The Scopes Trial — The BackgroundBecause of the play, the Scopes trial has been tarnished as an exercise in closed-mindedness and anti-science. Actually, it seems that everyone at least tacitly understood the whole thing to be a publicity stunt. While the Butler Act was passed overwhelmingly by both the Tennessee House and Senate, there was at least some expectation that the bill would be vetoed by Governor Peay. According to Tennesseans and Their History, "The governor considered the Butler Act chiefly symbolic and publically doubted that it ever would be enforced."2
However, no one counted on the newly founded American Civil Liberties Union and its president looking to set up a case to garner some free publicity. According to Marvin Olasky and John Perry:
The organization had a steady flow of money… what the ACLU needed more than cash was publicity. To that end, Baldwin and the rest of the leadership scanned the landscape for government actions they could challenge or laws they could test. With their original rationale gone, ACLU leaders moved from one cause to another in defense of free speech and free thought.3They go on to describe how the ACLU's secretary, Linda Milner, would collect "stacks of newspaper clippings" on anything that might interest the leadership. When she found an article on the law passed in Tennessee, she showed it to Baldwin and "he and Milner agreed on the spot that enactment of the law signaled an important opportunity to promote the ACLU and its liberal agenda."4 The ACLU then took out an ad in several Tennessee newspapers, asking for a person to volunteer as a defendant in "a friendly test case" of the law.5
The Scopes Trial — Searching for a DefendantThat ad was read by George Rappleyea, a mining engineer, who knew his impoverished town of Dayton needed something to breathe life into its morbid frame. Olasky and Perry write that in reading the ad:
Rappleyea saw something beyond a law or an argument. He saw a national cause in search of a focal point, a national stage casting for a willing star. Surrounded by the rusted relics of Dayton's prosperous past, he saw in the ACLU appeal a chance to put his struggling community in the national spotlight. Big news would generate big crowds, and that meant big business—maybe even a return to the glory years.6Rappleyea sold the idea to the Dayton town leaders while talking at a local drug store soda fountain table. In The Tennesseans and Their History, it tells that Rappleyea was debating the point that "biology could not be taught without teaching evolution. Scopes happened to come in at this point" and agreed. While he wasn't the biology teacher, he did help the students prepare for their tests. When asked if he ever taught evolution "Scopes said that any teacher who followed the state-approved textbooks taught evolution. The Dayton town leaders decided to take the ACLU up on its offer and had Scopes indicted by the Rhea County grand jury. (This put Scopes in an somewhat awkward position, as he was not sure that he ever had taught evolution, and he hoped his students would not remember he hadn't. The regular biology teacher, however, was a family man who did not want to face trial.)"7
The Scopes Trial — Add Celebrity LawyersGive that teaching evolution was a national discussion in 1925, the case made national news. But, the trial positively exploded when two of the most famous lawyers of that day decided to get involved. William Jennings Bryan was a popular figure of the World's Christian Fundamentalist Association, an early 20th century movement. The ECFA was worried that the ACLU would get all the press and spin the publicity against their version of creationism, so they asked Bryan, a nationally known speaker and three-time presidential candidate to partner with the prosecution, an offer that the Dayton leadership willingly accepted.
For the defense, the reporter, atheist, and Friedrich Nietzsche fan H.L. Menken (characterized in the play as E. K. Hornbeck) approached Darrow to lead the defense, but not for John Scopes' sake. "Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan" he is recorded saying.8 Darrow agreed to do so and waived all fees as "he couldn't resist such an enormous target" as Olasky puts it.9
The Scopes trial is normally offered as evidence of how science and religion are at odds. While it is true the various factions had different opinions on creation, evolution, how to teach, God and law, there is one point upon which everyone agreed: the trial had nothing to do with finding the truth, it was all about the publicity.
2. Bergeron, Paul H., Stephen V. Ash, and Jeanette Keith. Tennesseans and Their History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1999. Print. 251.
3. Olasky, Marvin N., and John Perry. Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005. Print. 18.
4. Olasky, 18.
5. Olasky, 18.
6. Olasky, 8-9.
7. Bergeron, 252.
8. Olasky, 26.
9. Olasky, 26.
Image courtesy Ann McKelvie. Licensed by Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license.