Notes related to a famous 1925 trial were sold in auction to a private collector at Lion Heart Autographs this week, fetching $12,000.
The notes were written by legendary attorney Clarence Darrow, a few months after he defended a teacher named John Scopes. Scopes’ crime? He taught evolution to public school students in the state of Tennessee, which was forbidden by law.
“Even before it began, the media was calling it ‘the trial of the century’ and it’s held that designation ever since,” said Pepperdine University history and law professor Edward Larson. He has written a book called “Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.” Given the fierce debate over human ancestry, the public and media facetiously dubbed the court battle the “monkey trial.”
Larson explained that Clarence Darrow’s opponent in this trial, William Jennings Bryan, was a force in and outside of the court room. “At the time Bryan was one of the most famous orators in the world,” he explained. “He was a former secretary of state, and was also a devout evangelical Christian.” Clarence Darrow on the other hand was the most famous agnostic in America, who would argue against what he saw as religiously motivated legislation. “He played the role much like Richard Dawkins would play today,” said Larson.
The trial captured the nation’s attention because it was about far more than teaching evolution – it represented a struggle between secular and religious forces fighting over the future direction of American society.
“At the time, prohibition had recently been enacted with Bryan’s support. Prohibition was seen by many as an effort by religious leaders to control the morals, there was also a major issue then about birth control, government had banned it, so there was this movement that seemed to be emanating from evangelical America to control true law, to impose their moral values through law,” said Larson.
Scopes was convicted, his conviction later overturned on a technicality, but the law forbidding teachers from discussing evolution remained on the books in Tennessee until the late 1960s. And Larson says – the issues at the heart of the Scopes trial stay with us to this day.
“Those are issues that will be debated in the presidential election, debated in the primaries.” Larson added that the state of Tennessee passed a law a few years ago that mandated teachers to allow students to study intelligent design as an alternative. “So these issues remain alive in so many parts of the country.”