The courtroom combat was a clear mismatch. The most celebrated defense attorney in the U.S., Clarence Darrow, was pitted against the boisterous spokesman of populism, William Jennings Bryan. It was, said many, a contest of wit against half-wit over the credibility of evolution. This famous encounter In the Dayton, Tennessee, trial of 1925 is described, blow by legal blow, in a recently published book, “Trial of the Century,” by Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett, who while sympathetic to the lost cause of Bryan, makes it clear that the good guy won: “Darrow’s brilliant and devastating cross-examination of Bryan turned the tide in education. It spelled the beginning of the end of the kind of religious intrusion our Constitution forbids. The wonders and benefits of science were untethered. Generations of Americans became Darrow’s beneficiaries.”
Known derisively as the “Monkey trial,” the event was more spectacle than substance. People flocked to it to see the grandiloquent orator Bryan in action, even if content was not always up to delivery. Twice nominated for the U.S. Presidency by the Democratic Party, he lost both elections to Republicans but remained a key figure in American politics as the tireless spokesman for the underprivileged and overlooked people of the farm and prairie states. As such, he is given much credit for the expansion of democracy in his era.
But reasoned debate was not his strong point. Knowing this, Darrow called him as a witness for his defense of John Scopes, a local schoolteacher who had been arrested for teaching evolution in violation of state law for which he could even go to prison. Evolution, insisted believers, contradicted the Biblical account of Creation. The trial judge and the community were sympathetic to the prosecution, but they had not counted on Darrow who in cross-examination mercilessly challenged Bryan’s literal interpretation of the Bible. Did he really believe that the Old Testament Prophet Jonah was swallowed by a whale and then disgorged still alive three days later? Sweating and fanning himself in the summer heat, Bryan gave an evasive answer, disappointing his followers to the delight of his opponents.
Darrow lost the battle. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 with no jail time. But Darrow won the war in that his courtroom performance largely discredited fundamentalist doubts about evolution. Yet there was more to Bryan than evolution. With his rousing oratory in a time of no radio or tv, he became the leading opponent of U.S. involvement in the stupendous carnage of World War One. As U.S. Secretary of State, he pressed President Woodrow Wilson to mediate the conflict. When Wilson chose war instead, he resigned his office. Assured that a majority of Americans shared his view, he proposed a national referendum on the issue. But the peace inclined populace was overruled by a war demanding elite, not for the first or the last time. A growing consensus a century later suggests that U.S. entrance into the war prolonged its savagery, led to a vindictive post war settlement and the emergence of the poisonous ideologies of communism and Nazism. If so, Bryan was as right about war as he was wrong about evolution. For which should he be remembered?