(Archive - Week of October 15, 2005)

Scopes Monkey Trial
July 10, 1925 - July 25, 1925

The first big trial of the 20th Century happened when I was born and in the state of my birth. It was about teaching evolution or intelligent design (religion-based) in local schools. The trial ended in the Rher County, Tenn. Courthouse, but the subject is still active. It is now taking place in Harrisburg, Pa., and will someday reach the US Supreme Court.  William Jennings Bryan was one of the major attorneys in the "Scopes Monkey Trial."  I knew William Jennings Bryan's grandson, Richard Bryan (Moose) Hargreaves. He was called "Moose" because of his large size and his actions. We worked together as motion picture filmmakers in the 1960s and 70s. Moose was retired from the US Navy and he lived in Venture, Calif. with his wife and daughter. As you will notice, Richard Bryan Hargreaves is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery with his grandfather, William Jennings Bryan. 

William Jennings Bryan

An unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States, at 36 he was the youngest person ever nominated for that office by a major political party. He was nominated a total of three times but never attained the office. His statue repesents Iowa in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building.

He was born March 19, 1860, and died on June 26, 1925, shortly after participating in the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Tennessee, during which he opposed Clarence Darrow.

He is buried in Section 4 of Arlington National Cemetery, near Bryan Drive, which was named in his honor. He also served as Secretary of State and, briefly, as a volunteer army officer in the Spanish-American War.

Another relative, Richard Bryan Hargreaves, PHC, United States Navy, is also buried in this gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.

Setting the Stage: The Butler Law

As America emerged from World War I, a collective nostalgia swept the country for the relative simplicity and "normalcy" of prewar society . In rural areas, particularly in the South and Midwest, Americans turned to their faith for comfort and stability, and fundamentalist religion soared in popularity. Fundamentalists, who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible, locked into Darwin and the theory of evolution as "the most present threat to the truth they were sure they alone possessed."  With evolution as the enemy, they set out to eradicate it from their society, beginning with the education system.

By 1925, states across the South had passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi had such laws, and narrow margins determined those in North Carolina and Kentucky. In Tennessee the Butler Law passed in early 1925, for although the governor was not a fundamentalist, many of his constituents were. As he said, "Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute."  No one that is, but the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, which was becoming increasingly more wary of what they saw as an infringement on their constitutional rights. With an eye on Tennessee, the ACLU set out to initiate a court case to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law.

The Curtain Opens on Dayton
Within days of the ACLU's decision to test the Butler Law, George W. Rappelyea spotted a press release in a Tennessee newspaper offering legal support to any teacher who would challenge the law. For Rappelyea, an ardent evolutionist and a Dayton booster, there was no better way to bring down the detested law and promote the small Tennessee mining town. On May 5, Rappelyea and other local leaders met at F.E. Robinson's drug store and hammered out the details of their plan. All they needed was a teacher to test the law, and they found him in John T. Scopes, a 24-year old science teacher and football coach. When questioned about his teaching of evolution as a part of teaching biology, Scopes replied, "So has every other teacher. Evolution is explained in Hunter's 'Civic Biology,' and that's our textbook."

Scopes was hesitant, at first, to join the case, but Rappelyea was determined. The trial was to be a grand affair and bring fame and fortune to the small town. He began his scheme saying, "Let's take this thing to court and test the legality of it. I will swear out warrant and have you arrested ... That will make a big sensation. Why not bring a lot of doctors and preachers here? Let's get H.G. Wells and a lot of big fellows." With Scopes' agreement, Rappelyea wired the ACLU, and "the stage was set ... the play could open at once."

The Cast and Crew
The Scopes trial met all of Rappelyea's expectations and more. During the twelve hot July days in court, Dayton swarmed with politicians and lawyers, preachers and university scholars, reporters and even circus performers. The streets of Dayton took on the appearance of a small-town fair, with people selling food, souvenirs and religious books. On the side of the courthouse ran a banner blaring "Read Your Bible Daily!" The reporters came from as far away as Hong Kong, and collectively they penned more than two million words during the trial. Chief among the media was H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun , known for his caustic wit and cynical observations.

Into this media circus meets religious revival rolled two of the greatest legal minds of the time, facing off to battle each other. William Jennings Bryan called the trial a "contest between evolution and Christianity ... a duel to the death." Known as The Great Commoner to the people, Bryan was a three-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson. After a few years of retirement, he joined the Chautauqua circuit to rail against Darwin in tent revivals across the country.

