The Scopes Trial

The ACLU agreed to join the Dayton trial. Initially against the ACLU's desires, Clarence Darrow joined the defense team, which consisted of local and ACLU lawyers. Approaching 70 years in age, Darrow had the previous year made headlines with his impassioned (and successful) plea to the judge to spare the lives of two young defendants, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, in an infamous murder trial in Chicago. Then William Jennings Bryan offered his services to the prosecution team. A proponent of anti-evolution laws, if not the specific Tennessee law, Bryan had been an American cultural figure since the Gilded Age: several times a presidential candidate; a tireless supporter of a variety of Progessive era causes; Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (a position he resigned in protest over Wilson's policies towards Mexico); a huckster for Florida real estate; and, always, a proponent of the fundamentalist point of view. With the addition of Darrow and Bryan, the hopes of Dayton's civic leaders for a circus-atmosphere that would garner lots of media attention were met.

The so-called "monkey trial" attracted a lot of media attention across the U.S. and in Europe. Satirist H. L. Mencken discovered that Dayton was not the backwater Southern village he had expected and that the natives were extraordinarily friendly to their cultural foes. Perhaps in disappointment, he left before the trial ended. The New York Times included coverage every day during the month of July, sometimes including several stories. Although the New York Times included copy on both sides of the issue, the newspaper's editorial stance clearly favored one side: modernism over fundamentalism. Reviews of international coverage of the trial were especially poignant, for most of the media in Europe could not understand why the Americans were spending so much time on an issue that Europeans had decided long ago in favor of modernism.

Social commentators then and historians and other scholars since have skewed our views of the Scopes trial. Ironically, the very people who had ballyhooed the trial for over a week in the summer of 1925--the press--came close to identifying the real importance of the trial immediately after it was over: it had decided nothing, the press claimed, and had instead been an opening battle in what was to be a long conflict between fundamentalists and modernists.

 

"The Oaks That Braved A Thousand Storms" cartoon

       
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