The Scopes “Monkey Trial”: Myth and History

For the past few years at the very least, Americans have seen a major increase in protests at local school board meetings, as well as delegations to state legislatures, demanding changes in what is taught in schools. People are  aggrieved over what they perceive to be the dangers of things like “critical race theory” and “gender-fluid indoctrination.” 

The vast majority of these protests are based on a complete lack of understanding of the things the protesters are supposedly angry about. (Critical race theory, for instance, is a subject only discussed in law schools and in doctorate-level graduate training.) And some of the protests are obviously staged to score political points or energize a base of supporters.

Twas ever thus. Public education has been at the center of political battles in the United States since, like, forever. Let me tell you about perhaps the most famous example, one that ended in a national show trial that shaped cultural divisions in the America of the 1920s. But it’s also one that has been much misunderstood and mythologized.

On March 25, 1925, the governor of the state of Tennessee, Austin Peay, signed The Butler Act into law. It banned “the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State.”

Within a month, on April 24, 1925, a high school teacher named John Scopes taught a class in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, using a state-mandated textbook that included a chapter explaining Darwin’s theory of evolution. In doing so, Scopes was in violation of Tennessee’s new Butler Act. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined $100. The verdict was later overturned on a technicality, but the case has gone down in history as an example of faith against science, ignorance against knowledge, and tradition against progress. This conception of the Scopes trial was only reinforced by the famous 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, starring Gene Kelly, Spencer Tracy, and Frederic March.

But that version of the story is too simple. The real story of how the Scopes Trial came about, and why, is far more interesting and intriguing. And it shows us the complications and conflicting motives of all those who were involved.

Essentially, the trial itself was a publicity stunt cooked up by the city leaders of Dayton (population 6,000), in an effort to bring visitors and money to the town. In this, they were very successful. The Scopes trial was a huge event and attracted national and international attention. Rooming houses, cafes, and diners were packed for weeks. Private citizens rented out rooms and fed the large number of newspaper journalists who poured into town.

Here’s what happened, and it all happened rather quickly. Again, the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act (which forbade the teaching of evolution in state schools) on March 25, 1925. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to pay the legal fees of any Tennessee teacher who was willing to challenge the law.

Enter George Rappelyea, the manager of the local coal company. He called a meeting of Dayton notables on April 5th and convinced them that a challenge to the Butler Act would draw exactly the kind of attention the town needed. They agreed, and called on one of the local teachers, John T. Scopes. They asked him if he’d be willing to admit to teaching evolution and suffer the consequences under the Butler Act. Scopes told them that he couldn’t be absolutely sure that he had taught evolution in the sense that he was teaching the truth of evolution, but that he had gone over the evolutionary chart in the textbook with the students during class. But he said, “If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.”

They all agreed to go ahead with the plan, and Scopes went over the theory of evolution with his students on April 24th, leading to his arrest. And to stress what I just told you, Scopes was in on the plan. Between his arrest and his indictment (on May 25), he convinced his students to testify against him during the trial. He even helped them prepare their testimony and coached them on how best to answer questions. 

Then the promotion machine went into high gear. Local lawyers had been appointed for both the prosecution and the defense, but George Rappleyea realized that only famous lawyers and orators would boost the chances of garnering the attention for the trial that the town of Dayton wanted. He wrote to the prominent British novelist, H.G. Wells, and asked him to be on the defense team. Wells declined, partly because he was not licensed to practice law in the United States, or even in England.

Other civic and religious leaders in Dayton used their connections with national organizations (such as the World Christian Fundamentals Association) to help find the most prominent attorneys for the case. In addition to other lawyers, they were able to convince William Jennings Bryan, the former Secretary of State, former Democratic presidential candidate, and greatly-admired social and political reformer, to join the prosecution. Bryan was a thunderous orator, a ferocious Christian, and a committed anti-evolutionist. He was also one of the most famous men in the country.

I said a moment ago that the ACLU had promised to fund the defense of any teacher who challenged the Butler Act. And so, in addition to prominent and respected ACLU lawyers, the organization was eventually able to convince Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous defense attorney in American history, to join the defense team.

In terms of publicity, the civic leaders of Dayton couldn’t have picked two greater titans. And given the fact that they were polar opposites in terms of religion (Bryan was a fundamentalist and Darrow was an agnostic), the stage was set for an epic court battle, played out over the national and international media.

Rappelyea and the Dayton civic leaders were certainly successful in gaining attention. Over 200 national newspapers (and two London newspapers) sent correspondents to Dayton. Telegraph operators worked feverishly during the seven days of the trial, tapping out over 150,000 words per day. WGN, the major Chicago radio station broadcast the trial live from the courtroom (the first time that had ever happened in a criminal trial). Film crews were camped out on the courthouse lawn, where they jockeyed for positions with other reporters. Hucksters and circus performers brought chimpanzees into town and had them perform in front of the courthouse.

Perhaps the most famous newspaperman of the day, H.L. Mencken, also reported directly from the trial. And it is from Menken that we get the phrase “Monkey Trial.”

