Freedom of speech survived the epic challenge of

Norman Ray

Global Courant 2023-05-30 13:00:46

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

This essay is adapted from Gregg Jarrett’s new book, “The trial of the century.”

I was barely a teenager one summer day when I plucked a single book from my father’s tightly packed bookcase. That seemingly random act more than five decades ago shaped the contours of my life and inspired me to pursue a legal career.

- Advertisement -

The biography told the story of the best litigator who ever lived, Clarence Darrow. I admired his passion for the law, his abiding sense of justice, and his unyielding commitment to civil liberties and intellectual freedom. As a fearless iconoclast, he dared to confront prevailing beliefs. He opposed the increasing demands for social and religious conformity. Darrow, often a lone figure, fought against the government’s encroachment on individual rights.

These revered principles were compromised during Darrow’s most famous case, the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. The nickname is derived from an evolutionary misconception that humans evolved from apes or other primates. Two years ago I was given access to the records of the courthouse that still stands and I was given the original police report which reads “The trial of the century” is based.

FILE – 1925: American teacher John Thomas Scopes (1900 – 1970) (2nd from left) stands in court during his trial for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to his high school science class, Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes’ case became known around the country as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What I discovered is that America might look very different today were it not for the courage of a young schoolteacher and his intrepid lawyer nearly a century ago, who challenged in court a popularly-passed law that undermines scientific learning and the trying to stifle freedom of expression. or thought. Historians would describe it as a giant clash between science and religion, or evolution versus creationism. But it was more than that. At stake were the sacred but fragile values ​​of free speech in America.


- Advertisement -

As the nation turned inward after World War I, a deep religious fervor swept the country. Christian fundamentalists led by three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan are pressuring states to ban books on evolution. Tennessee was the first to pass a law making it a crime to teach Darwin’s cornerstone theory in public schools on the assumption that it might conflict with the story of man’s creation as described in the Bible.

Within days, a polite and friendly substitute biology teacher named John Scopes was arrested and charged under the new statute, even though the state-approved textbook contained a subchapter on the generally accepted theory of evolution. Bryan, delighted with his success in getting the law and determined to capitalize on it, joined the prosecution team to help convict Scopes.

FILE – Clarence Darrow, a famous Chicago lawyer, and William Jennings Bryan, defender of fundamentalism, have a friendly conversation in a courtroom during the Scopes evolution trial. Darrow defended John T. Scopes, a biology teacher, who decided to test the new Tennessee law that banned the teaching of evolution. Bryan took the stand for the prosecution as a Bible expert. The 1925 trial ended in the conviction of Scopes. (Getty)

- Advertisement -

As he read about the case in his Chicago law office, Darrow was furious. He had once been Bryan’s political ally. But the acclaimed lawyer turned on his old friend when his religious fervor turned directly to education, trying to stifle scientific progress. At his own expense, Darrow volunteered to defend the 25-year-old schoolteacher who was under siege.

The ensuing trial became the biggest legal blockbuster of a generation and the most heralded courtroom drama in 20th century America. Almost overnight, the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was catapulted into the national spotlight.

Before the procedure ever started, the media called it the “monkey trial,” an evolutionary misconception that humans evolved from apes. The festival atmosphere was fueled by carnival acts such as the chimpanzee named Joe Mendi, who wore a bow tie and suit to make him look like a human. People lined up and paid money to have their picture taken with him

Journalists from all over the world converged on tiny Dayton to witness what was sure to be a spectacle. In the pre-television era, it was the first trial broadcast live on radio to an enthusiastic nationwide audience. Newsreel cameras captured the courtroom, and the film was flown each day to Chicago for immediate distribution to movie theaters. Major newspapers across America ran banners telling of every twist in the process.

FILE – July 1925: Political leader and orator William Jennings Bryan (1860 – 1925), an anti-evolutionist, preaches from the pulpit at Little Methodist Church during the Scopes monkey trial, South Dayton, Tennessee, where he was director of the prosecution. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage a few days after the trial. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dayton itself took on a carnival atmosphere. Street preachers stood on top of cars to denounce evolution, while religious revivals were held on the outskirts of the city. Vendors and shops displayed mementos of the process. There were signs everywhere that read, “Read your Bible!” A trained chimpanzee wore a bow tie and checkered suit as people lined up to have their picture taken with him.