Across the courtroom at the defendant's table was Clarence Darrow, with a sharp criminal lawyer's mind and an infamous reputation. To Bryan, he was "the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States." Darrow himself joined the defense table because "for years," he said, "I've wanted to put Bryan in his pace as a bigot."

Bryan's Show and Darrow's Finale
From the moment of Bryan's arrival in Dayton, the weight of public sentiment was in his favor. The records of the trial indicate that the townspeople came out for the trial in record numbers, packing the small country courthouse. Cries of "Amen" peppered the trial proceedings until the judge had to ask the observers to lower the noise level. Bryan planned to end the trial with a speech consummating his lifetime of preaching, one he had been preparing for seven weeks. Darrow, however, had other plans. Since the intention was to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law, Darrow wanted the jury to find Scopes guilty, so he could then appeal the decision in a higher court. He did not, however, plan to call Scopes to the stand, for if he were to do so, it might surface that Scopes had, in fact, not even been in school on the day mentioned in the indictment. He was meticulous in his effort to keep the trial free of technicalities. Just one could get the case thrown out with the law itself yet untested. Darrow also planned to call expert witnesses to give testimony about evolution. But when the judge ordered that Darrow could not call the scholars as witnesses, he shifted his plans.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the trial

After the judge moved the trial outside because of the 100-plus degree heat inside and the instability of the courtroom floor under the weight of so many spectators, Darrow, in a fantastic gesture, called William Jennings Bryan to the stand. The interchange which follows targets the essence of Darrow's argument and signals the turning point in the trial, which brought public sentiment decisively over to Darrow's side:
"You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"
"Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."
"Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"
"I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there ..."
Darrow continued to question Bryan on the actuality of Jonah and the whale, Joshua's making the sun stand still and the Tower of Babel, as Bryan began to have more difficulty answering.

Q: "Do you think the earth was made in six days?"
A: "Not six days of 24 hours ... My impression is they were periods ..."
Q: "Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a very long time?"
A: "They might have been."
Q: "The creation might have been going on for a very long time?"
A: "It might have continued for millions of years ..."

Darrow had set his trap and Bryan walked right in. Darrow asked for and was granted an immediate direct verdict, thereby blocking Bryan from giving his speech. Within eight minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of guilty and the judge ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed. In his last words to the court, Scopes, the man who was reluctant from the start, said, "Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future ... to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my idea of academic freedom."

Just five days after the trial ended, Bryan lay down for a Sunday afternoon nap and never woke up. The diabetes with which he had contended for years had finally taken his life.

The trial itself also passed on when more than a year later, on January 14, 1927, the State Supreme Court in Nashville handed down a decision which reversed the earlier one. However, the court's decision stemmed from the very point Darrow sought to avoid - a technicality. By Tennessee state law, the jury, not the judge, must set the fine if it is above $50. The Butler Law, then, stood untested.

Scopes' Place in Culture
The Scopes trial came at a crossroads in history - as people were choosing to cling to the past or jump into the future. The trial itself was a series of conflicts, the obvious one being evolution vs. religion. But as John Crowe Ransom notes, there were a series of tensions throughout the trial, including questions of collective vs. individual rights and academic vs. parental concerns, which have persisted in American culture since the birth of the nation. At issue in both of these conflicts was who had control of the society. Who controlled the schools - the masses or the teachers? Who determined the law - the people or the leaders of the town? The resolution was even more unsettling because there was none. Scopes lost the case, but won the public's favor, and the Butler Law remained on the books in Tennessee.

For historical scholars, understanding the Scopes trial begins with a cultural framework. To Ransom, the trial was a product of "the modernist-fundamentalist conflict of the period." As R.M.Cornelius wrote in "Their Stage Drew All the World," "This controversy, whose stage was the battle over the nature of the bible, produced a whole cycle of dramatic confrontations, of which the Scopes trial was but one."

The Scopes trial was not distinct, therefore, so much for its theme as it was for its was for its presentation. Other school districts and other towns, struggling with this very issue, missed the media circus. Dayton, however, came to center-stage, with the lawyers and business men writing the script and the country enthralled with this true American drama.

