The Scopes Trial and the Problem of Democratic Control

For decades, defenders of liberty and self-rule have been fighting what seems like a continuous battle about the power, reach, and accountability of the federal government. Thoughtful critics of the federal invasion of our liberties draw from rich intellectual, political, and constitutional arguments. But few think as deeply about the cultural conditions of a free and self-reliant people.

The wearing away of American self-rule has been subtle. Knowing more about the ways that localism and Tocqueville’s vaunted “township freedom” have made possible the American regime of liberty will help us understand the cultural sources of our habit of freedom. It will also reveal how legal and bureaucratic incursions have, over time, sapped this cultural resource.

The complexity of the century-long assault on our constitutional order dissuades those who want clean, abstract, and constitutional arguments, but it rewards those who recognize in the messy details of this story the tangled resources of a self-governing people. One messy story might help illustrate the point.

In the sweltering summer of 1925, two elderly liberals came to do battle—one a populist and the other an elitist, both holdovers from a generation of battles over reform. This confrontation took place in a courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, a small town in the eastern part of the state, where a young schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, was on trial for a misdemeanor.

The trial attracted several thousand spectators and hundreds of newsmen, representing the most prestigious papers and journals in the nation. The radio broadcast by WGN of Chicago marked the first time a trial was ever broadcast live. Movie cameras captured moments of the event, the film rushed to the big cities to show the progress of the trial in newsreels that played before the main feature. Millions of Americans (and a great many foreigners) followed closely the events in Dayton as though the misdemeanor trial was the “trial of the century”—which it was dubbed even before it began. However one looks at the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” it was an odd event in American history—and such odd events usually point to complex cultural and political conflicts.

Reporters and historians have attempted ever since to explain this event in simple dualisms: religion versus science, fundamentalism versus modernism. Some of the participants—the ones the historians have tended to favor—understood the events in this way, but the Scopes Trial touched so many conflicting currents in American culture as to leave any serious observer confused. To understand the trial we must first make sense of the context.

Two trends merged in the 1920s to help create the conditions for the event. One was that, after the scientific community had wrangled over competing views of the theory of evolution for more than half a century, the theory was now widely accepted and had become a standard part of high school biology textbooks. Second, during the first two decades of the new century, state reforms in education led to dramatic increases in high school education and the taxes that supported it. Fundamentalist Christians had remained largely untouched by Darwinian science and evolution until they were forced to finance the teaching of it in the schools their children were required to attend.

As teaching about evolution reached an ever-increasing percentage of the population, parents and religious leaders began to mobilize in the early 1920s to gain state or local control over the content of science education. A number of states passed laws that in one way or another restricted or eliminated the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the schools. Tennessee’s law prohibited schools from teaching that humans “descended from a lower order of animals” and, importantly, violation of the law carried a fine. A newly founded New York-based institution dedicated to the defense of individual liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union, sought to challenge the law in the courts.

Placing an advertisement in Tennessee newspapers promising to provide legal support to any teacher who challenged the law, the ACLU caught the eye of a group of businessmen in Dayton. It was they who persuaded John T. Scopes, a coach and occasional science teacher, to challenge the state law banning the teaching of evolution. Dayton was not a bastion of modernism, but it was no fundamentalist hotbed, either. The businessmen simply hoped that a court challenge on this controversy would bring much attention—and with it, much-needed tourism. (The place was declining, having lost half its population over the previous decades.) For the “sponsors” of the event known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, the motivation was financial rather than intellectual or religious.

The Dayton businessmen worked to assure that the trial would be extraordinary, inviting even H.G. Wells—an English novelist well known for his hostility to organized religion—to participate. The ACLU, for its part, wanted a small trial that would lead to a Supreme Court case testing the constitutionality of the law. The businessmen would win in this struggle. William Jennings Bryan agreed to work on behalf of the prosecution, provoking Clarence Darrow to volunteer his services for the defense. The entrance of these two grizzled and famous liberals made the trial a sensation.

