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.