The Scopes Trial

"What Would Their Verdict Be?" cartoon

The Scopes trial occurred within a rather complex context of political, legal, and cultural events. The First World War had focused Americans on the notion of "Americanism"; the First Red Scare (1919-1920) and the on-going Sacco and Vanzetti affair (1920-1927) continued the debates over the place of "radical" ideas in American society and gave rise in 1920 to the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was dedicated to promoting the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution). Fundamentalists, moreover, were attacking modern forces that, to them, undermined the Protestant beliefs upon which they believed the United States had been founded.

There were other forces at work, of course. The trial happened in Dayton, Tennessee, because of a confluence of fortuitous events and enterprising individuals. First, the Tennessee legislature, influenced by fundamentalists, enacted the statute forbidding the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution as fact to Tennessee school children. (The law did not forbid the teaching of evolution, per se.) Second, the American Civil Liberties Union placed ads in Tennessee papers announcing that it would aid any individual willing to challenge the new law as unconstitutional. Then, George W. Rappleyea, a transplanted New Yorker who managed area mines for Northern business interests in Dayton, saw one of the ACLU ads and had an idea. He called a meeting in Dayton's drugstore in which he, area prosecuting attorneys, John Scopes (a substitute teacher), and a handful of others discussed the new law and how the town might take advantage of it. By the end of the meeting, Scopes had agreed to be the object of a test case. While most in the group opposed the new law, the main force in their decision to go forward was not legal or even cultural but rather economic: the trial, they hoped, would put Dayton on the map and increase its economic fortunes, which had been flagging for some time since the smelter had been shut down. Thus, civic leaders chose to take advantage of the cultural clashes to boost the fortunes of the city of Dayton.

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