“I do not think about things I don’t think about.”

July 21, 2008, 9:05 pm

[Author's Note/Update: Thanks to Vance Maverick for the link to the above vid.]

On this day in 1925, Judge John Raulston handed down a guilty verdict in the case of Tennessee v. John Scopes, known at the time and ever since as the Monkey Trial.

The trouble began early in the spring of that year, when Tennessee’s progressive governor, Austin Peay, abandoned his better judgment in a fit of political expedience and signed a new anti-evolution law. The so-called Butler Law made it

unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.

Almost immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union began looking for a teacher willing to challenge the law. But it wasn’t until a group of boosters in the small town of Dayton decided that any publicity would be good publicity for their burg that John Scopes, a part-time science teacher, agreed to bring evolution into his classroom. He later explained that, “the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.” Although the details of Scopes’s transgression remained sketchy, local authorities, likely in on the game, happily arrested him. Whereupon Judge Raulston put his thumb on the scales of justice, encouraging the members of the grand jury to indict Scopes. When they complied, Dayton had its controversy.

And then things got interesting. George Rappalyea, who had cooked up the idea of the publicity stunt, hoped that H.G. Wells, “in the interest of science,” would lead Scopes’s defense. But Wells demurred, and Clarence Darrow, among the nation’s most famous lawyers and a passionate agnostic, volunteered instead. William Jennings Bryan, three-time failed presidential candidate and a former secretary of state, faced off against Darrow. The Monkey Trial would turn into a circus.

As nearly a thousand people jammed into the Rhea County Court House on July 10, downtown Dayton’s Main Street, festooned with banners celebrating the big event, hosted vendors hawking lemonade, fundamentalists passing out copies of T.T. Martin’s Hell and the High Schools, and chimpanzees performing carnival tricks. Despite Darrow’s opposition, Judge Raulston, flanked by two police officers who kept the air circulating around him, began the trial with a prayer. After jury selection — twelve men, eleven of whom regularly attended church — Raulston adjourned for the weekend. That Sunday, William Jennings Bryan delivered the sermon at Dayton’s Methodist Church. Judge Raulston listened from a front pew.

The following week, both the prosecution and defense cast the trial as a titanic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. Bryan insisted, “if evolution wins, Christianity goes.” Darrow countered, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” Bryan’s case was simple: Scopes had violated Tennessee law by using a biology textbook in which evolutionary theory figured prominently. Darrow, by contrast, hoped to turn the proceedings into a rigorous biology seminar for the nation. He relied on expert testimony from Dr. Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from Johns Hopkins, to make his case. Although Judge Raulston initially allowed Metcalf to take the stand, he later ruled the scientist’s testimony inadmissible. Darrow, infuriated, expressed frustration over the ruling, prompting Raulston to ask, “I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?” Darrow then quipped: “Well, your honor has the right to hope.” Raulston had the last word, holding Darrow in contempt — until Darrow apologized for his intemperate remark.

The trial reached its peak on the seventh day, when nobody rested. The defense called Bryan to the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible. Darrow asked Bryan a series of pointed questions designed to test the limits of biblical literalism: on the whale consuming Jonah, on Noah and the flood, and, finally, on the creation story. Bryan, who initially stated that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” later allowed that there might be a bit of wiggle-room in the revealed word of God. Darrow pounced, subjecting the witness to a withering interrogation. A flustered Bryan admitted, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Finally, after a particularly heated exchange — in which Darrow dismissed Bryan’s “fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes” — Judge Raulston adjourned the court. The next day, he struck Bryan’s testimony from the record.

The Times noted: “The end of the trial came as unexpectedly as everything else in this trial, in which nothing has happened according to schedule except the opening of court each morning with prayer.” Darrow asked the jury to return a guilty verdict so the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In doing so, he denied Bryan a chance to offer his closing argument, stealing the great orator’s thunder again. And so, on this day in 1925, the jury agreed to do as Darrow had asked, and Judge Raulston fined John Scopes $100, pronouncing the sentence, the Times reported, before asking if Scopes had anything to say on his own behalf.

“Oh,” exclaimed Judge Raulston, “Have you anything to say, Mr. Scopes, as to why the Court should not impose punishment on you?”

Mr. Scopes, who is hardly more than a boy and whose pleasant demeanor and modest bearing have won him many friends since this case started, was nervous. His voice trembled a little as he folded his arms and said:

“Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose the law in any way that I can. Any other action would be in violation of by [sic?] idea of academic freedom, that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our Constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.”

A week after the trial, William Jennings Bryan died. And a year after that, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the ruling in the Scopes case — though the reversal hinged on a technicality, not Constitutional grounds. In its dismissal, the Court noted: “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”

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