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Tennessee v. Scopes

Darrow Deflates Bryan

The trial, which had been moved to the courthouse lawn to accommodate the crowds, seemed to be winding down when defense attorney Hays dropped a bombshell: He called William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. This was an unheard-of legal tactic, but, with jaunty overconfidence, Bryan sprang up to accept the dare and the doubtful judge agreed. Darrow, whose skill at trapping witnesses with their own words was legendary, dropped his previously gentle manner when Bryan took the stand. First, he got Bryan to state every word in the Bible was literally true. He then asked how the Old Testament figure Cain got a wife if he, Adam, Eve, and Abel were the only four people on earth at the time, as the Bible said. Next, Clarence Darrow pointed out that the Book of Genesis states that the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden was condemned by God to slither on its belly, Darrow then asked Bryan if before that, had the snake walked on its tail? The more Darrow attacked, the more entangled Bryan became in contradictions, and the more foolish he and his cause appeared.

Sweating and shaking, Bryan shocked his own supporters by admitting he did not think the earth was made in six 24-hour days, as a literal reading of the Bible suggested. This was significant, since literalism was the cornerstone of Fundamentalist doctrine. The personal antagonism between Darrow and Bryan charged the courtroom with electricity. Bryan accused Darrow of insulting the Bible. Darrow responded, "I am examining you on your fool ideas that no Christian on earth believes."

Finally, after an hour and a half, Judge Raulston adjourned the proceedings in a transparent attempt to save Bryan further embarrassment. The next morning Bryan's testimony was described as irrelevant and removed from the record by the judge. The defense immediately rested, denying Bryan any opportunity to erase the previous day's humiliation.

Closing for the defense, Clarence Darrow stole the prosecution's lines by asking the jury to find Scopes guilty so that the case could be appealed. After nine minutes, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. In violation of Tennessee law, which required that the fine be set by the jury, Raulston advised the jury to let him fix the fine, an error that led the court of appeals to reject the original verdict. While the appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act, it did not order a retrial for John Thomas Scopes, who by that time had given up teaching.

In a narrow sense, Scopes and the evolutionists lost the battle. But it was soon apparent that they had won the war. No attempt was made to enforce the Butler Act again, although it was not repealed until 1967. Within a few years, efforts to enforce similar laws in other states were also abandoned. The Supreme Court put the issue to rest in 1968, when it held a similar statute in Arkansas unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

But the Scopes trial is remembered not so much for its legal as its social and cultural significance. It marked a watershed in intellectual history; before Scopes,, religious faith was the common, if not universal, premise of American thought; after Scopes,,scientific skepticism prevailed. Friends and enemies alike viewed William Jennings Bryan's death just a few weeks after the trial ended as tolling the end of an era. A 1955 play and subsequent film based on the events in Dayton, Tennessee, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, ensured that the trial would remain among the most remembered courtroom battles in U.S. history.

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