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Arguably the most famous trial in American history, Tennessee v. Scopes, also known as the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” began 75 years ago on July 10, 1925, in Dayton, Tenn., and enthralled the country and much of the world for eight days. The “Trial of the Century,” people dubbed it, although the century was barely a quarter old. The proceeding pitted two towering figures of the era: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. In the center of the maelstrom was an unknown Tennessee schoolteacher, John Scopes, who had been charged with violating a new Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Bryan was 65 years old at the time of the trial and nationally known as a former U.S. representative and a three-time Democratic Party nominee for the presidency. While never elected to the highest office, Bryan had served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. A populist leader hailed as The Great Commoner, Bryan had become the most in-demand stump speaker in the nation. Long before 1925, Bryan was criss-crossing the county crusading against “the menace of Darwinism” and the theory of evolution — “apeism,” he called it. ” ‘The Rock of Ages’ is more important than the ages of rocks,” he would often say. When Bryan heard that 24-year-old high school teacher Scopes had been charged with violating an anti-evolution Tennessee statute, he volunteered to prosecute Scopes — even though he had not practiced law for more than 30 years. Bryan viewed the case as a chance to publicize his anti-evolution cause. By the time Scopes was arrested in 1925, Darrow, 68, was already a famed criminal defense lawyer. Darrow’s national reputation as a defender of unpopular people and causes had already been established through earlier trials, including the big Leopold and Loeb murder trial of 1924. Darrow felt so strongly about individual rights, academic freedom, and the freedom to dissent that he volunteered to defend Scopes when he heard that William Jennings Bryan was going to prosecute the teacher. A collision was predictable even before the trial began. “Clarence Darrow is the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States,” Bryan thundered. Darrow shot back: “For many years, I’ve wanted to put Bryan in his place as a bigot.” So the stage was set for what 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson, author of “Summer for the Gods,” called “a classic confrontation between two of the greatest orators we have ever had in this country.” There is a body of opinion today that suggests that the trial was largely a publicity stunt. Proponents of this theory point to two institutions — the American Civil Liberties Union, based in New York City, and Robinson’s Drug Store on Main Street in Dayton. The ACLU, they say, conceived and promoted the test case challenging the Tennessee law, the Butler Law, named for state legislator John Butler. The organization offered in Tennessee newspapers to defend any teacher charged with violating the law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Robinson’s Drug Store was the gathering place of a small group of enterprising local businessmen who had seen the ACLU offer in the Chattanooga Times and had reasoned that a sensational trial in Dayton would put their little town on the map and benefit business. They hatched a plan to exploit the ACLU offer; all that was needed was a willing teacher. In 1925, the five-year-old ACLU was still seeking its first court victory. It is also true that the young organization wanted to raise public awareness of its mission and increase its membership. Yet, credible evidence shows that the ACLU was committed to a serious test case of the Tennessee law. In fact, there is compelling evidence that the ACLU wanted to avoid a sensational trial and was not pleased by Darrow’s offer to defend teacher Scopes. Some ACLU officials worried that Darrow was a headline hunter who would turn the trial into a sensation. But Scopes told the ACLU that he wanted Darrow because he was “best suited for the expected roughneck battle.” In the years following World War I, a nostalgia for the relative simplicity and “normalcy” of pre-war society was developing throughout the nation. A return to faith offered comfort and stability to many, and fundamentalism rose in popularity, especially in rural America. Believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible, fundamentalists singled out Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution as the enemy to be eradicated from society, beginning with the education system. Oklahoma, Florida, and Mississippi passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Thus, an atmosphere of conflict between science and religion was in place and growing in Tennessee by the time of the Scopes trial. The World Christian Fundamentalist Association held major conferences in Tennessee. Teaching evolution was now a political issue. “Support Bryan and the Bible” was the cry. Bryan had publicly declared that he did not oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools as long as it was dealt with as a theory and not as a fact. Yet, at the trial he went into attack mode: “The Christian believes man came from above, but the evolutionists