Bryan, the devout Presbyterian, former Nebraska congressman, and former Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson, was the most leftwing presidential candidate that any major political party had nominated up to this point. He had been the Democratic Party’s candidate three times, always advocating strong restrictions on big business capitalism and calling for more direct power for the people. On virtually every Progressive issue of his day, Bryan stood on the Left. He favored Prohibition, women’s suffrage, the government ownership of some utilities, federal income tax, initiative and referendum. In short, Bryan had been, until his defense of anti-evolution laws in the 1920s, America’s most stalwart liberal.

But in the Scopes Trial he was pegged as the defender of repression, of stupid reaction, of intellectual bigotry. Why? The answer lies not in Bryan’s changes, but in his consistency. Always concerned with the abuse of power, with the propensity of those who are strong to abuse those who are weak, Bryan rejected the Social Darwinism touted by certain intellectuals and businessmen. Spurred by his deeply felt Christian piety to go into politics, Bryan dedicated his career to protecting the weak. For this reason he targeted the “natural selection” element of Darwinian thought, saying it led to “Social Darwinism”—to allowing the strong to win at the expense of the weak in the name of progress.

Bryan had expressed concern about these matters for several decades, but he was inspired to take political action after, and because of, World War I. Influenced by scholars who associated German thought and culture with a species of Darwinism processed through the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Bryan believed that the Great War’s unimaginable slaughter—a conflict between supposedly “civilized” nations—was made possible by a belief system that emphasized strength over morals, and greatness won by the sword. Darwinian theories as applied to society were pernicious, he believed, and so natural selection ought not be routinely taught in biology class. He therefore joined the battle to empower the people of the states to determine what their children should be taught in mandatory government schools.

The anti-evolution laws were wise, from Bryan’s perspective, not only because they prevented impressionable youngsters from being exposed to a creed that supported abuse of the weak, but also because they reflected the power of the people to determine for themselves what their schools were going to teach. As important as any other principle for Bryan was the right of the majority to rule.

Clarence Darrow, one of the founders of the ACLU, was Bryan’s fellow Progressive, yet he represented everything Bryan feared. One of the relatively few consistent Social Darwinists, and an ardent admirer of Nietzsche (or at least a simplistic version of Nietzsche) and his doctrine of the superman, Darrow had become the most famous lawyer of his day. A longtime opponent of organized religion—his father had been the town atheist back in his native Ohio—Darrow considered Christianity to be an obstacle to science and progress and he had expressed, in no uncertain terms, his desire to bring it into disrepute.

Darrow’s other great frustration was with the doctrine of majority rule and he had cultivated a caustic elitism that ridiculed all things democratic. He saw in the Scopes Trial the opportunity to show up a “fool religion” (he sometimes called it a “slave religion”) and to “focus the attention of the country on the programme of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America.” To accomplish this, Darrow had no interest in persuading a jury or, for that matter, the people of Tennessee—his audience was the informed elite of America, most of whom lived in the cities of the Northeast.

So, different people were interested in the Scopes Trial for different reasons: Local businessmen hoped it would put their town on the map; the ACLU wanted to challenge a law they saw as threatening individual liberties; Bryan wanted to uphold majority rule and fight Social Darwinism; Darrow wanted to bury fundamentalism and to undermine faith in democratic rule; most local residents wanted the right to determine the education they paid taxes to support; fundamentalists wanted to defeat evolutionary doctrines; and most outside observers simply enjoyed the show.

And a show it was. The most basic issue at stake was whether Scopes had violated the law. The larger constitutional issue was whether the state had the right to dictate the content of public education. On the first issue, Scopes admitted to violating the law—even though there is some evidence that the class he was teaching hadn’t gotten far enough along in the textbook to get to the relevant chapter. The prosecution should have been simple, straightforward, and boring. Neither lawyer wanted the case to proceed in that way. Darrow insisted that he needed expert witnesses to establish his case—he wanted to put fundamentalism on trial. In a surprise but calculated move, he called Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. The exchange between the two men became famous.

