[Paleopsych] Gary North: The Significance of the Scopes Trial
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Mon Jul 18 00:16:35 UTC 2005
Gary North: The Significance of the Scopes Trial
On July 10, 1925, the culturally most important trial in American
history began: Tennessee vs. John Scopes. It was the first trial to be
covered on the radio. Hundreds of reporters showed up in Dayton,
Tennessee, from all over the world. The monkey trial became a media
The trial ended on July 24. William Jennings Bryan died in Dayton on
July 26. With this, the American fundamentalist movement went into
political hibernation for half a century, coming out of its sleep
fifty-one years later in the Ford-Carter Presidential race.
There is a great deal of confusion about the details of the trial, but
not its fundamental point: the legitimacy of teaching Darwinism in
tax-funded schools, kindergarten through high school. On this point,
all sides agree: the trial was a showdown between Darwinism and
What is not recognized is the far greater importance of the far more
important underlying agreement, an agreement that had steadily
increased for half a century by 1925 and still prevails: the
legitimacy of tax-supported education.
What I write here is a summary of a lengthy, heavily footnoted chapter
in my 1996 book, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the
Presbyterian Church. That book is on-line for free. So is the
chapter: "Darwinism, Democracy, and the Public Schools."
The origins of the trial are generally unknown. It was begun as a
public relations stunt by a group of Dayton businessmen. They had
heard of the challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
regarding a test case for the Tennessee law against teaching evolution
in the public schools. They thought that if they could get someone in
Dayton to confess to having taught evolution in the local high school,
the town would get a lot of free publicity. We can hardly fault their
assessment of the potential for free publicity - monetarily free, that
Scopes agreed to be the official victim. The irony is this: he was not
sure that he had actually taught from the sections of the biology
textbook that taught Darwinism. Had he been put on the witness stand
and asked by the defense if he had taught evolution, he would have had
to say he did not recall. He was never put on the stand.
Also forgotten is the content of the textbook in question. The
Wikipedia encyclopedia entry has refreshed our memories. The textbook,
like most evolution textbooks of the era, was committed to eugenics
and a theory of racial superiority. The textbook declared:
"Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the
lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is
between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is
an immense mental gap between monkey and man. At the present time
there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each
very different from the others in instincts, social customs, and,
to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type,
originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of
the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race,
including the natives of China, Japan and the Eskimos; and finally,
the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the
civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America." (pp. 195-196).
". . . if such people were lower animals, we would probably kill
them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow
this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums
or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and
the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.
Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and
are now meeting with success in this country." (pp. 263-265).
This was the wisdom of high school biology textbooks, circa 1925. The
ACLU came to its defense. This information had to be brought to the
children of Tennessee, the ACLU decided.
The city's merchants did very well from the influx of media people who
could not resist seeing William Jennings Bryan take on Clarence
The ACLU's strategy was to lose the case, appeal it, get it confirmed
at the appellate court level, and appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which they believed would overturn it. And why not? This was the Court
that, two years later, determined that the state of Virginia had the
right to sterilize a mentally retarded woman, without her knowledge or
consent that this was the operation being performed on her. While she
had a daughter of normal intelligence, this had no bearing on the case
in the joint opinion of eight of the nine members of the Court. In the
words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote the Court's opinion:
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Bryan offered to pay Scopes' fine. Both sides wanted conviction.
Darrow threw the case. He told the jury it had to convict, which it
The ACLU hit an iceberg. The Dayton decision was overturned by the
appellate court on a legal technicality. The case could not reach the
Supreme Court's docket. Sometimes judges are more clever than ACLU
THE REAL CAUSE OF THE TRIAL
Beginning with the publication of his book, In His Image in 1921,
Bryan began calling for state laws against the teaching of Darwinism
in tax-funded schools. What is not widely understood was his
motivation. It was ethical, not academic. Bryan understood what Darwin
had written and what his cousin Francis Galton had written. Galton
developed the "science" of eugenics. Darwin in The Descent of Man
(1871) referred to Galton's book favorably. Also, Bryan could read the
full title of Darwin's original book: On the Origin of Species by
Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in
the Struggle for Life.
Bryan was a populist. He was a radical. In terms of his political
opinions, he was the most radical major party candidate for President
in American history, i.e., further out on the fringes of political
opinion compared with the views of his rivals. Clarence Darrow had no
advantage with respect to championing far-left political causes.
