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American History: The Scopes Monkey Trial


Scopes trial, also known as the monkey’s trial was arranged to challenge Butler’s Act. The act prohibited teachers from teaching evolution in American public schools which ALCU disagreed with. The ALCU went on its way to offer services to any person volunteering to be charged against violation. Scopes volunteered and went through the famous Scopes trial that involved the ACLU’s role of defense as well as several lawyers for prosecution. The first ruling of Scopes trial found Scopes guilty resulting in an appeal on the same. The verdict was overturned and later repealed by Supreme Court.

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Scopes trial, which was a case between Scopes and the state, is also known as the Monkey Trial of Scopes. This legal case took place in America, testing an Act put forward by Butler that prohibited the teaching of theories with divine explanations of man’s origin and proposed that, it should be taught that man originated from animals of lower order. Butler Act has been interpreted to mean that, the law would not allow teachings on evolution theory. This led to the starting point of controversy between evolution and creation in the US. (Camp, 1968)

Butler Act

Butler Act was part of Tennessee law used in 1925 which denied teachers from public schools the mandate to teach about the origin of man from a biblical point of view but to teach man’s evolution from an animal’s lower orders point of view. However, Butler Act did not give prohibitions on how teachings about other plants or animal species should be conducted. The law was to be applied in Tennessee’s Normals, public schools, and universities, supported by the state’s funds to public schools either in part or entirely. Those teachers who would be found guilty of going against this law would be penalized accordingly with a fine of one hundred to five hundred dollars for each offense. The law also meant that it was right to deliver teachings explaining that apes originated from protozoa, explaining natural selection as well as various mechanisms and geology. It has been reported that Butler, a farmer in Tennessee, wanted to just prohibit evolution teachings and had no idea what evolution was by the time he was bringing up his topic on the same. All he knew was that schoolchildren were complaining about Bible teachings to their parents, and considered them as nonsense. This made Butler read more on the topic from William Bryan’s and Charles Darwin’s works and later deciding that evolution as well as its teachings is very dangerous and its study should seize. (Larson, 2006)

Butler bill was presented on twenty-first January the year 1925 with education committee recommending its passage on January twenty-third the same year. Its voting continued in various sittings between January and March when the Act was finally passed. It was later debated by the Tennessee senate when one of the senators ridiculed Butler’s bill by requesting for the prohibition on teachings about the earth being round. After the passing of the Butler bill, it was noted that rural legislators needed to support it, where it was signed to law by Governor Austin on twenty-first March 1925. At first, the law seemed useless, and was thought that it might never be used in court prosecutions. However, the union of civil liberties of America decided to pass some challenges to the Butler law in a trial named Scopes Trial. In this trial, a sports coach of a high school in Tennessee known as John Scopes sacrificed to have the law tested on him, where he was to be arrested for violating it and later convicted. His team asked for an appeal of the same where the Supreme Court of Tennessee ruled it as constitutional under the Constitution of Tennessee State. However, that conviction was reversed since no fine had been fixed by the jury thereby hindering a retrying of the case. At this point, Butler commented that he never thought that his bill would cause such trouble and had thought that all teachers would follow it without any problem. (Camp, 1968)

Role of ACLU in the Trial

This particular trial originated from a conspiracy that took place in Dayton’s drugstore belonging to Fred Robinson. Middle-aged George Rappalyea, who was a manager at one of the local companies dealing with coal, stepped into that particular drugstore with ACLU’s announcements on a piece of paper. The announcement promised to give ACLU’s services to any person who would be willing to challenge the antievolution statute of the Butler Act. Rappalyea who was also a Methodist and in possession of a good understanding of the law convinced other leaders on how such a trial would make Dayton famous to a point that it will feature greatly. He managed to have some leaders convinced such as Walter White, who thought that the controversial nature of the Scopes trial would help publicize the town that had suffered a fall in population from three thousand residents to one thousand eight hundred. John Scopes was later summoned by conspirators and had a meeting with Rappalyea who was in partnership with ACLU during the trial. According to scopes, their statement included their conversation during the meeting where John and Rappalyea were reported arguing that, it was not possible to teach biology and ignore evolution. Scopes is reported to have agreed, giving an evidence of one of the books from the drugstore books’ shelves. He went on to say that one time he had filled in for a biology teacher and gave students assignments to read that books topics on evolution for purposes of review. Rappalyea then asked Scope whether he was going against the law and ready to be tried in court where he agreed. Scopes based his decision on the fact that the appropriate time to capture a snake is as it wiggles. This is when local attorneys Sue and Herbert agreed to take the task of prosecuting Scopes. Therefore, the original role of ALCU in this trial was to oppose and challenge the law arguing that it was going against individual rights of teachers and was unconstitutional. However, Darrow changed the strategy in the course of the trial arguing that no conflict existed between the Bible’s argument on creation and evolution. This new proposal was to be supported by eight evolution experts but they were denied permission to present their testimonies to the judge. Therefore, they were asked to submit their statements to act as evidence during proceedings of the appeal. Darrow was not pleased by the decision and sarcastically commented to the Judge in charge, accusing him of being in favor of the prosecution, but apologized so as avoid being charged with the court’s contempt. (Presley, 1967)