As soon as the trial began, Darrow realized he had overwhelming odds as he stood alone to take over public opinion. The courtroom was packed with religious supporters of Bryan. The jury consisted of devoted Church members, only one of whom knew anything about evolution. Three had read no other book than the Bible. The presiding judge, an ordained minister, had been critical of the evolution. His rulings from the court have consistently been in favor of the prosecution. At one point, he held Darrow in criminal contempt for questioning his honesty.

Judge John Raulston wrongly excluded Darrow from being able to legitimately defend Scopes. At great financial cost, the lawyer had assembled a team of nationally renowned scientists and esteemed theologians to explain how evolution does not undermine the biblical account of divine creation in Genesis. But Raulston would have none of it and refused to let them testify before the jury. He was determined to convict Scopes.

The trial changed public opinion and marked the beginning of the end for the kind of religious interference our constitution prohibits. (Photosearch/Getty Images)

Down, but not defeated, Darrow did something extraordinary. In a bold and consistent move, he called Prosecutor Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. The savvy lawyer knew that the fundamentalist icon’s outrageous ego would never allow him to resist. Sure enough, Bryan took the bait and insisted he testify.

Fearing that the second-floor courtroom would collapse under the weight of the overcrowded gallery, the judge moved the trial outside to a large platform left over from the July 4 festivities. This set the stage for the climactic moment when Darrow, face-to-face, challenged Bryan’s interpretation that everything in the Bible must be accepted literally as written.

(Original caption) The Scopes trial is being moved outside here due to excessive heat.


With thousands watching, Darrow’s cross-examination was fascinating and daring. With resolute patience and probing questions, he stripped the veneer of his opponent’s stubborn beliefs. The more Bryan fumbled, the more he fanned himself in the scorching heat. As sentiment began to change, mocking laughter from the crowd only fueled Bryan’s panic.

Darrow’s relentless prodding and inescapable logic destroyed his nemesis. He had been thoroughly discredited. Bryan had clung stubbornly to a righteousness he mistakenly attributed to virtue. He forced his religious ideology on others by helping to pass a misguided law. It became the sad and tragic epitaph of a once great statesman. Days later, while still in Dayton, Bryan lay down for a nap. A broken man, he never woke up.

FILE – The jury and Judge John T. Raulston (standing far right) on the steps of a building during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in which educator John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution in violation of Tennessee’s Butler Act, Dayton, Tennessee , July 1925. (Photo by /Getty Images)

The New York Times described the epic confrontation as “the most astonishing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history”. Bryan’s brilliant and devastating questioning turned the tide in education. It changed public opinion and marked the beginning of the end for the kind of religious interference our constitution prohibits. The wonders and benefits of science were unfettered. Freedom of speech was saved and solidified. Generations of Americans became Darrow’s beneficiaries.


Darrow believed that the human mind is an open canvas of possibilities. We should be free to paint it with our own brush strokes. And so the ancient warrior came to the rescue of a Tennessee educator who dared to teach evolution at a time when simple minds and timid men succumbed to the zeal of public pressure and governmental superiority. The stunning result foreshadowed the fraught culture wars that would shape America throughout the century and beyond.

Darrow’s pioneering defense of free speech, scientific acceptance, and intellectual empowerment helped form the legal foundation upon which our civil liberties depend today. These cherished principles are as relevant today as they were nearly 100 years ago, when a young schoolteacher and his legendary lawyer fought for the indispensable adage that no one should be told how to think.

It really was the trial of the century.


Gregg Jarrett is a Fox News legal analyst and commentator and formerly worked as an attorney and adjunct professor of law. His upcoming book, “The trial of the century,” about the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” will be released on May 30, 2023. It is now available for pre-order online at the Simon & Schuster website. Gregg is the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestselling book “The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump.” His follow-up book was also a New York Times bestseller, “Witch Hunt: The Story of the Greatest Mass Delusion in American Political History.” book, “The Constitution of the United States and Other Patriotic Documents,” will be published September 19, 2023 by Broadside Books, a division of HarperCollins.

Freedom of speech survived the epic challenge of

World News,Next Big Thing in Public Knowledg

Share This Article