All this attention certainly brought much-needed revenue to the town. The teams of lawyers, the cavalcade of reporters, and the various side-show entertainers certainly boosted the hotel and restaurant trade. So the civic leaders of Dayton got part of their wish. They also expected lots of tourists to come for the trial, but that didn’t happen. The media coverage was so extensive that it was probably not worth it for people to travel to Dayton.

The upshot of the trial itself was that Scopes was convicted and fined, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. Scopes later went off to do graduate work in geology. He became an engineer in the oil and gas business, traveling all over the southwest to work, and eventually retired to Shreveport, Louisiana, and died in 1970. And apart from an appearance on the wildly popular game show “To Tell The Truth” on October 10th, 1960 he more or less lived out the rest of his life away from public attention.

But the trial lived on in American memory and culture. In 1955, Inherit the Wind, a play based on the trial, opened in New York, and ran for two years. The playwrights used the Scopes trial as a way to dramatize the issues and morals raised by 1950s McCarthyite anti-communism trials and persecutions. Inherit the Wind became even more famous as a 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy as the “Darrow” character, Frederic March as the “William Jennings Bryan” character, and Gene Kelly playing a cynical, wise-cracking newspaperman based on H.L. Mencken.

The original publicity-stunt origins of the trial were only hinted at in the play and the film, and the case was depicted as an intellectual battle between religion and science, and what should be taught in public schools. The movie was perhaps the most successful element of the whole Scopes story because that is the way the event is still perceived in the public mind.

We don’t know what would have happened if the ACLU hadn’t offered to defend anyone who violated The Butler Act, and we certainly don’t know what would have happened if the sharp-eyed town promoters of Dayton, Tennessee hadn’t used the Act as an opportunity to promote their town. One of the central problems with the whole issue was that, on the one hand, the Education Department of the State of Tennessee, set the curriculum and chose the books for use in public schools. This required high school science teachers to use a book that included a chapter on Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution didn’t include changes to the curriculum or the text, so science teachers would have been, essentially, forced to break the law. 

It’s likely, therefore, that the law would have been challenged or broken at some point in the 1920s or 1930s, but almost certainly not in the dramatic way that the ACLU and the town of Dayton arranged it. 

Eventually, the state curriculum was modified somewhat to dance around the strictures of the Butler Act, but the law stood until 1967, when it was challenged in court by a teacher named Gary Scott from Jacksboro. The Tennessee legislature repealed the act fairly quickly after Scott filed a suit against it in the Nashville District Court in May of that year.

In public history and memory, however, the trial certainly made its mark. William Jennings Bryan, the lead prosecuting attorney, died shortly after the trial. Bryan College was built in Dayton to honor him and, as their website now states, “to teach a Christian worldview.” And the film, Inherit the Wind, has sort of replaced the actual history of the event in the minds of many Americans. 

As you may remember, the teacher character put on trial in that film taught evolution openly in the local classroom, partly because his religious faith had been shaken. In the plot, a young child in the town had died in an accident before being baptized and the local preacher thundered that the child would be damned to hell because he hadn’t been baptized before he died. This caused the parents great pain. Seeing that pain caused the teacher to lose faith. And so he took a brave stance and taught evolution openly. The scenes depicting this are vivid and convincing.

But there was no such incident in the Dayton, Tennessee case, and there’s no evidence at all that John Scopes taught evolution because of this. In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that he was initially reluctant to take part in the plan devised by Dayton’s civic leaders. All we know is that he eventually agreed, telling them, “If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.”

Yet, like many people, I grew up thinking that he took a highly risky and heroic individual stand against religious bigotry and the excesses of fundamentalist behavior. And I frequently hear Scopes referred to as a fearless champion who battled ignorance at great personal cost. Again, there’s no evidence for this at all.

Big deal, Professor, I can hear you saying. Why does it matter that the truth of the motivations behind the Scopes trial has been turned into something that’s not historically accurate?

It matters because we are often led to believe that public protests are the result of long-held and deeply-felt grievances, and that eruptions of emotion and rhetoric that appeared in the Scopes Trial (and, in sharper relief, in Inherit the Wind) come from the very marrow of public belief. No one doubts the sincerity of William Jennings Bryan’s religious convictions, just as no one doubts the sincerity of Clarence Darrow’s defense of intellectual freedom. But we know the motivations of the city leaders in Dayton were far more pedestrian and commercial. They were open about it.

The Hollywood-ization of these types of events often bulldozes over the details of cases where public opinion is whipped up by people with motives other than pure faith or reason.

Does anyone really think that there are pure motives behind the fervor whipped up by some leading politicians and “influencers” over issues such as critical race theory, gender identity, or anti-vaccination? Haven’t we learned over and over (especially from 20th-century history) that opportunists inflate these supposed problems to gain support, and that the ensuing public venom often gets out of control and more extreme? In order to keep those followers and supporters energized, the people who started the outrage have to become more extreme to stay ahead of their followers, and to attract new ones.  

So please be wary of some of the ways that history is bent and misshaped to fit the motivations of leaders using populism to enhance their own power and influence.

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