believe he must have come from below.” Said Bryan, “Slam the door to science when science sets a canker on the soul of a child.” After his opening statement — “If evolution wins, Christianity goes” — Bryan toned down a bit and defined the case without a religious shading, arguing, “The real issue is not what can be taught in public schools, but who shall control the education system. If the people of Tennessee are not to control the schools, who shall control them — scientists?” Darrow’s reply went to the essence of his argument throughout the trial. “If you make it a crime today to teach evolution in public schools,” he said, “you can make it a crime tomorrow to teach it in private schools. At the next session, you may ban books and the church, then magazines, and newspapers.” Darrow was frustrated during most of the trial. He protested the reading of a prayer on opening day. He didn’t appreciate the long reading of verses of Genesis by Tennessee Circuit Court Judge John Raulston. In jury selection, he tried for balance and open minds, but recognized that jury members were “unanimously hot for Genesis,” as acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken wrote from Dayton. Darrow protested a banner hanging outside the Rhea County Courthouse blaring “Read Your Bible Daily.” It all prompted him to say at one point in court, “We are marching backwards to the glorious age of the 16th century when bigots lighted fagots to burn men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.” Darrow and Bryan arrived in Dayton on different trains three days before the trial. The town resembled a carnival. Banners decorated the streets. Chimpanzees performed in a sideshow on Main Street. Merchants placed pictures of monkeys and apes in their windows, including a chimpanzee drinking soda. Members of the Anti-Evolution League were selling T.T. Martin’s book, “Hell and High School.” Robinson’s Drug Store flew a banner saying, “Where It All Started.” A sign near the courthouse entrance said, “Sweethearts, Come to Jesus.” Darrow was not thrilled by it all. But his biggest frustration lay ahead. He had brought to Dayton a group of distinguished scientific experts to testify about evolution. Raulston, a candidate for re-election, would not permit the scientists to testify. The central question of this trial, the judge declared, was whether Scopes had broken the law, and testimony by scientific experts was irrelevant to that question. Scopes never took the witness stand. He and Darrow thought it would be too risky because Scopes was not a biology teacher and might not have fared well under cross-examination. Scopes had been a teacher of general science for only one year and a football coach. Near the end of the final term, the Rhea County High School’s regular biology teacher fell ill, and Scopes filled in for him. In his memoir, Scopes cited the textbook he used, “William Hunter’s Civic Biology.” It was the standard biology textbook approved by the state textbook commission and included a chapter explaining evolution with an evolutionary chart. “I don’t know, technically, whether I had violated the law or not,” Scopes wrote. “I knew of the Butler Act. I’d never worried about it. … I assumed that if anyone had broken the law it was more likely to have been Mr. Ferguson [the regular biology teacher].” Scopes pointed out that if he had broken the law, “so has every other teacher. There’s our text, provided by the state. I don’t see how a teacher can teach biology without teaching evolution.” He said he reviewed the book with students for final exams. One of the denizens of Robinson’s Drug Store who had prevailed upon Scopes to test the constitutionality of the Butler Law was Fred Robinson, chairman of the county school board and owner of the establishment. His store, Darrow slyly observed during the trial, sold Hunter’s book. Although the events in Dayton predated television, the trial became a media circus nonetheless. Two hundred reporters and 65 telegraphers from around the world rolled into town. The most notable were H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun and syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler. Radio WGN in Chicago, where Darrow practiced law, produced the first live national radio broadcast of an American trial. By trial’s end, the press transmitted two million words to the world — more than had ever been cabled about any other American event, historians estimate. For this was the age of newspapers, not TV sound bites. Words mattered more than images; whole speeches were read and heard. Oratorical skills were valued. The European press, amazed by the trial, gave it front-page coverage daily. Noted European scientists and theologians protested the assumptions of fundamentalism. Former British Prime Minister Lloyd George condemned the Tennessee law. The French press satirized the case in commentary and cartoons, asking, “Was a monkey or Adam the grandfather of Uncle Sam?” Up north, the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia universities denounced the Tennessee law and joined an ACLU committee to help raise money for Scopes’ defense. “We don’t need anybody from New York to come down here to tell us what it [the Tennessee law] means,” Dayton attorney Ben McKenzie told the court. Judicial and historical scholars unanimously point to one event in the trial as the most dramatic. A frustrated Darrow, barred from putting his scientific experts on the stand, summoned Bryan to the witness box as an expert on the Bible. The New York Times called the subsequent interchange “the most amazing courtroom scene in Anglo-American history.” The spectacle took place outdoors, on the lawn of the courthouse, because the heat inside the courtroom registered more than 100 degrees and the judge feared that the building’s floor might collapse from the weight of spectators. Three thousand people, twice the population of Dayton, were on the lawn for this scene: Darrow: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan? 