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Tennessee vs. Scopes Trial Fact or Fiction

In 1925 the court case of Tennessee v. Scopes received national attention and gained legendary status. This case was the direct result of the nationwide debate on whether Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or the bible’s account of Genesis, should be taught in public schools, and also effected what was being taught in the public school system. In the years leading up to 1960, and the release of the Hollywood film Inherit the Wind the facts of the scopes trial became very distorted from the real-life event.

Before comparing the differences between the Scopes trial and the movie Inherit the Wind, it’s important to examine what factors helped lead up to the 1925 court case.

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The first factor that should be examined is Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This theory was at the heart of the debate in the Scopes trial. According to class notes lectures Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution stated that over long periods of time animals with the best characteristics survived, and randomly changed. With this idea of evolution, Charles Darwin published a book called The Origins of Species in 1859. In Charles Darwin’s book, he presented a revolutionary idea that man could have evolved from ape.

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As stated in the book Summer of the Gods written by Edward Larson Darwin’s ideas “posed a conflict with accounts of the book of Genesis, which declared that God formed the heavens, the earth, and all kinds of living things in six days, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve as the forbearers of all human beings”(p15). These opposing concepts ultimately lead to the debate that was a major focal point in the trial of Tennessee v Scopes.

The second factor leading to the Scopes trial was a series of anti-evolution bills passed around the United States. Passed in Tennessee, as well as Florida this legislation was known as the Butler anti-evolution Act. This bill forbid the teaching of evolution as fact in public classrooms and was a punishable offence under the penal law. Before this law was enacted text like Hunter’s Civic Biology book were state-approved material and taught in High School biology classes nationwide. The only problem with this newly created law is would it be enforceable? The only answer to this question would be to have a trial, and John Scopes was the man who was chosen to help test the law.

John Scopes was a 24-year-old Math teacher and football coach for the Rhea County school district. During the last few weeks of the school year, the regular science teacher Mr Ferguson became ill, and John Scopes filled in as the school’s Biology teacher. While teaching Ferguson’s class Scopes helped prepare the students for their final exams. This is where things seem to get interesting, and the differences between the films Inherit the Wind, and the true-life events of the Tennessee v. Scopes trial begin. In the opening portion of the film, a group of men are obtaining a warrant to arrest Bertram T. Cates (John Scopes). The reason for this warrant was that the men heard he was teaching evolution based on Darwin’s theories and that was a violation of the Butler Laws. When the Sheriff and the posse make it to the local high school they arrest Cates and jail him.

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The arrest of Cates and the build-up to the trial are the first comparison that we can make about the film and real life. The difference between the opening scene of the movie, and reality is Scopes (Cates) was never arrested in front of his class, and according to statements made after the trial he never even taught the evolution chapter in the book. The trail was all prearranged at Fred Robinson’s Soda Shop in Dayton. Among the various conspirators of the trial were Walter White Superintendent of schools, George Rappalyea a coal company owner, and town leaders. These men basically invented the whole trial, and With the Butler Law in affect town officials had an idea. Dayton should be the site of a test trial challenging the new law. With the first trial at Dayton, officials planned that it would give their little town much-needed money from tourist.

Now all the officials needed was someone to prosecute, and John Scopes was their man. After asking John to meet them at the soda shop the men convinced Scopes to go along with there plan and say he taught the evolution theory in his classes. Due to a recent challenge in newspapers that the American Civil Liberties Union posted Scopes would have good representation, and not have to worry about paying a lawyer or fines. Scopes agreed to help them, and the trial was all set.

In May of 1925, the trail of Tennessee v. Scopes took place in Dayton, Tennessee. Representing the Prosecution for the trial stood Walter White, William Jennings Bryan, and the Hick brothers. Clarence Darrow, Samuel Rosensohm, Arthur Hayes, and Dudley Malone defended John Scopes. The Defense in this case regarded Scopes freedom as a person to think and teach evolution as long as it didn’t violate the law. The prosecution regarded the violation of the law and expelling Darwinism from the school classrooms as their central issue.

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Tennessee vs. Scopes Trial Fact or Fiction. (2021, Mar 10). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from