Background of Williams Jennings Bryan
Williams Jennings Bryan fused Populist rhetoric and policies with a new Democratic coalition. In the process became one of Nebraska's -- and the nation's -- favorite sons. But, like many early Nebraskans, he was born somewhere else -- in Illinois in 1860. His father was a lawyer and local politician. Both of his parents were intensely religious, and young William shared their fervor. At the age of 12, he joined the fight for prohibition of alcohol by signing a temperance pledge for school. After high school, attended law school in Chicago and worked in the office of Lyman Trumbull, Abraham Lincoln's friend and a U.S. Senator. Shortly after Bryan began is own law practice, he married Mary Elizabeth Baird.

He discovered Nebraska when he visited a law school friend in Lincoln after inspecting land in Iowa owned by his father-in-law. He saw Nebraska as a land of opportunity, and so Bryan moved to Lincoln and set up practice in partnership with his law school friend.

In 1890 -- just three years after coming here -- he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat. He was a long shot. No Democrat had ever been elected to Congress in the 20 years of statehood. But Bryan had realized that common people were in desperate financial times, and the Populist Party was probably at the height of its popularity. Bryan picked up some of the same ideas as the Populists. He won the election and became the first Nebraska Democratic Congressman. Bryan won a second term in Congress in 1892.

In 1894, he decided against another term in Congress and instead made himself a candidate for the U.S. Senate. But the Republicans were back in control of the Nebraska State Legislature and they elected a railroad attorney for the Senate seat. Without a political seat, he became the editor of the Omaha World-Herald, at that time a Democratic paper. His writings kept his name and ideas before the public, and he also traveled the Chautauqua lecture circuit.

Through these campaigns, writings and public appearances, Bryan had become one of the nation's best recognized advocates for the "free silver" policy. As the 1890s depression deepened, his ideas were catching on.

Free Silver was, by 1895, a political movement that was embraced by the Populists and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. During the Civil War, President Lincoln had issued paper money, rather than gold coins, for the first time in the nation's history. It was easier to print paper money than to mine or buy gold for coins, so there could be more money in circulation in the economy. That policy had helped pay for the war, but it had also stimulated inflation. So much paper money floating around tended to drive up prices. After Lincoln's death, national Republican leaders had worked to make sure that every paper dollar issued was backed with gold. This is known as a tight money policy. When the depressions hit Nebraska and other agricultural states, it was more difficult for borrowers to pay back loans to the eastern banks. Reformers in the Farmers' Alliance and other groups decided that backing the money with more plentiful silver rather than gold would make it easier for debtors to pay off their loans and remain on the farm. More money in circulation would make it easier for farmers to make some of that money and pay off their debts.

In the 1896 election, "free silver" was the central debate during the Democratic national convention. Bryan was selected as one of the main speakers. He gave a memorable speech, ending with all the righteous indignation he could muster -- "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

The delegates were stunned. The cheers and applause went on for over 30 minutes. He was nominated for the Presidency on the fifth ballot. At the age of 36, he was the youngest candidate nominated for the presidency to point. 

Bryan was running against Republican William McKinley who advocated conservative policies and ran a "front porch" campaign -- McKinley stayed at home and had groups of supporters come to him. Bryan, on the other hand, traveled over 18,000 miles and made over 600 speeches. Some days he would give 10 or 20 speeches. But it was not enough against the better financed Republicans. McKinley got 51 percent of the vote to Bryan's 47 percent.

Over the next four years, the political situation changed. The economy came out of depression and the country entered the Spanish-American War. Bryan raised a regiment of mostly Nebraska volunteers for the war, but President McKinley didn't want Bryan to get any glory and the regiment sat out the war in Florida. In 1900, Bryan was still the dominant figure in the Democratic party, and he got the party's presidential nomination. But silver was no longer the rallying point it had been. So, Bryan took up the anti-imperialism cause -- he argued that it would violate the essence of American democracy if the U.S. created an empire by taking over the Philippines from Spain.

Bryan was defeated by Taft again. This time he came home and began publishing the newspaper The Commoner from Lincoln. The 16-page weekly paper was mailed to up to 140,000 progressive supporters. That exposure, along with an aggressive schedule of speaking engagements, kept Bryan as a major figure in the Democratic party.

