The Scopes “monkey trial” was the moniker journalist H. L. Mencken applied to the 1925 prosecution of a criminal action brought by the state of Tennessee against high school teacher John T. Scopes for violating the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools.
In the case Scopes v. State (1925), Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, pointing to a technicality in the issuance of the fine, overturned Scopes’s conviction, while finding the Butler Act constitutional.
Scopes challenged Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution
The case arose when, seeking to test the constitutional validity of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) placed advertisements in Tennessee newspapers offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to challenge the law.
George W. Rappleyea (sometimes spelled Rappalyea), who managed the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in Dayton, Tennessee, read the ad. His industry had fallen on hard times, and, because it was Dayton’s economic base, the town’s population had fallen by almost half.
Sensing an opportunity to put a revived Dayton on the map, Rappleyea convened a meeting at the town’s drugstore, owned by Rhea County School Board president Frank Earl Robinson, of several prominent residents, including school superintendent William White.
Civic boosters recruited teacher to challenge law
Following Rappleyea’s lead, this group of civic boosters recruited as their defendant Scopes, the 24-year-old football coach at Rhea County High School. Scopes also taught math and general science, and, on occasion, substituted for the principal in biology.
Among the many ironies at the Scopes trial, two surrounded the textbook at the center of the controversy.
First, Tennessee mandated that George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology (1914) be used statewide to teach biology, but the text endorsed evolution, effectively requiring biology teachers to violate the Butler Act.
Second, Hunter’s endorsement of evolution — a doctrine championed by Scopes’s supporters as the enlightened view — was derived from his embrace of eugenics as a means of protecting the white race, which he deemed superior, through hereditary selection.
Famous attorneys joined prosecution, defense
Bryan, the populist and three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee who was skewered by Darrow during direct examination about the Bible (Bryan professed to be an expert) on the trial’s seventh day, has been caricatured as a small-minded bigot. Yet Bryan volunteered to join the prosecution team because he opposed the theory of evolution for its association with eugenics and with social Darwinism.
Darrow was a legendary lawyer. Before volunteering to serve as John Scopes’s attorney, Darrow had built a national practice by losing only a single murder defense. Labor leaders Eugene V. Debs and William D. Haywood, wealthy University of Chicago students and accused murderers Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard A. Loeb (known more commonly as Leopold and Loeb), and Henry Sweet, a Detroit African American accused of murder in a civil rights upheaval, numbered among his most well-known clients.
Atmosphere of trial was festive
The trial began on July 10, 1925. The atmosphere was circus-like. Banners festooned Dayton, proclaiming “God Is Love,” “Read your BIBLE for a Week,” “You Need God in Your Business,” and “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”
More than six hundred spectators shoehorned themselves into the courtroom. The presiding judge, John T. Raulston, had proposed holding the trial outdoors in a tent that would accommodate twenty thousand.
The trial was broadcast over the radio — the nation’s first such live broadcast. Reporters assembled from as far away as London and Hong Kong. H. L. Mencken chronicled the trial for the Baltimore Sun.
The jury needed only nine minutes to find Scopes guilty.
Tennessee Supreme Court overturned teacher conviction but upheld law against teaching evolution
The judge then fined him $100, but that step turned out to be the procedural error that prompted the Tennessee Supreme Court to overturn Scopes’s conviction.
Although it found the Butler Act constitutional, the higher court held that only juries may impose fines of over $50. As a coda, the Supreme Court added: “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”
Years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Arkansas law in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), finding that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
This article was originally published in 2009. James C. Foster is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Oregon State University-Cascades.