(Above: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan)
Mr. Darrow: You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation? When was that flood?
Mr. Bryan: I wouldn’t attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.
Mr. Darrow: About 4004 B.C. ?
Mr. Bryan: That has been the estimate. I would not say it is accurate.
Mr. Darrow: That is the estimate printed in the bible.
Mr. Bryan: Everybody knows that – at least I think most of the people know – that was the estimate given.
Mr. Darrow: But what do you think that the bible itself says? Don’t you know how it is arrived at?
Mr. Bryan: I never made a calculation.
Mr. Darrow: A calculation from what?
Mr. Bryan: I could not say.
Mr. Darrow: From the generations of man?
Mr. Bryan: I would not want to say that.
So it went in the cross examination of William Jennings Bryan by Clarence Darrow at the height of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial which began on today’s date, July 10 in 1925. The trial pitted religion against science, and became a focal point of a growing national debate on the subject which continues down to the present day.
The Law Against Teaching the Theory of Evolution is Challenged.
(Above: William Jennings Bryan addresses the court)
A law, which had been passed in March, made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” In Dayton, Tennessee, a teacher, John Scopes with local businessman George Rappalyea, had planned to be charged with this very misdemeanor, and following the arrest of Scopes, the pair applied to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help in organizing a defense. Hearing of this apparent attack on Christian fundamentalism, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate and a fundamentalist hero, volunteered to assist the prosecution. Bryan, a larger than life character who was possessed of a huge, booming voice and known as “the Great Commoner” was also a hero of the progressive movement in American politics. Soon after, the great attorney Clarence Darrow was enlisted to join the ACLU in the defense. Darrow who gained national prominence with his defense of the murderers Leopold and Loeb, had supported Bryan in his Presidential campaigns, but as a celebrated agnostic, drew a sharp difference with his erstwhile ally on the subject of religion. Thus, the stage was set for one of the most famous trials in U.S. history.
The Trial Pits Religion -vs- Science
On today’s date, the “Monkey” Trial (so it came to be called because of Darwin’s theory that man had evolved from apes) got underway, and within a few days veritable legions of onlookers and reporters descended upon Dayton like a plague of locusts as preachers erected revival tents along the main street to keep the religious adherents of Bryan stirred up. Inside the Rhea County Courthouse, the defense had some early reverses when Judge John Raulston ruled against their move to declare the law unconstitutional and then declined to cease the ritual opening each of day’s proceedings with a prayer.
Judge Raulston went on to wreck the defense’s planned strategy by ruling that expert scientific testimony on evolution was inadmissible–on the grounds that it was not that law which Scopes had violated, but rather Scopes himself who was on trial. The following day, Raulston had the trial moved out to the courthouse lawn, fearing that the weight of the crowd inside was in danger of collapsing the floor, although it was likely the intense heat indoors which brought the move outside.
In front of several thousand spectators out in the open air, Darrow sprung a surprise upon Bryan by calling as his sole witness Bryan himself in an attempt to discredit his very literalist interpretation of the Bible. In a relentless grilling by Darrow, Bryan was subjected to severe ridicule and backed into making ignorant and seemingly contradictory statements to the amusement of the crowd:
Mr. Darrow: Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?
Mr. Bryan: No.
Mr. Darrow: Have you ever tried to find out?
Mr. Bryan: No sir; you are the first man I ever heard of who was interested in it. (laughter)
Mr. Darrow: Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who was interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?
Mr. Bryan: You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at these different periods.
Mr. Darrow: Where have you lived all of your life?
Mr. Bryan: Not near you. (laughter and applause)
Mr. Darrow: Nor near anybody of learning?
At a later point in the trial, Darrow closed in on Bryan on a point of biblical interpretation:
Mr. Darrow: Have you any idea of the length of the periods (the days in Genesis)?
Mr. Bryan: No, I don’t.
Mr. Darrow: Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
Mr. Bryan: Yes.
Mr. Darrow: And they had evening and morning without the sun?
Mr. Bryan: I am simply saying it was a period.
Mr. Darrow: They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?
Mr. Bryan: I believe in creation, as there told, and if I am to explain it, I will accept it…
Bryan Dies Shortly After the Trial
Actually, Bryan knew very well that Darrow was going to attempt to do this, but had wanted to avoid appearing afraid to face his antagonist. On July 21, in his closing speech, Darrow asked the jury to bring a verdict of guilty so that the case could be appealed. As a result of this tactic, Bryan was denied the chance to deliver the closing speech he had been planning throughout the trial. After eight minutes of deliberation, the jury did in fact bring a guilty verdict, and Raulston ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the which was the minimum the law allowed. While Bryan had won the case, he had been publicly humiliated and his fundamentalist beliefs had been held up to ridicule. On Sunday, July 26, 1925, he drove from Chattanooga to Dayton to attend a church service, and ate a meal. Afterward, he took a nap, and died in his sleep and from the effects of diabetes and fatigue — just five days after the Scopes trial ended.
In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court wound up voiding the Monkey Trial verdict on a technicality but left the constitutional issues unresolved until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar Arkansas law on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
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“The Scopes Trial” by Edward Caudill, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2000.