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The 1920’s were a period of transition for America. The culture of society
was quickly adapting to many new ideas and beliefs. Traditional schools of thought were
gradually being replaced with new technology and knowledge. The changes taking place
were the source of much conflict, as many historical events of the twenties can illustrate. One such event is the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. From our research we discovered that the trial pitted Modernists against Traditionalists, Fundamentalists against Evolutionists, and the Country against the City. However, these conflicts would not have been brought to the attention of the American public if the media had not been so engrossed in the event. That idea helped in formulating our research question: Why did the media choose to get so involved in such a localized, small town affair?
In order to answer this question we decided to examine the aforementioned
conflicts to try to understand why the media showed such strong interest in the trial. We found that the media recognized this case as a perfect way to bring these conflicts to the forefront of the American mind. By doing this, the ideas and beliefs of modernists could be showcased and possibly validated. This was a way to indirectly force change and
progress in America. To demonstrate this point, the socio-cultural conflicts need to be
investigated and related to the Scopes trial.
Before looking at these issues, some background is necessary. The whole
controversy originated when the Butler Law was passed in 1925 prohibiting the teaching
of the Evolution theory in state funded schools (Scopes and Presley 52). When the
American Civil Liberties Union discovered the law, they put out a press release requesting the cooperation of a Tennessee teacher in a “friendly test case” of the law (DeCamp 8). Dayton resident George Rappleyea and some friends came up with the idea to have the case in Dayton and decided to ask John Scopes to be the teacher to test the law.
Scopes was a science teacher at Dayton High School. However, he only
taught Biology for two weeks as a substitute at the end of the school year. When
Rappleyea asked Scopes if he taught the theory of evolution, he said he didn’t really
remember. Nonetheless, Scopes accepted the offer(despite some initial opposition), and
the Scopes “Monkey” Trial saga began.
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At this point the media was already involved. The Chattanooga Times was
contacted and six other newspapers(including one from New York) were interested before
Rappleyea even responded to the ACLU request. When William Jennings Bryan and
Clarence Darrow were named as prosecution and defense(respectively), other major
newspapers began to take interest. These included the Baltimore Sun, the New York
Times, the London Times, the St. Louis Dispatch, and the Philadelphia Inquirer (Scopes
and Presley 94). When the trial actually convened, the town of Dayton was flooded with
reporters, writers, and spectators. The attorneys involved used electronic microphones for the first time as the proceedings of the trial were broadcasted on the radio. Vendors even sold hot dogs, lemonade, and books on evolution and religion to the masses gathered outside the courthouse.
This type of coverage on a trial was unprecedented, and that is the main
reason we arrived at our research question. The media took this chance to showcase the
most controversial issues of the time. The first and most general of these is Modernism
One of the numerous factors that contributed to forming this conflict was
the sense of fear many Americans were experiencing at the time. This was a fear of
change and radical ideology that was beginning to surface in society. A British writer who had visited America described this fear:
America since the first World War has been the prey of multiple terror: fear of the
European alien, the Negro, the Asiatic; of Radicalism, Labor, Bolshevism.
Harassed by the prophets of woe, scared by the hundred-headed demon of
propaganda, the good American conceives a dread of every sort of modernism.
And in Tennessee, he is at the moment taking it out of an English avatar of
Anti-christ - Charles Darwin. (De Camp 17)
This fear was demonstrated in many of the other presentation topics. It was definitely present in the Scopes case, too. Traditional, fundamentalist doctrine was being challenged by modern, scientific thought. Concrete evidence of evolution’s validity was beginning to make Bible teaching foolish and archaic. I believe the media enjoyed exposing these ideas as a mechanism for making changes in American society.
The next conflict to be examined is Fundamentalism(religion) versus
Evolution. This conflict is probably the most relevant of the three to the Scopes case.
The trial came at a time when the traditionalists in society were becoming increasingly
fearful of the theory of Evolution because it was gaining support and momentum around
the country. Scientists were compiling more and more conclusive evidence as illustrated
by De Camp: “By 1925, new discoveries of early men had begun to flow in from Africa”
(22). Along with this increase in concrete proof of Evolution, there was concurrently
more criticism of fundamentalism appearing. Many members of the media including H.L.
Mencken and Stewart Cole criticized teaching the Bible’s ideas of creation in schools (De
Camp 25). With the presence of Bryan and Darrow, the Scopes trial put these ideas of
religion versus evolution on center stage.
The third and final societal conflict illustrated in the Scopes case was city
versus country. The census taken in 1920 showed city people outnumbered country
people for the first time (De Camp 18). Also, industry was rapidly growing every day.
The long standing power of farming and agriculture was giving way to the big business of
industries like auto and radio. America was quickly becoming more urban on a daily basis. The media explosion in Dayton demonstrates this point very well. In a sense, the media was bringing Dayton to the rest of the world, but more importantly, the media brought the world(and all of its urbanization) to Dayton.
The significance of this research question lies in the fact that without the
media, this trial would have taken place and may have been forgotten. However, thanks
to all the extensive coverage, a turning point in American society was magnified and
basically broadcasted to the world. The trial’s importance as a turning point is still
recognized today and is expertly characterized by Lynn Dumenil: “The trial is also
important for the way in which it highlighted a polarization - not just in religion but in American culture. The presence of Bryan and Darrow set the contrast between devout
and doubter, but also between country and city, between anti-modernist and modernist”
(190). Like other trials of the century, such as the Simpson or Clinton impeachment trials, the Scopes case would not have been as popular or have had such monumental effects without the help of the media.
Allen, Leslie. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Record and Documents of the “Bible
Evolution Trial”. New York: Arthur Lee and Co., 1925.
De Camp, Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1968.
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever?. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Scopes, John, and Presley, James. Center of the Storm. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and