The Lawyers for the Prosecution and Defense

Rappalyea wanted the defense team to be led by a writer of science fiction named, H. Wells, as he thought his interest in science would take charge. However, Rappalyea’s prediction was quite wrong as Wells did not have the slightest interest in Scopes Case even if others were interested and would take his place. Clarence Darrow who was approaching his seventies did not hesitate and decided to join the defense team though he was not ALCU’s first choice. According to ACLC, Darrow’s agnosticism would affect the direction of the case which would lead to the attack of religious teachings. ACLU’s first choice was former candidates of the presidency who were Charles Hughes and John Davis but they declined as they did not want to work with Darrow. This gap was filled by a prominent advocate named Arthur Hays who became the second in the defense team after Darrow. (Presley, 1967)

The third member was Dudley Malone, an international attorney of divorce followed by a volunteer that was disliked by the ACLU. William Bryan was among the team of prosecutors even though he had stayed for more than thirty years without practicing law. William had formerly led a crusade to remove Darwin’s evolution theory from the syllabus of American public schools. The other members of the prosecution team were Eastern Tennessee’s attorney general Ben McKenzie, A. Stewart, and William Jr. These were added to the two of Scopes’ Friends, Sue and Herbert, who had earlier volunteered to be prosecutors. However, though each one of the two teams took part in the Scopes case, the time has simplified events where Bryan and Darrow were considered as Scopes’ trial key adversaries. The defense member Hays and prosecution Stewart were of equal importance in the roles they played during the case. The trial began in July with banners and lemonade stands all over the streets with chimpanzees performing in a street’s sideshow. The County Courthouse of Rhea was jammed by more than one thousand people with three hundred of them standing to witness proceedings of Scopes trial. The presiding judge during the Scopes trial was John Raulston who proposed that the trial be moved to a large tent that accommodates twenty thousand people. A jury consisting of twelve men was selected where ten of them were middle-aged farmers and two people who went to church regularly. (Moore, 2001)

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Why It Was Called the “Monkey Trial”

Scopes trial was attended by media owners who were ready to air the first live broadcast on radio stations to cover trial proceedings. This funny label of Scopes trial as a result of the humorous nature of its court’s proceedings. Scopes were attacked by cartoonists’ who made the greatest cartoon collections with prints of the Monkey trial. These jokes on the nature of Scopes trial are some made Mencken, one of the journalists come up with the name monkey trial to mean Scopes trial. (Presley, 1967)

Reasons for Overturning the Original Verdict

The reasons why the court’s original verdict was overturned were displayed during the Scopes trial appeal which took place in Tennessee’s Supreme Court. Scopes trial was appealed by Scopes lawyers aiming to challenge the ruling on a number of grounds. Their first argument was that the statute of the Butler Act was vague due to its prohibition that covered evolution, a broad term with many teachings other than man’s divine evolution. However, this was rejected on the basis that evolution was used to mean the development of man from a lower type that came into existence a long time and is there today. The second argument was that there was a violation of constitutional rights of Scopes’s freedom of speech, by prohibiting him from delivering teachings on evolution. This was also rejected on the argument that Scopes’ speech was subject to regulation as he was Tennessee’s state employee with powers to regulate its employees’ speech. (Wood, 2002)

In another argument, defense lawyers stated that there was a violation of the clause of establishment by the statute which was said to establish a state’s religion in an unconstitutional manner. This argument was rejected by Grafton, a Chief Justice, where he argued that the Clause of the establishment was designed to avoid the state religion’s establishment which was similar to Scotland’s as well as England’s situation when they were writing their constitutions. He went on to argue that, there had not been found a religion that based its worship on the theory and that religions only differed based on their beliefs. Whether a religion believed in the theory or not did not form any religion’s characteristic of either its worship or establishment. The court stated that unconstitutionally the statute’s prohibition of teachings on evolution was independent, not requiring the support of other doctrines so that the statute does a favor or discriminate some of the doctrines. The statute was found as constitutional but reversed the verdict on a technicality, which was contrary to Darrow’s hopes that it would be on constitutional grounds. The court argued that it was the jury who was supposed to set the fine and not judge Raulston. Furthermore, it had been wrong for Raulston to set such an overly high fine as even the judges of the Supreme Court could not set fines exceeding fifty dollars at that particular time. Tennessee court decided to have the case dismissed instead of sending it back for correction as nothing would be gained from it. (Presley, 1967)

The Teaching of Evolutionary Theory in American Schools after the Trial

The trial had long as well as short-term effects on how evolutionary theory was taught in American public schools. The trial’s short-term impacts were on biology texts used in high schools between late 1920 and early 1930. Most of the biology textbooks used at that particular time avoided evolution while others followed biblical quotations. However, the targets of fundamentalists loosened its regulations which saw a return of biology textbooks with evolution in mid-1930. (Camp, 1968)


Scopes trial as a trial where Scopes was charged with accusations of violating the Butler Act went through so many challenges. Scopes was represented by a team of defense that failed in most of their proposed arguments. ALCU together with other members of the defense team lost the challenge that they were imposing on Butler Act even at the appeal level. However, the Act was repealed and applied in a case between Arkansas and Epperson in 1968, which took place at US Supreme Court. (Wood, 2002)


Camp D. (1968): The great monkey trial: Doubleday.

Larson E. (2006): The scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion: Basic books.

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Moore R. (2001): The impact of the Scopes trial on high school biology textbooks: univ California press.

Presley J. (1967): Memoirs of John T Scopes: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Wood L. (2002): The monkey trialarebook’sa myth: University of Toronto press.

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