Antidote to the Mythology

Article excerpt

This fine work of history is sadly three years too late. If the National Center for History in Schools had read "Summer for the Gods" in 1994, it would not have recommended that students watch the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind" to learn about this important chapter in American cultural history. Hereafter, though, Mr. Larson's balanced and well-written work will serve as an antidote to the worst kinds of Scopes trial mythology that infects education, law, media and politics to this very day.

Mr. Larson is a professor of law and history at the University of Georgia who has also studied science. His book is concise, even as it employs great story-telling, and concludes with a novel legal analysis of what the "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., has wrought.

The facts about the case have changed down through the years, as this simple misdemeanor has been embellished by both propagandists and serious historians, not to mention playwrights. "The Scopes trial," Mr. Larson writes, "came to symbolize a moment when civil libertarians successfully stood up to majoritarian tyranny." Here is what really happened.

Between World War I and the Roaring '20s, evangelical Protestantism decided that the idea of Darwinian evolution gave rise to Prussian militarism, Bolshevism and a decline in American morality. Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan, lacking a cause in his 60s, took up antievolutionism, and that emboldened Tennessee to pass a law forbidding the teaching of evolution.

The American Civil Liberties Union had just formed as a self-avowed propaganda organ, seeking lawsuits to publicize its defense of free-thinkers and labor and its aversion to superpatriotism and loyalty oaths.

Dayton, population 1,800, had just suffered an economic setback when a blast furnace closed. The city fathers, looking for publicity, saw an ACLU advertisement looking for a biology teacher to make the antievolution law a test case. At a drugstore meeting shortly thereafter, young Scopes was persuaded to play the part in a fabricated lawsuit. The first defense counsel was a free-thinking law professor who wanted to get even with the state-run University of Tennessee for firing him.

When the fundamentalist associations heard of the case, they declared war and asked Bryan to serve on the prosecution. The Chicago agnostic Clarence Darrow got wind of this and insinuated himself into the defense. Thus, a case of no substance became a national phenomenon, largely because of the attention generated by front page reports and radio news nationwide. In the entire trial, the jury heard two hours of evidence against Mr. …