Scopes, Darrow & Mencken

March 13: On this day in 1925 the Tennessee Legislature passed a law that made it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal.” This set in motion the Scopes Trial, and the circus atmosphere which engulfed Dayton and the rest of the state that summer. The trial ended on July 21, the anticipated guilty verdict completing the entertainment: “3,000 AT APE TRIAL GET THRILL,” read the banner headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Clarence Darrow died on this day in 1938. Darrow defended Scopes at his own expense, seeing it as another opportunity to engage the big questions, these he addressed not only in the courtroom but in essays with such titles as “Is There a Purpose to the Universe?” and “Is the Human Race Getting Anywhere?” and “Are We Machines?” Below, Darrow’s slippery-slope argument in defense of Scopes, one of the most famous of his courtroom speeches:

Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, Your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed. With flying banners and beating drums, we are marching backwards to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century, when bigots lighted fagots to burn men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Like most observers, H. L. Mencken viewed the guilty verdict as a foregone conclusion; this is the lead paragraph from his next day report of Darrow’s speech in the Baltimore Sun:

The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan… It rose like a wind and ended like a flourish of bugles. The very judge on the bench, by the end of it, began to look uneasy. But the morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

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