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.” Darrow: “Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?” Bryan: “I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there.” As 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, Bryan began to have more difficulty responding. Darrow: “Do you think the earth was made in six days?” Bryan: “Not six days of 24 hours. . . . My impression is they were periods. …” Darrow: “Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a long time?” Bryan: “They might have been.” Darrow: “The creation might have been going on for a very long time?” Bryan: “It might have continued for millions of years.” Darrow had set a trap, and Bryan walked into it. With each admission Bryan made casting doubt on the literal truth of the Bible, public sentiment shifted over to Darrow. The press painted Bryan as a pitiable punch-drunk warrior. Although Darrow had embarrassed Bryan, he ultimately lost the case. He asked the jury to return a guilty verdict so that the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. After eight minutes of deliberation, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and the judge ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100. The Scopes trial has left a significant legacy. As a clash of ideas, it was a sign of the swirling times of the Twenties. It was the most talked about and publicized misdemeanor case in American history. Yet, neither side could claim victory. The battle between fundamentalists and urban modernists was neither decisive nor a turning point. The debate over science and religion continues today in America. One of the trial’s lasting legacies is “Inherit the Wind,” by playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Inspired by the clash of ideas in Dayton, the play has been translated into 34 languages and has spawned stage, film, and television versions starring the likes of Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Ed Begley, Frederic March, Henry Fonda, Tony Randall, Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelly, and Darren McGavin. The most recent television version of “Inherit the Wind” starred George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon. Accepting the Golden Globe Award in February for his portrayal of the defense attorney, Lemmon said it is “one of the best plays of the century.” A revival of the play is now being prepared for presentation from September 26 to November 5 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. It will star James Whitmore as Henry Drummond, the character based on Darrow, and Robert Prosky as Matthew Harrison Brady, who was inspired by Bryan. Playwright Lawrence, who turned 85 on July 14, is planning to attend the opening of the play at Ford’s Theatre with the widow of his co-author. A few academics and theater critics have criticized Lawrence and Lee for taking liberties with the details of the Scopes trial. Yet, in their preface to the play, Lawrence and Lee wrote: ” ‘Inherit the Wind’ is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tenn., during the scorching July of 1925, are clearly the genesis of the play. … Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes trial. Some of the characters are related to the colorful figures in that battle of giants, but they have a life and language of their own — and, therefore, names of their own. … ‘Inherit the Wind’ does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as ‘Not too long ago.’ It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.” Can science and religion be reconciled? The final scene of the play suggests an answer. Darrow is standing alone on the stage. He notices a copy of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” on a table. He weighs the volume in his hand. Then he notices the Bible on the judge’s bench. He picks up the good book in the other hand. He looks from one volume to the other, balancing them thoughtfully, as if his hands were scales. He half smiles, half shrugs. Then he slaps the two books together and jams them into his briefcase, side by side. The curtain falls. The two books complement each other, Lawrence and Lee are saying to us. Mark B. Lewis is a retired Foreign Service Officer who served in the Middle East, India, and Africa. As a freelance journalist, his work has been published in such newspapers and magazines as The Washington Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The International Herald Tribune, and American Heritage, among others. He lives in Chevy Chase, Md.

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