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Famous Trials – The Scopes Trial

This article was approved by Jim Adler

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was a court case that happened in 1925. It involved John Scopes, a football coach and substitute teacher who agreed to become the target of prosecution for violating the Butler Act. The trial pitted the teaching of creationism against the teaching of evolution in a court of law. It quickly garnered a great deal of attention, becoming a spectacle and media frenzy that ultimately had very little to do with the defendant. To this day, it remains an important historical event about a topic that is still often debated.

Events Leading to the Trial

In the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and later The Descent of Man, in which he introduced his theory of evolution. His theories argue that mankind was not created but has developed from simpler existing species. This led to the publication of biology textbooks that included discussions on evolution, such as A Civic Biology by George William Hunter in 1914. Talk of evolution was just one sign of what some feared was a changing moral foundation and the loss of traditional values. This resulted in populist and former congressman William Jennings Bryan leading an anti-Darwinism movement that motivated Texas Rep. John Butler to write and introduce the Butler Act. The Butler Act became the first ban on teaching evolution and was signed into law by the Tennessee governor on March 21, 1925.

In an effort to challenge the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, placed an ad stating that they would represent a teacher who may have been in violation of the law and was willing to challenge it in court. This newspaper advertisement caught the attention of businessmen in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Eager to bring funds and attention to Dayton, they approached a Rhea County high school teacher by the name of John Scopes. Scopes had substituted as a biology teacher and believed that Darwin’s theories were correct. There are conflicting stories as to whether Scopes actually taught evolution during his substitution stint, but he agreed to stand trial. The prosecuting team included Attorney General Tom Stewart and Bryan, while the defense was led by a well-known lawyer named Clarence Darrow and included Arthur G. Hays and Dudley F. Malone.

  • The Scopes Evolution Trial of 1925: This brief page on the Rhea County, Tennessee, website reviews the events that brought about the trial of John Scopes. The page also touches on the trial itself and its outcome.
  • Clash of Cultures: The Scopes Trial: Click this link to read about some of the reasons why the Scopes trial happened and who may have had a hand in ensuring that it took place in Dayton.
  • Timeline: Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial: National Public Radio outlines the course of events in the Scopes Monkey Trial on its website. It starts with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and ends with ongoing evolution-related controversies as of 2005.
  • People and Events: John Scopes: This link to the PBS American Experience site features an overview of John Scopes and the Scopes Monkey Trial. The page offers information on Scopes, explaining how he came to be indicted for teaching evolution. The PBS page also discusses events during and after the trial.
  • The Monkey Trial: Open this link to the Scopes Monkey Trial page of the Independence Hall Association’s U.S. history site. The page is an overview of the events leading to the trial, such as the passage of the Butler Law. Readers are also given information about the trial itself and the presence of the media.

The Trial

The trial date was set for July 10, 1925, at which time a jury was selected to determine John Scopes’s guilt or innocence. The trial was held at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, although John Scopes himself never testified. At the outset of the trial on July 13, the defense attorneys attempted to get the entire case thrown out by citing the law’s conflict with the Constitution of the United States. Judge John T. Raulston, who presided over the trial, rejected this motion and the media got word of this, making it public news.

Raulston was criticized for starting each court session with a prayer and for starting the trial with a quote from the Book of Genesis. The judge refused to allow experts on evolution to testify in person, aside from a John Hopkins University zoologist named Maynard Metcalf. Darrow and Raulston argued repeatedly during the trial, going so far as to put Darrow in danger of being held in contempt of court. On July 16, ACLU attorney Dudley Malone gave a strong speech that spoke about freedom of speech and included a condemnation of anti-intellectualism. A series of confrontations erupted between Darrow and Bryan after Bryan was called to be cross-examined by Darrow over his views about the Bible, until Raulston called an end to this on the seventh day. The trial ended after eight days, and the jury deliberated for nine hours before coming back with a guilty verdict. The judge assessed John Scopes with a fine of $100.

  • This Day in History: July 10, 1925 The Monkey Trial Begins (video): On this page, visitors can watch a video or read about the start of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The page also offers a brief overview of the trial.
  • The World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Click this link to view a Bryan College page on The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Readers will find information that covers why the trial was held in Dayton and facts about each day of the trial. Post-trial information is also included at the bottom of the page.
  • The Scopes Monkey Trial: Learn about the lawyers, media, highlights, the trial’s historical impact, and more by clicking this link.
  • The Scopes Trial (PDF): This in-depth document about the Scopes trial discusses what happened from the passage of the Butler Law through the trial and testimony by the prosecuting lawyer. The end of the document sums up the trial and its impact for the reader.
  • The Closing Statement of William Jennings Bryan at the Trial of John Scopes: The emphasis of this article is the testimony of Bryan. Readers are given a brief amount of information regarding the events leading up to the trial.
  • State v. John Scopes “Monkey Trial”: Readers interested in learning about key events associated with the trial will find the desired information and more by clicking on this link.

After the Trial

John Scopes’s attorneys took the case to the Supreme Court of Tennessee and appealed the verdict on a number of legal grounds. They argued that the law was vague, it violated the First Amendment protection of free speech and the Tennessee Constitution’s clause on literature and science, and it violated the Tennessee Constitution’s provision against establishing a government-endorsed religion. The Tennessee Supreme Court rejected all of these arguments, instead invalidating the verdict because the judge decided on the $100 fine and not the jury. The Attorney General of Tennessee declared that there would be no retrial. The Butler Act was ultimately repealed in September of 1967, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws to be unconstitutional.

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