Bryan was a Christian but he was neither a fundamentalist nor a Biblical scholar. Still, he took the stand, and when asked by Darrow to defend a “literal” reading of Scripture, gamely tried to do so. His answers exposed his limited understanding of the scholarship of both biology and Biblical literature. Darrow and his allies felt vindicated by their humiliation of Bryan and believed that no matter the outcome of the trial, the goal of discrediting fundamentalism had been accomplished.

Scopes, of course, was found guilty. But unfortunately for Darrow and the ACLU, the Supreme Court of Tennessee threw out the conviction on a technicality, thereby ignoring the real question of the law’s constitutionality.

The larger significance of this famous legal contest is unclear. On the one hand, fundamentalists became less eager to fight their battles in the media. But on the other,  their numbers grew steadily even as more liberal, mainline churches declined. Moreover, these fundamentalist churches constructed new institutions that provided for the education and doctrinal support of their members. Even so, few historians or commentators noticed the growing numbers of fundamentalists or their institutions until conservative Christians came back into politics in an organized manner in the 1970s.

As for the teaching of biology in the public schools, after the trial, textbook companies altered their textbooks so as to virtually eliminate discussions of Darwinian natural selection—a situation that would last until the early 1960s. Whatever else the trial tells us, it suggests that the United States was experiencing a complex social and cultural transformation and that the struggle to live in modern America was a difficult challenge for a great many people, and for many different reasons. At stake were competing definitions of freedom—with some advocating the freedom of a democratic people to direct their lives collectively around shared ideals, and others seeking to protect individual freedom from democratic control.

Reader Discussion

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on November 17, 2015 at 10:25:41 am

Excellent post. History fascinates.

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Mark Pulliam
on November 17, 2015 at 13:46:56 pm

This is a terrific essay. Bravo!

A colleague of mine--a political theorist, not an historian--is fond of the quote (I do not at this moment recall its original author) "a text without a context is a pretext."

This essay's excellence lies in its careful attention to context. It is history done properly, albeit minus the scholarly apparatus.

I learned much from this essay. Can I trust that it is an exerpt of a more extensive work? If so, when and where can I go to read the fuller version?

Many thanks,

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 17, 2015 at 23:10:15 pm

Good essay. With that said,the only answer back in 1925,as it is today,to the problem of what to teach in the Public Schools would be to separate education from the state. What should be done,on a national or Federal level,would be a Constitutional Amendment that separates education from the state. This Amendment would be similar to the 1st Amendment which prohibits the establishment of a state religion. What would happen would be an enabling clause to force the sale or closing of all Public Schools,Community Colleges and State Universities to private entities. For those who wish to home school or set up religious schools or for that matter atheist schools the state,as is in the case of religions,would have no input either curriculum wise or funding wise. All school bureaucracies,up to and including the Federal Department of Education,would be forced to close and the taxes involved in either the public institutions or educational bureaucracies should be returned or lowered to the various taxpayers.

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libertarian jerry
on November 18, 2015 at 08:59:31 am

