This month marks the anniversary of the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. John Scopes was charged and tried with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools. The Butler Act had been signed into law earlier that year by Governor Austin Peay, one of the most pro-education governors Tennessee has ever had. Austin Peay Normal School, later Austin Peay State University, was named after him for that reason. The newspapers recorded that Governor Peay thought the Butler Act was ridiculous. He publicly commented, “Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute.”
The Butler Act came to the attention of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which decided to challenge the act in court on First Amendment grounds. The ACLU issued a press release stating that intention. A few days later they were contacted by Mr. George Rappelyea, a civic booster in Dayton and an adherent of evolution theory. The result was the famous Scopes Trial, argued by two of the most famous figures of American law: William Jennings Bryan, defending the Butler Act, and Clarence Darrow, defending Mr. Scopes.
The Hollywood movie about the trial, “Inherit the Wind,” presented the enlightened forces of progress and virtue, portrayed by Darrow and Scopes, heroically resisting the harsh, repressive ignorance of Christian fundamentalism, portrayed by Bryan and the people of the town. Naturally, Hollywood got it completely wrong.
In fact, the trial was a fund-raiser for the town of Dayton. After being promised the ACLU’s support, Mr. Rappelyea contacted Dayton’s town fathers to meet him in F. E. Robinson’s drugstore where he explained his idea about a big trial. They all agreed it sounded like a good way to put Dayton on the map and make some tourist money. Mr. Scopes was not even a regular teacher, but a substitute. (In fact, he wasn’t even present at the school on the specific day cited in the indictment.) Mr. Scopes was summoned to the drugstore and asked to be the patsy. Everyone already knew Scopes was teaching evolution because every science teacher in town taught it, causing no religious turmoil there. Whatever the good Christians of Dayton were, they weren’t the mindless fundamentalists Hollywood later made them out to be.
At first Scopes hesitated to join the case, but Rappelyea described a grand trial to bring fame and fortune to the small town. He said, “Let’s take this thing to court and test the legality of it. I will swear out warrant and have you arrested. That will make a big sensation. Why not bring a lot of doctors and preachers here? Let’s get H. G. Wells and a lot of big fellows.” With Scopes’ agreement, Rappelyea wired the ACLU that the stage was set for the drama to open.
The trial was, of course, every bit the circus the town leaders hoped. Newsmen descended from all over the country. The courtroom was so sweltering the judge moved the trial onto the town quadrangle, which simply made more room for more people to come and spend their money. Finally, Scopes was found guilty as charged and fined a hundred dollars by the judge, which was paid by the town’s leaders.
Darrow appealed Scopes’ conviction to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out the conviction in 1927. However, the court overturned the conviction not on the merits of the case, but on the technicality that only a jury, not a judge, could set any fine more than fifty dollars. The Butler Act actually survived because the court made no ruling on the act’s constitutionality. It was not until the 1968 that the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit the teaching of evolution in public schools.
When the fall semester of 1925 began in Dayton, the teachers there went right on teaching evolution, and the good people of Dayton were as equally unperturbed by it as before, having laughed all summer all the way to the bank.