Bryan had read what Darwin had written, and he was appalled. He
recognized that a ruthless hostility to charity was the dark side of
Darwinism. Had Darwin's theory been irrelevant, he said, it would have
been harmless. Bryan wrote: "This hypothesis, however, does
incalculable harm. It teaches that Christianity impairs the race
physically. That was the first implication at which I revolted. It led
me to review the doctrine and reject it entirely." In Chapter 4,
Bryan went on the attack. He cited the notorious passage in Darwin's
Descent of Man (1871):
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and
those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We
civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the
process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the
maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men
exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last
moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved
thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have
succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised
societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the
breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly
injurious to the race of man." (Modern Library edition, p. 501)
He could have continued to quote from the passage until the end of the
paragraph: "It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly
directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting
in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow
his worst animals to breed" (p. 502). It is significant that Darwin at
this point footnoted Galton's 1865 Macmillan's magazine article and
his book, Hereditary Genius.
Beginning that year, Bryan began to campaign in favor of state laws
against teaching evolution in tax-funded schools. He did not target
universities. He knew better. That battle had been lost decades
before. He targeted high schools. A dozen states had introduced such
bills. Tennessee passed one.
The Establishment recognized the threat. It saw that its monopoly over
the curriculum of the public schools was its single most important
political lever. So did Bryan. Bryan was targeting the brain of the
Beast. He had to be stopped.
Across America, newspapers and magazines of the intellectual classes
began the attack. I survey this in my chapter, citing from them
liberally - one of the few things liberal that I do. The invective was
remarkable. They hated Bryan, and they hated his fundamentalist
constituency even more.
Yet the Democrats had nominated his brother for Vice President less
than a year earlier. His brother had developed the first political
mailing list in history, and the Democrats wanted access to it.
Bryan wrote in a 1922 New York Times article (requested by the Times,
so as to begin the attack in response):
The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the
ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public
taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of
religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible
cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the
teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
This surely was a legitimate question, one which has yet to be
answered in terms of a theory of strict academic neutrality. But
Paxton Hibben, in his 1929 biography of Bryan (Introduction by Charles
A. Beard), dismissed this argument as "a specious sort of logic. . . .
[Tax-funded] schools, he reasoned, were the indirect creations of the
mass of citizens. If this were true, those same citizens could control
what was taught in them." If this were true: the subjunctive mood
announced Paxton's rejection of Bryan's premise.
Bryan had to be stopped. They stopped him.
The most famous reporter at the trial was H. L. Mencken. That Mencken
was drawn to Dayton like a moth to a flame is not surprising. He hated
fundamentalism. He also loved a good show, which the trial proved to
be. But there was something else. He was a dedicated follower of
Nietzsche. In 1920, Mencken's translation of Nietzsche's 1895 book,
The Antichrist, was published. Bryan had specifically targeted
Nietzsche in In His Image. "Darwinism leads to a denial of God.
Nietzsche carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion." Mencken was
determined to get Bryan if he could.
Two months before the trial, Mencken approached Darrow to suggest that
Darrow take the case. In a 2004 article posted on the University
of Missouri (Kansas City) website, Douglas Linder describes this
Mencken shaped, as well as reported, the Scopes trial. On May 14,
1925, he met Darrow in Richmond, and - according to one trial
historian - urged him to offer his services to the defense. Hours
after discussing the case with Mencken, Darrow telegraphed Scopes's
local attorney, John Randolph Neal, expressing his willingness to
"help the defense of Professor Scopes in any way you may suggest or
direct." After Darrow joined the defense team, Mencken continued to
offer advice. He told defense lawyers, for example, "Nobody gives a
damn about that yap schoolteacher" and urged them instead to "make
a fool out of Bryan."
Both sides accepted the legitimacy of the principle of tax-funded
education. Both sides were determined to exercise power over the
curriculum. But there was a fundamental difference in strategies.
Bryan wanted a level playing field. The evolutionists wanted a
monopoly. Bryan's defeat did not get the laws changed in the three
states that had passed anti-evolution laws. It did get the issue
sealed in a tomb for the rest of the country.
The evolutionists made it clear during the war on Bryan that democracy
did not involve the transfer of authority over public school
curriculums to political representatives of the people.
The New York Times (Feb. 2, 1922) ran an editorial that did not shy
away from the implications for democracy posed by an anti-evolution
bill before the Kentucky legislature. The Times repudiated democracy.
It invoked the ever-popular flat-earth analogy. "Kentucky Rivals
Illinois" began with an attack on someone in Illinois named Wilbur G.
Voliva, who did believe in the flat earth. Next, it switched to
Kentucky. "Stern reason totters on her seat when asked to realize that
in this day and country people with powers to decide educational
questions should hold and enunciate opinions such as these." To banish
the teaching of evolution is the equivalent of banishing the teaching
of the multiplication table.