It is a matter of interest that the educated man in this trial was Bryan who possessed three earned degrees, a B.A.;M.A.;LL.B. whereas Darrow was self educated for the most part, having learned a great deal in his labor in the courtroom. All of the hullabaloo about threatening liberties was a cover to deny and to take away those very liberties and deliver them into the hands of an elitist group (should read a group of wealthy people who controlled the media, the money, and the means of access to power for the most part). Interestingly enough, one, if not the only, writer of the summary and, perhaps, the appeal, was a person who had practiced before the US Supreme Court for more than ten years and had never lost a case, one Phillip Mauro. The father of a friend attended the trial. He had neither education or the ability to write, but he did have a fantastic memory for whatever he heard. His son, later a veteran of World War II and a preacher would attend three schools above the secondary level and be a strong creationist. If one traces the money and the men behind it, one finds a deliberate and concerted effort to take away a basic tenet of Christian democracy, namely, the Bible, which people had accepted as approving of their form of government with its attendant liberties. Darrow and the ACLU seem to be following the founder who supplied the money for the ACLU, and his aim of Communism which by the thirties had the power to fight preachers on radio, get an executive fired from a leadership position in a council of churches (a fellow who had degrees from Columbia and Yale as well as two other schools and who had been invited to join the Communist Conspiracy while as student at Columbia and had turned it down). I had the privilege of studying under one of the theoreticians of World Communism and writing a critique of Marx's emancipation of the working class for him. Using Milovan Djilas work, The New Class, I pointed out that Communism was merely a new class, one more greedy and rapacious than any in history perhaps due to its lack of awareness of its power, at least, at the first. It was always a matter of wonder to me that I should study under one of the Marxian theoreticians who was teaching at a small state school in the Middle West in the sixties. O yes, the Kellogg Commission of the early twenties found that Germany was being educated in Social Darwinism and they concluded that this did not bid any good for the future of the world. Less than twenty years later they were proven correct, Evolution and Elitism, the thin veiled covers for the money power that stood to profit by the War to come (II). Recommended reading IBM and Holocaust by Black.

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dr. james willingham
on January 30, 2016 at 15:02:40 pm

It is a self evident truth that our Founding Fathers were not evolutionists but creationists, for they did not state, unanimously, that all men have evolved equally, but rather, that all men have been created equally:


No doubt, our Founding Fathers recognized that a human person can only conceive a human person, thus every son or daughter of a human person can only be a human person. Not only has there never been a moment in Time when an ape conceived a human person, there has never been a moment in Time when an ape morphed into a human while walking around.

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on January 30, 2016 at 17:58:31 pm

Among the subjects studied for a Master's degree in American Social and Intellectual History at Morehead State University (where I took my master's in '71) was the subject of evolution and Social Darwinism, along with all that followed from such teachings. Next came my work toward the Ph.D., 6 hrs. at the Univ. of South Carolina and 12 at Columbia Univ., where I delivered a lecture in an afternoon lecture series and wrote a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation in Black History (American, of course). Later I would go on to attend seminary and take an M.Div. and a D.Min.(Doctor of Ministry). I did a project for the latter degree on Christian Love & Race Relations and was told by my Director for the Project that that was a controversial subject and I ought to have known better. He added that if the church fired me, he would be right there supporting them. My education ended with a M.A. in Counseling. Having attended some 10 universities and colleges and taught in three, I learned some of the ends and outs of higher learning. Unfortunately, for Americans, we have a tendency to fall into group think mentality. Back in the early sixties Americans in the higher institutions of learning were still able to think for themselves. One professor at the University of Missouri was asked to teach a course in evolutionary genetics. He said to the administration, ""Why are you asking me to teach it? I don't believe it, and I will tear it to pieces." They said, "That's okay. Go ahead and teach the course." One of my church members was in that class. What we need are some scientists who can think for themselves and cannot be bought or manipulated by money or administrative decrees. We might then learn that the buying of the educational control by the federal government was a front for getting things taught in our public schools that would contribute to the increase of control of the people until it would reach the point that there would that the means of hearing even conversations in and seeing them occur, too, would come to pass as it has. A nerdy friend of mine went into his new 55 inch screen tv, knowing about the problem, shut the thing down, and the next day he had a phone call from the manufacture saying there was something wrong with his TV.

The short of the whole affair is that the manufacturers put the stuff in for commercial purposes and for purposes of national security. Naturally the government makes use of the means as well as companies do.

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dr. james willingham
on July 18, 2019 at 09:58:07 am

[…] adapted from the 1955 play written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is just one aspect of the popular mythology that surrounds the […]

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Inheriting the Wind, or Reaping the Whirlwind?

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.