The Scopes Trial Still Fascinates

Rachel Maddux has an interesting article about the annual celebration of the Scopes trial in the town where it took place, Dayton, Tennessee. One of the things that most people don’t understand about the trial is that it was almost entirely a show trial, engineered by both the town and the ACLU (the former for financial reasons, the latter for legal reasons).

But the real story of the trial, like Dayton itself, began with the mines: they were dwindling, the town was suffering, and a group of local boosters—including drug store owner and school board president F. E. Robinson and school superintendent Walter White—were looking for a pick-me-up. Meanwhile, the fledgling ACLU was offering pro-bono legal representation for any teacher accused of breaking Tennessee’s recently passed Butler Act. Soon as the boosters got a whiff, they pounced. The trial was bound to be a big to-do somewhere, so why not Dayton? A willing defendant was found in John T. Scopes, a teacher and football coach at Rhea County Central High School. “I wasn’t sure if I had taught evolution,” Scopes wrote in his 1967 memoir. “Robinson and the others apparently weren’t concerned with this technicality. I had expressed willingness to stand trial. That was enough.”

Scopes was served with a warrant but never incarcerated. At the end of his eight-day trial, Bryan and the prosecution had won. But, in a way, so had the defense—among other maneuvers, Darrow had angled all along for a guilty verdict, planning to appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court. (He did; they upheld the ruling, but dismissed Scopes’s fine on a technicality.) Both sides left town nursing a certain sense of bruised victory. The only clear loser was Dayton.

The ACLU had taken out newspaper ads seeking a teacher who would violate the Butler Act in order to trigger a trial that would allow them to challenge the constitutionality of that act. The town of Butler and the state of Tennessee were as eager to have the act tested in court as the ACLU was. And all of this repeated itself a decade ago with the Dover trial. Our side was waiting for a chance to challenge the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools and the creationists were as well. The Thomas More Law Center had actually sent letters to school boards telling them that if they put the book Of Pandas and People, they would defend them in court for free (but not pay the inevitable legal fees of the plaintiffs when they lost).

And that’s exactly what happened. The Dover school board used it, the Thomas More Law Center defended them, and both sides finally had their chance to take the matter to court. And unlike the Scopes trial, the outcome was unequivocal and correct.

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  • frankniddy

    “school superintendent Walter White” – No word on whether he taught chemistry beforehand.

  • Chiroptera

    The only clear loser was Dayton.

    How did Dayton lose? Was the trial not as big a money maker as they were expecting?

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    Can you and how do you post images in the comments??

    Here’s a couple of interesting cartoons from the trial:

    http://howlandbolton.com/images/evolevol/5riseandfall.gif

    http://howlandbolton.com/images/evolevol/6cakeeater1925.gif

    They are from this: The Evolution of the Evolution Cartoon

  • tbp1

    Interesting—and actually true—factoid: one of the prosecutors was a (male) lawyer named Sue Hicks. Supposedly this is where Johnny Cash for the name for the song, but who knows…?

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    I posted a link to an essay on The Evolution of the Evolution Cartoon which is somewhat relevant to the Scopes trial, but is seems to have become enspammed. :-(

    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=331#2

  • Konradius

    Correction:

    > The town of Butler and the state of Tennessee

    That should be the town of Dayton…

  • http://www.atomiccitizen.net/ EricJohansson

    Another oft-unheard of angle to the Scopes trial is that William Jennings Bryan (Darrow’s legal adversary on the anti-evolution side) is often portrayed as some backward fundamentalist hic, when actually he was a progressive radical when it came to economic justice issues, and a multiple presidential candidate. He’s views were so far to the left of any contemporary Democrat, he would’t survive a minute in his party today.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    YOU DARWINISTS LOST!!! I KNEW THE SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL WOULD GO OUR WAY WHEN THE MONKEY TOOK THE STAND AND ADMITTED HE DIDN’T ASCEND TO NO HUMAN!!!

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    EricJohansson “Another oft-unheard of angle to the Scopes trial is that William Jennings Bryan (Darrow’s legal adversary on the anti-evolution side) is often portrayed as some backward fundamentalist hic, when actually he was a progressive radical when it came to economic justice issues…”

    As a Leftwing Populist of that era, he could be both (plus silver and gold-buggery to boot!).

  • dingojack

    Richard – Here another one.

    http://images.sodahead.com/polls/000281666/polls_kansas_evolution_1450_203791_answer_2_xlarge.jpeg

    Dingo

    ——–

    There is also an image (which I can’t find) of an ape wearing a sandwich board that reads: ‘Am I not a brother?’

    Which ties into:

    http://files.libertyfund.org/img/2366/antislaverymedal450.jpg

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    Ah! Yes!! I know that one, it’s from Punch in the middle of the C19. I think this is it:

    http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/comm/Punch/Monkey.html

    (The other one is pretty good too!)

  • vmanis1

    Today Bryan is remembered for the peroration to his speeches against the gold standard, `You shall not crucify us on a cross of gold!’ which is one of the more lopsided victories of emotion over logic in political history.

    For those few who have not seen it, I do heartily recommend the 1960 film of `Inherit The Wind’, where not-Darrow asks not-Bryan where Cain and Abel got wives. When Brady (I mean not-Bryan) can’t answer, not-Darrow asks `Did somebody pull off another creation over in the next county?’ Fredric March is brilliant as not-Bryan.

  • dingojack

    richardelguru (#10) – Sorry I didn’t get back to last night (it was late).

    Yes that’s the one. It’s interesting that the Punch cartoonist (Doyle?*) had clearly seen the Emancipationist cartoon and extended the idea to non-human species.

    At the time I’d suppose the answer to the question posed would be ‘no’ but now….**

    Dingo

    ——–

    * Arthur Conan Doyle’s Uncle, Richard, was an illustrator for Punch for many years

    ** In 1850 the answer to the emancipist question would have been a definite ‘no’, then 30 years later the answer (at least in some places) would have been a tentative ‘yes’. Funny how things that seem to be certain aren’t nearly as certain as one thinks.

  • mikeymeitbual

    Hey Ed, I noticed the following and unless my understanding of English is incorrect, this sentence is missing a piece:

    “The Thomas More Law Center had actually sent letters to school boards telling them that if they put the book Of Pandas and People, they would defend them in court for free (but not pay the inevitable legal fees of the plaintiffs when they lost).”

    It seems like there should be a description of where they put the book after the title. Please let me know if I’m missing something.

    Now that I put my technical writer self away, I think going to trial knowing full well that the court will not rule in your favor to facilitate getting the case heard in a higher court where the ruling would have a greater impact. I would liken it to a bluff in a small pot so you can win a bigger pot later when you have the best hand.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    Dingo (#12) … and I’m up early so no need to apologise!

  • Nick Gotts

    a (male) lawyer named Sue Hicks

    Setting aside gender issues, was there ever a clearer case of nominative determinism?

  • caseloweraz

    Rachel “Maddux” — where did that come from?

  • caseloweraz

    Ah, my bad. I assumed — without checking the link — that this referred to Rachel Maddow, not Rachael Maddux. Time for another cuppa.