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In a tiny courtroom in the county of Dayton Tennessee, the jury settled into their seats, ready to return the verdict in the most controversial case of the 1920’s, the scopes “monkey” trial. Up to this point, the trial itself had been a media spectacle; the lawyers, the witnesses, even the defendant had become media icons in the commercialism of the twenties. The trial itself was set up to be a media demonstration to challenge the constitutionality of the butler act. This act prohibited the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the bible,” and in particular, the theory of evolution. the American civil liberties union petitioned for a teacher to challenge this statute; john Thomas scopes, the local high school track coach and science teacher accepted the challenge and stood trial for teaching evolution the previous spring. Over the course of the trial Charles Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the attorneys on the case, debated each other profusely. Eventually Bryan even testified to the truth of the biblical story, even though he was massacred by Darrow upon examination. Despite all that the trial stood for, the most lasting aspect of the trial was that it brought the media into the courtroom, and the courtroom into the daily life of the American citizen.
The most common association with the trial is as an example of the debates that raged during the 1920’s; this case particularly described the battle between the conservative religious movement and the new liberalized ideas of evolution. The case is most often referred to for, and most commonly associated with, the debate between science and religion. The scientific revolution had its roots in the arguments of the trial. “Because of this, scientific thought becomes very prominent and also with this, self consciousness is elaborated upon. With the clear understanding of why mankind is self conscious, commercialism and consumerism start booming like never before!” (Gerstein 14) the monkey trial opened people’s eyes, as well as their pocketbooks; consumerism flourished more so now because people could use reasoning to justify the spending that they did. Every religion in the world preaches some form of love for others and respect for humanity, while science, and especially evolution, advocate the survival of the fittest organism. By developing a scientific outlook on life, people felt less indebted to their contemporaries and instead found themselves concentrating on material possessions.
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As consumerism began to flourish in the twenties, the roles of people began to change. The controversies that took place in the twenties most often dealt with the challenge that new ideas presented to the more traditional values of a Victorian period. For example, the roles of women changed during this period, from the Victorian idea of a gentle housewife to an empowered decision maker. America became a radical society that was filled with radical ideas; nicknames such as the “jazz age” and the “roaring twenties” accurately described the tension of this period. “The monkey trial has totally changed people’s priorities for life. Love and happiness have become obsolete and consumer status has taken over.” (Tompkins 14) this was one of the effects that the infamous trial would have on the everyday society of the twenties, and an effect that would carry on throughout the rest of the century, even into our lives in the new millennium.
The media blitz that surrounded the trial was a prefabricated plot that would carefully be strung out to capture the public’s attention and ensure fame for all included. The case itself was a test of the butler act; scopes was not meant to actually suffer repercussions from the actual decision. Indeed, he did not suffer the horrible consequences that some would have liked him to endure. After the trial, he turned down a position in the schools, realizing that the public was so enthralled with his life that they would pay more for his story than a teaching job could ever make him. “The Dayton school board, with mixed feelings about the fame into which the town had been thrust by the trial, offered scopes his old job. But he knew that teaching in Dayton could never be the same again. There were numerous other opportunities, including lecture tours and a movie contract.” (Tompkins 14)
in addition, the scopes trial was the first trial to ever be broadcast over radio waves. This meant that even though it already held the public’s attention because of the topic it covered, it could now be listened to in a private citizen’s home. this practice of listening in on trials and other affairs which are none of the public’s business has been exploited over the years, most recently with the infamous o.j. simpsom trial in california. the scopes case set a precedent which all other court proceedings have followed, in particular the ones that have involved celebrities, political figures, or scandals.
the scopes trial exemplified the debates that raged in the 1920’s; the debate between science and religion was just one of the liberating ideas that captured america. even though this trial is most famous for bring the religion v. science debate to the forefront, the most lasting aspect of the trial was undoubtedly that it brought the courtroom into the homes and the lives of ordinary americans. because the court case was so widely publicized, the matters of the court became a public spectacle, and the scopes trial set a precedent that other court cases would follow.
cq researcher (1997) aug. 22 vol. 7, no. 32: 754-768
decamp, l. sprague the great monkey trial doubleday, garden city, ny 1968
grebstein, sheldon the monkey trial: the state of Tennessee v. john t. scopes houghton, boston 1960
presley, james, and scopes, john t. center of the storm: memoirs of john t. scopes holt, reinhart, and winston, ny 1967
tompkins, jerry r. d-days at Dayton; reflections of the scopes trial louisiana state university press, baton rouge 1965