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John Thomas Scopes
Dictionary of American Biography. 1988. From U.S. History In Context.
Born: August 03, 1900 in Paducah, Kentucky, United States
Died: October 21, 1970 in Shreveport, Louisiana, United States
Other Names: Scopes, John T.
Nationality: American
Occupation: Teacher
Full Text: 

Scopes, John Thomas (Aug. 3, 1900 - Oct. 21, 1970), teacher and geologist, was born in Paducah, Ky., the son of Thomas Scopes, a railroad machinist, and Mary Alva Brown. He attended public schools in Kentucky and Illinois and later the University of Illinois and the University of Kentucky, from which he received a B.A. in 1924. That year Scopes became an athletic coach and teacher of algebra, physics, and chemistry at Central High School in Dayton, Tenn.

Local circumstances conspired in 1925 to make Scopes a symbol of academic freedom: In March the Tennessee legislature enacted a law making it a misdemeanor to teach evolution in the state's public schools. In April, when the principal of his school became ill, Scopes substituted for him in a biology course. In May the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised that it would pay the expenses of anyone who would test the law's constitutionality. Some of Dayton's worthies, primarily motivated by the hope of benefiting local business, decided to exploit the opportunity. They asked Scopes if evolution was integral to the teaching of biology. When he answered that it was, they pressed him to be the defendant in a test case, which he agreed to do.

Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution, and the ACLU committed itself to his defense. The case developed into the nation's biggest news story when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow volunteered to oppose each other in trying the case. Not only was Bryan a former Democratic presidential nominee and Darrow America's most famous defense lawyer, but they had become the champions, respectively, of fundamentalist Christians and of freethinkers.

Scopes was, he said, merely "the center of the storm." Yet, he was the vital center. His courage and independence led him to become the defendant in the case, for he believed that neither politics nor religion should dictate what knowledge people should have. He also made important decisions regarding his trial: he accepted as his local defense counsel John R. Neal, an able Tennessee lawyer who was a dedicated defender of intellectual freedom, and he insisted that the ACLU, despite its reluctance, accept Darrow's services, asserting that the trial was going to be a free-for-all fight and would thus demand a roughhouse lawyer. In addition, Scopes comported himself circumspectly during his trial, so he neither embarrassed his defenders nor antagonized the prosecution or the court.

The state indicted Scopes hurriedly so that the trial could begin promptly. Even before the trial started on July 10, Dayton had taken on a circus atmosphere as fundamentalists, tourists, and reporters arrived in town. Prosecution and defense counsel also arrived early to deal with the legal preliminaries. Bryan was assisted by his son and four Tennessee lawyers; Darrow and Neal were joined by two New York attorneys, Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays. The judge was John T. Raulston, who did little to restrain the circus atmosphere surrounding the trial.

During the trial, there was no question that Scopes had violated Tennessee's antievolution statute. At issue were the rights of religion and government to decide what should or should not be taught. Bryan declared that a victory for evolution would strike "at the root not only of Christianity but of civilization." Darrow countered that the prosecution was paving the way for a reign of "bigotry and ignorance and hatred." The tactics and oratory of opposing counsel, the maneuverings of Judge Raulston, and the antics of people in the courtroom and Dayton gave color and life to these issues, and some 200 journalists and photographers were on hand to report it all.

The jury found Scopes guilty on July 21. He was able to take satisfaction in the fact that his defense had clearly enunciated the principles of free inquiry. He contributed to this by telling the court before he was sentenced, "I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue . . . to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideals of academic freedom--that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our Constitution--of personal and religious freedom." Judge Raulston fined him $100.

The case was not over, for the decision was appealed. The ACLU wanted other counsel to continue the case, but Scopes demanded that Darrow argue the appeal. This was done before the Tennessee Supreme Court in June 1926; the court overturned the sentence on the ground that the jury, not the judge, should have set the fine. Thus, technically Scopes had won, and Tennessee was relieved of having to rule on the merits of the antievolution law. The statute was in effect dead, although it was not repealed until 1967.

After his trial, Scopes left teaching. He decided not to exploit his prominence, choosing instead to study geology at the University of Chicago. In 1927 he took a job with the Gulf Oil Company. He worked in Venezuela until 1930, when the company discharged him for refusing to conduct an illegal survey. In February 1930 he married Mildred Walker; they had two children. He pursued doctoral studies at Chicago, but he ran out of funds in 1932 before completing the degree. In 1933, Scopes took a job with the United Gas Corporation, in whose employ he remained in Texas and Louisiana until he retired in 1964. He did not emerge from his relative obscurity until 1960, when he helped to promote the film version of the play Inherit the Wind, which was based on his trial. In 1967, Scopes published his autobiography. He died in Shreveport, La.

The year of his death, Scope spoke at the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, declaring, "It is the teacher's business to decide what to teach. It is not the business of the federal courts nor of the states." Thus, toward the end of his life, Scopes reinforced the idea of academic freedom, of which he had been an outstanding symbol for forty-five years.


[On Scopes's life, see John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (1967); and D. C. Ipsen, Eye of the Whirlwind: The Story of John Scopes (1973). See also the trial record, published as The World's Most Famous Court Trial (1925); Ray Ginger, Six Days or Forever? (1958); Scopes, "The Trial That Rocked the Nation," Reader's Digest, Mar. 1961; and L. Sprague DeCamp, The Great Monkey Trial (1968). Accounts of the trial are also found in the biographies of some of the other principals, including Clarence Darrow, The Story of My Life (1932); Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941); Arthur Garfield Hays, City Lawyer (1942); Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith, William Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade, 1915-1925 (1965); and Arthur Weinberg and Lila Weinberg, Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times, Oct. 23, 1970.]

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"John Thomas Scopes." Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. U.S. History in Context, Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310003894