Scopes Trial Essay

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The Scopes Trial was the Tennessee legal case involving the teaching of evolution in public schools. A statute was passed (Mar., 1925) in Tennessee that prohibited the teaching in public schools of theories contrary to accepted interpretation of the biblical account of human creation. John T. Scopes, a biology teacher, was tried (July, 1925) for teaching Darwinism in a Dayton, Tenn., public school. Clarence Darrow was one of Scopes's attorneys. Darrow argued that academic freedom was being violated and claimed that the legislature had indicated a religious preference, violating the separation of church and state. He also maintained that the evolutionary theory was consistent with certain interpretations of the Bible, and in an especially dramatic session he sharply questioned Bryan on the latter's literal interpretation. Scopes was convicted, partly because of the defense, which refused to plead any of the technical defenses available, fearing an acquittal on a technical rather than a constitutional basis. Scopes was, however, later released by the state supreme court on a technicality. Although the outcry over the case tended to discourage enactment of similar legislation in other states, the law was not repealed until 1967. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin's theory of evolution from American classrooms. Bryan's motivation for mounting the crusade is unclear. It is possible that Bryan, who cared deeply about equality, worried that Darwin's theories were being used by supporters of a growing eugenics movement that was advocating sterilization of "inferior stock." More likely, the Great Commoner came to his cause both out a concern that the teaching of evolution would undermine traditional values he had long supported and because he had a compelling desire to remain in the public spotlight--a spotlight he had occupied since his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention. Bryan, in the words of the columnist who covered the Scopes Trial, transformed himself into a "sort of Fundamentalist Pope." By 1925, Bryan and his followers had succeeded in getting legislation introduced in fifteen states to ban the teaching of evolution. In February, Tennessee enacted a bill introduced by John Butler making it unlawful "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals." The Scopes Trial had its origins in a conspiracy at Fred Robinson's drugstore in Dayton. George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at the drugstore with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others--including School Superintendent Walter White--became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890's to 1,800 in 1925. The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore. As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, "John, we've been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution." Scopes agreed. "That's right," he said, pulling a copy of Hunter's Civic Biology--the state-approved textbook--from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). "You've been teaching them this book?" Rappalyea asked. Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review...
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