926: A year later the decision of the Dayton court is reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court not on constitutional grounds, as the defense hoped, but on a technicality. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the cause is dismissed. The court comments, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."
The Scopes trial by no means ended the debate over the teaching of evolution, but it did represent a significant setback for the anti-evolution forces. Of the fifteen states with anti-evolution legislation pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enact laws restricting teaching of Darwin's theory.
1968: Susan Epperson, a biology teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas's Central High School, brings an action challenging the constitutionality of Arkansas' law banning the teaching of evolution. The case reaches the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court rules that the law violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion. The Court says a state may "not tailor its curriculum to fit the dogma or principles of any religion."
1987: Louisiana's legislature tries an end-run around the Epperson decision. It enacts a law which does not prohibit the teaching of evolution, but says that if evolution IS taught, so too must students be taught the theory of creation science. The practical effect of the law, since few biology teachers care to teach creation science, is to discourage any mention of the subject of evolution. The law is challenged by Louisiana science teachers and students. Again, the evolution controversy goes to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court rules that the motivation for passage of the so-called Balanced Treatment law was religious, and that therefore the Act is unconstitutional.
August 11, 1999: The Kansas Board of Education votes 6-4 to remove references to evolution in the state science standards. It is the most visible of several state controversies involving the teaching of evolution.
That's how we got here. Finally, before opening things up for questions and comments, let me add one observation about the stubbornness of the evolution controversy. The theory of evolution, Darwinism as it is sometimes called, does undermine the view that we as a species have a special place in the universe. It suggests that the universe is chance-filled. Those are hard ideas for us to accept. Genesis is much more comforting. Believing, as many people do, that every word (or nearly every word) of the Bible is the literal word of God gives those believers a great deal of personal peace and even joy.
I think it is very revealing that while public opinions show an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that evolution accounts for the nature and characteristics of non-human species, only a bare plurality of Americans believe that humans are the product of evolution.
To offer what might be a heretical thought in this forum, perhaps the state should not force exposure to the theory of evolution to those who view the theory as too threatening to all they hold dear--perhaps. Perhaps Fundamentalist parents should be allowed to opt their children out of classes in which evolution is taught. But at the same time, we must prepare the majority of students who do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible for advanced study. They need to know about evolution. It is at the very heart of an understanding of biology. Far better that a few students are left unexposed to instruction about evolution than that teachers water down their discussions to avoid creating controversy or tension. Teachers need to follow facts wherever they go.