Scopes Monkey Trial

Scopes Monkey Trial

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I think the Scopes trial brought together a great cast of characters: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; America's best defense attorney, Clarence Darrow: and its most popular journalist, H. L. Mencken.
It was a trial about ideas, a contest between traditionalism, the faith of our fathers, and modernism, the idea that we test faith with our intellect. And it had what the New York Times called the most memorable event in Anglo-Saxon court history: Darrow's calling of William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor, to the stand and examining him on his interpretation of the Bible. Seventy-five years later, this trial has stood the test of time.
Clarence Darrow was a nearly-70 year old attorney who was largely regarded as America's most eloquent defense attorney. He had the ability to transform almost any courtroom trial into a much larger context, and raised large social and political issues that captured the public imagination.
He also had a very good sense of humor, which sometimes got him into trouble, as in the Scopes case, when complaining to the judge after his request to introduce scientific expert testimony had been rejected said, "Why is it that all of our requests are rejected?" The judge answered, "I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the Court?" Darrow replied, "Well, Your Honor has the right to hope."
H. L. Mencken was the reporter who played a large role in the trial, and is well-known as one of America's most colorful, acerbic, and in his own way, prejudiced reporters, but his colorful reporting added greatly to our understanding of the trial.
William Jennings Bryan was a three-time failed presidential candidate who, in the years preceding the Scopes trial, had transformed himself into a sort of fundamentalist pope. He campaigned against evolution, at one time offering to pay $100 to anyone who personally could prove that he descended from a monkey.


If the trial were held today, the law would be held unconstitutional as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause in the First Amendment. The trial would thus have been decided on the motion to quash the indictment, and there would have been no witnesses and none of the entertainment that we got in 1925.



Scopes' Place in Culture
The Scopes trial came at a crossroads in history - as people were choosing to cling to the past or jump into the future.

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The trial itself was a series of conflicts, the obvious one being evolution vs. religion. But as John Crowe Ransom notes, there were a series of tensions throughout the trial, including questions of collective vs. individual rights and academic vs. parental concerns, which have persisted in American culture since the birth of the nation. At issue in both of these conflicts was who had control of the society. Who controlled the schools - the masses or the teachers? Who determined the law - the people or the leaders of the town? The resolution was even more unsettling because there was none. Scopes lost the case, but won the public's favor, and the Butler Law remained on the books in Tennessee
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