Three days later, the Times followed with another editorial,
appropriately titled, "Democracy and Evolution." It began: "It has
been recently argued by a distinguished educational authority that the
successes of education in the United States are due, in part at least,
'to its being kept in close and constant touch with the people
themselves.' What is happening in Kentucky does not give support to
this view." The Progressives' rhetoric of democracy was nowhere to be
found in the Times' articles on Bryan and creationism, for the editors
suspected that Bryan had the votes. For the Progressives, democracy
was a tool of social change, not an unbreakable principle of civil
government; a slogan, not a moral imperative. Though often cloaked in
religious terms, democracy was merely a means to an end. What was this
end? Control over other people's money and, if possible, the minds of
In the Sunday supplement for February 5, John M. Clarke was given an
opportunity to comment on the Kentucky case. He was the Director of
the State Museum at Albany. His rhetoric returned to the important
theme of the weakness of democracy in the face of ignorant voters. I
cite the piece at length because readers are unlikely to have a copy
of this article readily at hand, and when it comes to rhetoric,
summaries rarely do justice to the power of words. It began:
Our sovereign sister Kentucky, where fourteen and one half men in
every hundred can neither read nor write, is talking about adding
to the mirth of the nation in these all too joyless days by
initiating legislation to put a end to that "old bad devil"
evolution. Luther threw an ink bottle at one of his kind; the
Kentucky legislators are making ready to throw a statute which will
drive this serpent of the poisoned sting once and for all beyond
the confines of the State, and not a school wherein this
mischiefmaker is harbored shall have 1 cent of public moneys.
The issue was democratic control over tax-funded education. Mr. Clark
was against any such notion.
When the majority of the voters, of which fourteen and a half out
of each hundred can neither read nor write, have settled this
matter, if they are disposed to do the right thing they will not
stop at evolution. There is a fiction going about through the
schools that the earth is round and revolves around the sun, and if
Frankfort [Kentucky] is to be and remain the palladium of reason
and righteousness, this hideous heresay [heresy] must also be wiped
Here it was again: the flat earth. It has been a favorite rhetorical
device used against biblical creationists for a long time. The claim
that pre-Columbus medieval scholars regarded the earth as flat, it
turns out, is entirely mythical - a myth fostered in modern times.
Jeffrey Burton Russell, the distinguished medieval historian, has
disposed of this beloved myth. The story was first promoted by
American novelist Washington Irving. The modernists who have invoked
this myth have not done their homework.
Because Bryan was a great believer in tax-funded education, he entered
the fray as just one more politician trying to get his ideas fostered
in the schools at the expense of other voters. He professed
educational neutrality. His opponents professed science. He lost the
case in the courtroom of public opinion.
Bryan won the case and lost the war. The international media buried
him, as they had buried no other figure in his day. His death a few
days later in Dayton sealed the burial.
A year later, liberals captured both the Northern Presbyterian Church
and the Northern Baptists. Bryan had a leader in the Northern
Presbyterian Church, running for moderator and barely losing in 1923.
The tide turned in 1926. In the mainline denominations, the
conservatives began to lose influence.
In a famous 1960 article in Church History, "The American Religious
Depression, 1925-1935," Robert Handy dated the beginning of the
decline in church membership from the Scopes trial. Handy taught at
liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1980, Joel
Carpenter wrote a very different article in the same journal:
"Fundamentalist Institutions and the Rise of Evangelical
Protestantism." He pointed out that Handy had confined his study to
the mainline denominations. In 1926, he said, an increase in
membership and church growth began in the independent fundamentalist
and charismatic churches. The fundamentalists began to withdraw from
the mainline churches. What Handy saw as decline, Carpenter saw as
growth. Both phenomena began in response to the Scopes trial.
Fundamentalists began to withdraw from national politics and
mainstream culture. The roaring twenties were not favorable times for
fundamentalists. Their alliance with the Progressives began to break
down. This alliance had gotten the eighteenth amendment passed. By
the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the fundamentalists had
begun their Long March into the hinterlands. Only in the 1976
Presidential election did they begin to re-surface. In 1980, they came
out in force for Reagan. Two events mark this transformation, neither
of which receives any attention by historians: the "Washington for
Jesus" rally in the spring of 1980 and the "National Affairs Briefing
Conference" in Dallas in September.
The Scopes trial was a media circus. The play and movie that made it
famous three decades later, Inherit the Wind, was an effective piece
of propaganda. The website of the law school of the University of
Missouri, Kansas City, offers a good introduction to the story of
this trial. But this version has a hard time competing with the
textbook versions and the documentaries.
The victors write the textbooks. These textbooks are not assigned in
Bryan College, located in Dayton, Tennessee - or if they are, they are
There is no Darrow College.
Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money.
Visit http://www.freebooks.com. He is also the author of a free
multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.
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