December 30, 2021

The Scopes Monkey Trial Again - Again

I am reposting this for no other reason that I was involved in a discussion about the matter and thought it worth reviewing.

The Scopes Monkey Trial - Again

Brian E. Birdnow

Few events in American history have become as thoroughly propagandized as the celebrated 1925 criminal case of John Scopes v. Tennessee. In the popular imagination, spurred on by stage plays and movies such as "Inherit The Wind" a brave band of free thinking schoolteachers, aided by an idealistic legal team faced down the forces of bigotry and ignorance in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. In this view of reality, Clarence Darrow demolished William Jennings Bryan in cross-examination and exposed Biblical theories of creation as scientific balderdash. The laws against teaching evolution were overturned. the "creationists" slunk back under the rock whence they came, Jennings Bryan died, and the world lived happily ever! How do we know this is true? The popular culture tells us this, so it must be so!

Unfortunately, this account of "What really happened" at Dayton is almost entirely false. The myths about this case were generated even as the legal drama was unfolding and slanted reporting, led by the dean of American journalists, H.L. Mencken framed the context in which the historical event has been viewed ever since. A careful study of the records involved in the case, along with all other historical information that is available show that the propaganda victory won by Darrow and company is, in fact, propaganda. It is certainly not truth!

What must be understood at the outset when beginning a study of the Scopes case is that it was a publicity stunt from the very start. It was, in fact, a "Put-up job" orchestrated by the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU publicly announced that they would defend, without fee, any public schoolteacher who would challenge the laws concerning the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms. The ACLU would not be using rookie attorneys, they would be retaining some of the best in the business. A schoolteacher who agreed to take up the cudgel in this case would be represented by the best lawyers in the land and all free of charge!

The actual development of this case as a practical matter in Tennessee followed the same carefully choreographed script that originated in the ACLU boardroom. In Dayton, Tennessee a couple of attorneys decided to challenge the Tennessee state law banning the teaching of evolution in the state schools. Their motives had more to do with the promotion of their growing town than for idealistic or scientific concern. the attorneys recruited John T. Scopes, a part-time biology teacher at the local high school. Scopes admitted that he knew nothing about Darwin and nothing about evolution, but after receiving assurances that he would not be placed in any true danger, Scopes agreed to participate in this charade.

When Scopes was cited for teaching evolution in the classroom(he received a summons-he was not hauled away in handcuffs) in the early spring of 1925 the decks were cleared for action. The ACLU retained Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial attorney in America to defend Scopes. Darrow was assisted by a partner, Dudley Field Malone. Malone was a New York divorce lawyer and sometime politician whose main claim to fame had come in 1915. Malone, fully aware that the British passenger liner the "Lusitania" was violating all of the laws of neutrality, nevertheless allowed the ship to sail out of New York harbor. Malone was the collector of customs at the port and should have prohibited the departure of the ship. He played fast and loose with the law and bore at least a share of the blame for the infamy which followed. This gross misconduct should have at least cost Malone his law license, but nothing happened!

The state prosecution team was headed by veteran Tennessee lawyers. They were aided in their preparation by William Jennings Bryan, whose main role was to serve as an adviser to the prosecution team on the nuances of the law in questin. Bryan had helped to draft the law in Tennessee and a number of other states and his explaination of the way in which the law was supposed to work was considrered important. Bryan did not lead the prosecution, he did not question witnesses, he did not condemn scientists. Bryan was, however, subjected to slander, ridicule, and malicious defamation from people who claimed to stand for tolerance and freedom of thought. Does this sound familiar to readers of this blog?

The trial itself was somewhat monotonous in its early phases. The only legal issue in doubt was whether Scopes had violated the law. The law, itself, was not on trial and the defense team had a slender reed on which to base their case. After much jockeying back and forth the defense asked for permission to question William Jennings Bryan on questions of Biblical accuracy. Bryan consented to answer questions and Darrow subjected Bryan to a tough grilling. What is generally un known is that Bryan needled Darrow on his amoral approach to the law and society. When Bryan questioned Darrow's decision to defend the admitted murderers Leopold and Loeb, Darrow replied that they were actually victims of a society that filled their minds with bad philosophy. Bryan argued that if society convinces people that they have no more capacity for moral reasoning than monkeys society will end up getting many more people like Leopold and Loeb. Yet the only thing that we "know" about the Bryan cross-examination today is that he was reduced to a blithering fool by the folksy, yet razor-sharp Clarence Darrow.

During the trial Darrow did mock religion, he did make sport of conventional morality and the liberal contempt for everything associated with middle class America was much in evidence. For his own part Bryan emphasized Darwinism's incomplete scientific proof. he stressed that evolution could not answer questions about the beginning of life, the ascent of man, the morphing of one species into another and other questions.

In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined one hundred dollars. The Tennessee appellate court overturned the verdict on a technicality and attempted to put the case to rest. Thanks to some slanted writing by the eastern press the impression was left that the trial was a catastrophe for Bryan and the evolutionists. A stroke killed Bryan five days after the trial ended adding weight to the legend that he had been broken in spirit by Darrow's relentless hectoring. In fact H.L. Mencken was reported to have been positively gleeful at Bryan's death saying "How do you like that? We killed the Son-Of-A-Bitch!" When Darrow was informed of Bryan's fatal strke he remarked (noting Bryan's overeating) "Stroke hell! Bryan died of a busted belly!"

Forgotten in all of this was John T. Scopes. What did Mr. Scopes get out of this spectacle? Most accounts say that he gave up teaching, attempting to leave the impression that Scopes was hounded out of the profession by the strain of the case. Actually, the ACLU paid for Scopes to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. This expensive perk is left unmentioned by most of those who comment on the trial. Scopes became asuccessful petroleum engineer in later years.

So we find that evrything "Inherit The Wind" tells us about Scopes v. Tennessee is not the whole story. The public should read some of the new works out there concerning the Scopes trial including Marvin Olasky's new work on the subject. Without this information most observers will not know the truth of the "Monkey Trial". Come to think of it, that is exactly the thing the evolutionists want!

Brian E. Birdnow Ph. D

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