Monkey Trial

July 10, 1926, was the first day of the “Monkey Trial,” where John Thomas Scopes of Tennessee was accused of teaching his students about the concept of evolution. At the time, teaching evolution in Tennessee was considered against the law.

The Tennessee law that outlawed the teaching of evolution had only been passed in March 1926. Breaking it was a misdemeanor and was punishable by a fine. The language of the statute said that it was unlawful to teach any theory denying the story of Divine Creation in the Bible, and it was unlawful to teach that man was the descendent of lower animals. The teacher, Scopes, actually conspired with a local businessman to be charged with the crime. Following his arrest, Scopes organized his defense with the assistance of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). What ensued was a landmark trial that made headlines across the United States and continues to be featured in history books today.Teaching of Evolution Was Against the Law in Tennessee

The city of Dayton, where the trial took place, erupted with media and people gathered to give religious sermons and gain support for the law. Lemonade, hot dogs and toy monkeys were sold on the street. Later, the judge moved the court proceedings to the lawn of the courthouse, saying that he was worried the crowd in the courtroom would cause the floor to collapse.

Anti-Evolution Laws Deemed Unconstitutional in 1968

Before thousands of onlookers, the defense attorney ridiculed and discredited the prosecution’s literalist interpretation of the teachings in the Bible. In a strategic move, the defense also requested the jury issue a guilty verdict so that he and his client could appeal the matter to a higher court. This prevented the prosecution from delivering any further closing arguments. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. Later, Tennessee’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict, based on a technicality. However, the constitutionality of laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution was not addressed until a similar law from Arizona was overturned in 1968 by the U.S. Supreme Court.