Sopes Trial
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Sopes Trial
Scopes Trial
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Scopes Trial

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High School American History and Economics help. Supreme Court case summaries.
Taylor Coppage's insight:

The Scopes Monkey Trial - 1925 - In 1925 in Dayton Tennessee a group of teachers decided to test a law called the Butler Law. The Butler law made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution and instead mandated the biblical interpretation of creationism. The teachers felt that academic freedom and integrity as well as separation of church and state was at stake. Twenty four year old science teacher and football coach John T. Scopes would teach the class. Knowing he would be arrested Scopes taught the class and set into motion one of the most important trials in American history.

Scopes was arrested, as expected, for violating the Butler Law. At the ensuing trial William Jennings Bryan (Yes, the Populist guy!) acted as special prosecutor. World famous criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. The trial raged on for days. The judge did not allow any of Darrow's scientists to testify and public sentiment in the Bible Belt was against Scopes. Bryan portrayed Darrow as an agnostic and atheist. In desperation Darrow put Bryan himself on the stand. Darrow brilliantly was able to get Bryan to admit that the word of the bible is not literal, it was interpreted. This seemed to destroy the whole case. Darrow asked for immediate judgment and when the jury came back Darrow was shocked...he had lost! The judge levied the minimum fine possible ($100) against Scopes. Later that year the Scopes conviction was overturned on a technicality.

What did all this prove? Well for one it showed the religious and conservative nature of America. It also displayed the vast differences between the big cities and the small towns. The big city newspapers covering the trial scoffed at the Butler Law as small minded and archaic. In the cities Scopes was a hero but in Dayton Tennessee he was a criminal.

America was left with many questions. Were we to be a modern nation, the nation of Lindbergh and the roaring twenties or were we to be the nation of religious right wing conservatives? Only time would tell.

 
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Scopes Trial

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Travelers wandering through Dayton, Tennessee, in mid-July 1925 might have been excused for thinking that the tiny hill town was holding a carnival or perhaps a religious revival. The street leading to the local courthouse was busy with vendors peddling sandwiches, watermelon, calico, and books on biology. Evangelists had erected an open-air tabernacle, and nearby buildings were covered with posters exhorting people to 'read your Bible' and avoid eternal damnation.

If there was a consistent theme to the garish exhibits and most of the gossip in Dayton it was, of all things, monkeys. Monkey jokes were faddish. Monkey toys and souvenirs were ubiquitous. A soda fountain advertised something called a 'monkey fizz,' and the town's butcher shop featured a sign reading, 'We handle all kinds of meat except monkey.

As comical as this scene sounds, its background was anything but amusing. Sixty-six years after Charles Darwin published his controversial Origin of Species, the debate he'd engendered over humankind's evolution from primates had suddenly reached a fever pitch in this hamlet on the Tennessee River. Efforts to enforce a new state statute against the teaching of evolution in public schools had precipitated the arrest of Dayton educator John T. Scopes. His subsequent prosecution drew international press attention as well as the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It also attracted two headliners of that era–Chicago criminal attorney Clarence Darrow and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan–to act as opposing counsel.

Bryan characterized the coming courtroom battle as a 'duel to the death'–one that would pit religious fundamentalists against others who trusted in scientific conclusions, and would finally determine the right of citizens to dictate the curricula of the schools their tax dollars supported. The case rapidly took on a farcical edge, however, as attorneys shouted at each other and outsiders strove to capitalize on the extraordinary publicity surrounding this litigation. (At one point, for instance, a black man with a cone-shaped head who worked New York's Coney Island sideshows as Zip, the 'humanoid ape,' was offered to the defense as the 'missing link' necessary to prove Darwin's scientific claims.) The 'Scopes Monkey Trial,' as history would come to know it, also included a personal dimension, becoming a hard-fought contest not just between rival ideas, but between Bryan and Darrow, former allies whose political differences had turned them into fierce adversaries.

 
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The Scopes Trial

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The role of The Scopes Trial in the history of the United States of America.
Taylor Coppage's insight:

In March 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a measure known as the Butler Act that made it illegal for teachers in the public schools to present as factual any theory of creation other than the biblical account. This law, of course, was aimed at English biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was grossly distorted in the public mind to assume that man had descended from apes. A firm grip on traditional values was important to many rural Americans during the turbulent postwar years, when cultural tensions were evident in such issues as prohibition, racial and ethnic relations and religous authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an advocacy group formed in 1920 to protect the rights bestowed by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, advertised in Tennessee newspapers to find an individual willing to challenge the Butler Act. Several civic leaders in the hamlet of Dayton found a willing participant in John T. Scopes (1900-70), a substitute high school biology teacher. The motivation for the challenge was not only rooted in a fundamentalist response to the teaching of evolution, but also as a means to train a national spotlight on the tiny, struggling community.

Scopes was promptly cited for teaching evolution as a fact in his biology class, which set the stage for what was then termed “the trial of the century.” Press representatives from most of the nation’s major newspapers poured into Dayton and many filed daily reports of the proceedings. A circus-like atmosphere prevailed and happy local merchants raked in the profits. The trial was also followed closely in Europe, where few understood America’s preoccupation with religious fundamentalism.

Scopes was represented by ACLU lawyers who reluctantly allowed the noted defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, to take center stage. Darrow induced his client to readily admit his violation of the Tennessee statute, but argued that the law violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state as well as Scopes’ academic freedom to express his professional views. Darrow argued further that evolution in the minds of many ministers and theologians was consistent with some interpretations of Scripture.

The prosecution also stood in the shadow of a prominent personality —Willim Jennings Bryan, the former secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate, who volunteered to serve as an advisor to the state. Near the end of his long career, Bryan was a firm religious fundamentalist, but urged the prosecution to fight its battle on constitutional grounds. Bryan believed that communities were justified in setting curriculum standards in tax-supported schools. However, he was overruled by his colleagues who chose to argue science and religion.

Bryan blundered during the trial by allowing Darrow to call him as an expert witness on the Bible. Under relentless questioning carried live on the radio, Bryan came across to many as old, tired and foolish. In the end he disappointed even his supporters by admitting that some biblical events should not be taken literally. Bryan died five days after the trial's conclusion.

The outcome of the proceedings was never in doubt. The judge made clear to the jury that the law’s constitutionality or efforts to support the validity of Darwin’s theory were not germane; the only issue in question was whether or not Scopes had presented evolution as fact — and he had admitted as much. The teacher was found guilty and fined $100 for his transgression.

Later, on appeal, the Tennessee supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the law, but reversed Scopes’ conviction on the technical point that the fine had been excessive.

Some observers, then and later, proclaimed the Scopes Trial as the turning point in the struggle between rural fundamentalist values and those of scientifically-inclined urban dwellers. In the short term, the celebrated “Monkey Trial” probably inhibited the passage of laws similar to Tennessee’s in other states that did not want to endure the ridicule that had been heaped on Dayton.

However, from the longer view, the trial might better be regarded as an opening scene in an ongoing American drama. Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967, but opposition to the teaching of evolution flourishes today in efforts to remove it from public school curricula or to have it share its place with so-called “creation science.”

 
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