However, in 1904, the party endorsed the gold standard, nominated a strong gold supporter and lost the election by a landslide to Theodore Roosevelt, who had become President after McKinley's assassination in 1901. Roosevelt had adopted some of Bryan's progressive policies and was a charismatic candidate.

Bryan was nominated again in 1908 and ran against Roosevelt's hand-picked successor, William H. Taft. That election was the first to make use of recorded campaign speeches issued by the two opposing candidates. Some phonograph dealers put on "phonograph debates" with mannequins propped up in the stores as stand-ins for Bryan and William H. Taft. These were popular with the public and proved to be great fun. Despite his oratorical skills, Bryan lost the election to Taft.

In 1912, Bryan helped Woodrow Wilson win the presidency and Wilson named Bryan Secretary of State. He served for two years, negotiating peace treaties with 29 nations. He also helped Wilson push through a series of domestic reforms known as the "New Freedom" measures. But when Wilson began to push the country towards involvement in the First World War, Bryan resigned.

He turned his attention to other issues, saying that the three great reforms of the 1920s would be peace, prohibition and women's suffrage. His support was significant in passing the latter two causes. At the end of his life, he was more and more concerned with religious issues and he became even more famous for his prosecution of the Scopes monkey trial. He argued against the teaching of evolution. Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep in Tennessee.

In many ways, Bryan was ahead of his times. Despite his fundamentalist religious views, he was a progressive politician. The ideas he promoted unsuccessfully in 1896, were adopted by Teddy Roosevelt's platform in 1904. He supported the adoption of the Federal Reserve Act, the Federal Trade Commission, control of trusts and monopolistic companies, government control of currency and banking, voting reform and regulation of campaign contributions. Before Bryan, the Democratic Party was a conservative party of Civil War losers. After Bryan, the party was a progressive alliance of small businesses, farmers, blacks and blue-collar workers. It was this alliance that later elected Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

John Thomas Scopes
The following news story is taken from the front page of the Salem Republican dated June 11, 1925.

John Thomas Scopes, 24 years, indicted for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tenn., High School is present in New York securing counsel and advisers to face his trial, July 16th.

Merchants of Dayton were not slow to realize the commercial side of this trial. They held a banquet, invited Scopes to attend and mapped out a plan to secure rooms and board to accommodate the people who be attracted by the trial, reckoning it bring thousand of dollars to them. They planned to ride high, wide and handsome in the way of prices, which Scopes says disgusted him and he told them frankly it was a poor sample of southern hospitality, and suggested that every visitor be given a square deal.

One of the grand jurors who found the indictment suggested that hanging should be Scope's portion.

Scopes, it will be recalled, graduated with Salem High School class of 1919 on which occasion, Wm. Jennings Bryan delivered the address. (It will be recalled that Bryan was a prosecutor at the trial.)

The whole matter has assumed the portion of Dayton and her merchants endeavoring to secure a large amount of notoriety and publicity with an open question as whether Scopes is a party to the plot or not.

The Legend of the Scopes Trial - Science didn't really win
By David Greenberg
Posted Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005, at 4:25 AM PT

This has been the summer of "intelligent design." In August, President Bush endorsed this revamped version of creationism, and this week a Pew Forum poll found that fewer than half of Americans accept Darwin's theory of evolution. This widespread rejection of seemingly established truths has shocked many observers. After all, didn't the Scopes trial resolve this 80 years ago?

The anniversary of the "Monkey Trial" provides an occasion to remember that it didn't really settle what we assume it settled. Popular memory of the trial, reinforced by the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind , made it seem that evolution was triumphant and fundamentalism vanquished, but in fact the result was much more ambiguous. Anti-Darwinism didn't die in Dayton, Tenn., in July 1925—it just retreated temporarily from the national scene, to which it has now returned.

Like the 1960s, the 1920s witnessed a series of culture wars. After decades in which liberalism and science had gained popular acceptance, a backlash arrived in the '20s. A revived Ku Klux Klan swelled to 5 million members. Feminism, having secured women's suffrage, stalled. The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, prohibited the sale of alcohol. Congress restricted the immigration of peoples deemed undesirable.


000Noah's ARKives


Previous Articles

World History & Politics

Man / Woman's
Best Friend
(My Sir Winston)


The Few. The Proud.

U.S. Marine Scrapbook


U.S. Constitution

Build Your
Own Web Site

Current Events

Your Opinions