1925 July 20

Darrow Mercilessly Cross-Examines Bryan at Scopes Trial


In the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that began on July 10, 1925, John T. Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a public school, in violation of a new Tennessee law. On this day, Clarence Darrow, one of Scopes’ attorneys, mercilessly cross-examined William Jennings Bryan, who defended the State of Tennessee. The cross-examination was arguably the turning point in the trial. Darrow focused on Bryan’s belief that the Book of Genesis is the literal word of God. The key moment occurred when Darrow got Bryan to concede that the “days” in the Book of Genesis were not necessarily 24-hours long. Reportedly, members of the audience gasped at Bryan’s admission.

Scopes was convicted, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction — the judge made a procedural error in imposing the sentence. Arkansas passed a similar law banning the teaching of evolution, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional on November 12, 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas.

Inherit the Wind is a play and a movie based on the famous Scopes trial (see April 21, 1955). While many parts of the plot are inventions and are overly melodramatic, much of the cross-examination of the Bryan character (played by Frederick March) by the Darrow character (played by Spencer Tracy is taken directly from the trial transcript and is riveting.

The issues in the Scopes case never died. Religious conservatives have over the years tried many strategies for getting religion into the public schools. See “moment of silence” laws (June 4, 1985); the “balanced treatment” of evolution and creation science (June 19, 1987); and the teaching of “intelligent design” (December 20, 2005). All have been unsuccessful.

Read the Transcript:
Q [Darrow]. Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?
A [Bryan]. Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.
Q. How much?
A. I couldn’t say.
Q. Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
I don’t think it is older or not.
Do you think the earth was made in six days?
A. Not six days of twenty-four hours.
Q. Doesn’t it say so?
No, sir….

Read: Ray Ginger, Six Days or Forever?: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1974)

See the Movie: Inherit the Wind (1960)

Learn more about the case: Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997)

Learn more about Darrow: John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (2011)

Learn more about science education and evolution: http://ncse.com/evolution

And more about the famous case: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

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