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Tennessee v. Scopes

The Circus Comes To Dayton

The legal teams fielded by both sides guaranteed the press attention they and Dayton's business leaders craved. The ACLU dispatched its chief attorney, Arthur Garfield Hays, and his partner, Dudley Field Malone, along with Clarence Darrow. Darrow, who had made his reputation by defending controversial clients, became the chief lawyer for the defense. A militant agnostic, he had long been on a personal crusade against resurgent Fundamentalism, and he saw the Scopes trial as the perfect opportunity to kick the wobbly intellectual props out from under that ideology.

Personifying the Fundamentalist world view, the star of the prosecution team was none other than William Jennings Bryan. No one was more holier-than-thou or more effective on the stump in defending old-fashioned rural America's Fundamentalist values than "The Great Commoner," as he liked to be called.

Pro- and anti-evolutionists alike billed the trial as a winner-take-all debate between incompatible ideologies, a forensic Armageddon between religion and science, faith and reason, traditional and modern values, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Scientists and intellectuals were horrified at the prospect of a state barring scientific knowledge from the classroom. Civil libertarians saw the case as a crucial test of academic freedom, which had to be defended regardless of the prevailing religious beliefs of the local population. Fundamentalists proclaimed the case a last-ditch battle to save the souls of their children from atheism.

Big-city editors recognized it as a circus and sent their most waspish reporters and columnists to poke fun at the locals. Dozens of new telegraph lines had to be strung into Dayton to handle their cable traffic. In addition to the lawyers and reporters, the town was overrun with itinerant preachers, commercial hucksters, eccentrics of every stripe, and numerous chimpanzees accompanied by their trainers. Monkey dolls, umbrellas with monkey handles, and dozens of other souvenirs with a monkey motif were put on sale.

Despite the circus-like atmosphere, the trial was no laughing matter for Bryan. Arriving a few days early, he preached to a large audience, "The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death . . . If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Tennessee v. Scopes - Significance, The Circus Comes To Dayton, Evolution On Trial, Darrow Deflates Bryan, Teaching Evolutionism