Knowledge. Experience. Results.

John Scopes the Lawyer

by Cameron Strause

Native Kentuckian and attorney John Scopes left his mark on the country in an unorthodox fashion. Scopes was born in Paducah, Kentucky, before moving to Illinois with his family as a teenager. He attended the University of Illinois until he was forced to stop due to health reasons. It was at this time John enrolled and began attending the University of Kentucky. He graduated with a major in law and minor in geology.

John Scopes’ national recognition stemmed from a 1925 trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The Scopes Trial, also referred to as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, was a landmark legal case in the early 20th century. The trial was a response to John Scopes, a high school teacher, violating the Tennessee Butler Act. The Butler Act made it illegal for teachers to teach students about human evolution in state-funded schools. The case had many unique aspects. To start, Scopes was unsure if he had violated the Butler Act, yet he incriminated himself so there could be a defendant. The site of the trial was surprising, but not an accident. It was intentionally held in Dayton, Tennessee (population ≈ 7,000) to bring publicity to the small community.

The trial attracted the attention of national media. Various outlets rushed to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee for their chance to cover the proceedings. Prominent attorneys on each side only intensified national publicity. The prosecution was headed by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State. The defense featured Clarence Darrow, a debater, speaker, writer, and attorney. Darrow, known for his wit and eloquence in the courtroom, was dubbed the “sophisticated country lawyer”. After 8 days of trial, the jury deliberated for just 9 minutes before reaching a verdict. On July 21, 1925, John Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. The trial highlighted an ongoing controversy between fundamentalists and modernists. It was seen by many as a trial to determine the fate of evolution in the public school system. The trials’ publicity caused anti-evolution movements to move to the forefront of the political landscape. Other states were now forced to grapple with the controversy.

The fight did not end with the judge’s ruling. The one and only time Scopes spoke during trial, he promised to continue to oppose the “unjust statute” in any way possible. Scopes also called the ruling a violation of academic freedom. The verdict was eventually overturned on a technicality. Tennessee judges could only impose a maximum fine of $50. Judge Raulston had imposed double the fine on Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, the prosecuting lawyer, died unexpectedly only five days after the trial’s conclusion. A connection between the death and trial is debated by historians.

Ultimately, in 1967, the Butler Act was repealed in Tennessee. While this put an end to anti-evolution enforcement in Tennessee, it did not stop everywhere. Despite the introduction of 41 different bills and resolutions to state legislators, Mississippi and Arkansas continued to hold firm on anti-evolution laws. These laws were enacted in response to the Scopes Trial. There was no denying that the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee had national implications. Scopes brought a controversy to the national spotlight that would be hotly contested in following decades.

Today, Dayton, Tennessee has tried to preserve the history of the monumental trial. In 1979, a $1 million restoration of the Rhea County Courthouse was completed. The second-floor courtroom was constructed to replicate the courtroom during the Scopes Trial. The basement of the courthouse houses a museum containing photos, trial records, broadcasting equipment, and more. In 1972, the courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Seven years later, in 1979, the National Park Service designated the courthouse as a National Historic Landmark. The restoration of the Rhea County Courthouse was a vital part of the preservation of this Landmark trial. Over 50 years after his death, the legacy of John Scopes lives on. The Native Kentuckian and high school teacher refused to back down to anyone in his fight for academic freedom.