Before John Scopes was even convicted of teaching evolution in Tennessee in July 1925, arguments raged over his trial's broader historical significance. The New York Times claimed that the Scopes trial generated “the greatest debate on science and religion in recent years,” and later historians often explored its importance for the development of evolution, creationism, and fundamentalism.Footnote 1 But scholars have also seen the trial as raising issues that went “beyond science and religion.”Footnote 2 William Jennings Bryan insisted that Scopes threatened the democratic control of public education, while Clarence Darrow countered that Scopes had the right to teach the truth no matter what the public wanted. And many others saw all sorts of issues at stake in the trial, ranging from questions about racial justice and gender norms to debates about regional identity and fundamentalist movement strategy.Footnote 3 The trial's historiography has thus sought to reconcile these wider arguments with science–religion frameworks. The current standard account concludes that “the issues raised by the Scopes trial and legend endure precisely because they embody the characteristically American struggle between individual liberty and majoritarian democracy, and cast it in the timeless debate over science and religion.”Footnote 4
This article reassesses the trial's significance by showing how key parts of its political history not only went beyond science and religion but also departed from the issue of individual liberty. For among the many arguments generated by the Scopes trial was a crucial debate about the politics of staging a national “circus.” Contemporaries regularly used this metaphor to interpret the trial as a media spectacle that dramatized a series of interlocking cultural conflicts between science and religion, urban and rural, elite and popular, North and South.Footnote 5 However, later historians often depoliticized these interpretations by seeing the trial's spectacular circus dynamics as little more than fun but frothy “ballyhoo.”Footnote 6 Meanwhile recent scholarship in media history and communications studies has shown how sensational coverage helped define the trial's reception.Footnote 7 By taking the circus seriously and seeing its publicity as significant politically, this article argues that the trial's politics were both more fraught and more consequential than has generally been appreciated. Many prominent commentators in the mid- and late 1920s saw the Scopes trial not as a contest between science and religion, nor as a struggle over individual rights and liberties, but rather as a broader debate about the political relationship between cultural conflict and media spectacle in the United States.
Historians of education have sometimes seen this relationship, as well as the trial itself, through the lens of later “culture wars.” From this perspective, the Scopes trial anticipated the stark cultural battle lines that have shaped American politics since the 1980s, especially through debates over curriculum design.Footnote 8 But what the culture-war heuristic misses and what the circus metaphor captures, is how the trial's cultural conflicts not only went beyond education policy but also became essentially unwinnable, crucially symbiotic, and primarily spectacular. Rather than dividing the United States into two warring cultures over who controlled the public schools, the Scopes trial combined various cultural conflicts into a single media spectacle. And the resulting circus politics encouraged circular arguments with conservative outcomes. Liberals approached the trial by advocating modernization and consensus, but the right responded by making anti-liberal arguments for traditional cultural values, which the far right tried to radicalize while the left found itself marginalized. In this sense the Scopes trial was not simply a culture war about education, but nor was it a just a bit of ballyhoo that can be separated from the broader political history of 1920s America.Footnote 9 As a significant part of this history, the Scopes trial helps explain why the United States has sometimes been engulfed by spectacular cultural conflicts and seemed incapable of structural transformations in its economic and racial regimes.
So the trial became a circus, and the circus became a trap: an all-consuming and self-sustaining spectacle that served to escalate cultural conflicts and entrench existing resentments through ever more sensational media coverage. To explain these processes, this article will proceed in three parts. The first will explore the trial itself and suggest that its politics were more defined by circus dynamics than by debates about science and religion or about Scopes's rights and liberties. The second part will examine how contemporary liberals, conservatives, socialists, and far-right activists continued arguing about the trial's legacies in the later 1920s. The third part will survey the broader resonance of these arguments down the twentieth century and consider their relationship to the trial's changing meanings during the New Deal and Cold War.
No one knew in early July 1925 that William Jennings Bryan would be dead by the end of the month. Most saw him as the charismatic Democrat that he had been since 1896, when he won unprecedented support across the South and West as the presidential nominee of the Democratic and People's parties. Though he lost the election, Bryan's career flourished with two more tries at the presidency, a stint as Secretary of State, and several tours of the Chautauqua circuit.Footnote 10 “He was the greatest political evangelist of his day,” wrote the political scientist Charles Merriam, stressing that “his strength was peculiarly recruited from the agrarian group, the labor group, and the religious group cutting across economic class lines.”Footnote 11 Bryan campaigned against evolution as a veteran politician with a large constituency and did not confine his campaign to debates about science and religion. Scientists and theologians had long disputed Darwin's theories and argued in particular about their ontological repercussions for various forms of religious belief.Footnote 12 Bryan, however, focussed on their broader political implications.Footnote 13 Above all he argued that public education was a democratic question and that the people should choose what was taught in their schools.Footnote 14 And though his fame presented fundamentalist leaders with political opportunities, Bryan's actual religious beliefs were far from orthodox fundamentalism.Footnote 15 His antievolution campaign, then, was a successful political movement supported by rural and religious citizens regionally concentrated in the South and West.
The combination of these various cultural vectors seemed striking and threatening to secular urban liberals in the North and East, who generally saw themselves as stewards of modernization. “Bryan is what America was,” Walter Lippmann had written; “his critics are generally defenders of what America has become.”Footnote 16 But as Bryan's campaign became more powerful, many liberals grew anxious. John Dewey criticized Bryan as an antimodern crusader, but also wrote that “the forces which are embodied in the present crusade would not be so dangerous were they not bound up with so much that is necessary and good.” To meet these dangers while maintaining the good, Dewey urged greater intellectual and political humility and warned against departing from popular norms “associated with aspiration for a decent neighborly life.”Footnote 17 Still, some cared little about sounding condescending. The Princeton biologist and avid eugenicist Edwin Grant Conklin told the New York Times that Bryan's campaign “would be amusing if it were not so pathetic.”Footnote 18 But Bryan knew how to make such claims work in his favor and he responded that figures like Conklin “misrepresent their opponents, look with contempt upon those who do not exhaust the alphabet in setting forth their degrees, and evade the issue which they pretend to discuss.”Footnote 19 As a sneering Princeton professor who wanted public attention, Conklin provided the perfect foil for Bryan.
Elite or popular, urban or rural, science or religion, North or South; these interlocking conflicts had a real political resonance in 1920s Tennessee. Most citizens lived in rural areas or small towns; in general they valued the Bible, had voted for Bryan, disliked taxation, and enjoyed a good courthouse performance.Footnote 20 Meanwhile local urban liberals in Nashville and Chattanooga opposed Bryan and emphasized the importance of education. Tennessee's politics involved much Protestant conservatism and some more progressive elements, alongside wider commitments to racial segregation and New South liberalism.Footnote 21 So when John Washington Butler, a legislator from the rural Upper Cumberland, wanted to ban Tennessee's public schools from teaching evolution, his bill became state law without much fuss.Footnote 22 But the law became the spark for national debate through conscious media strategies. From its New York headquarters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would challenge the law in a press release reaching the small town of Dayton, where local boosters arranged Scopes's arrest and told the press.Footnote 23 As national coverage mounted, some Tennesseans warned of impending public embarrassment. “Is it not time for progressive minded people to put themselves on record,” Donald Davidson asked in the Nashville Tennessean, “so that whether the victory be lost or won, the outside world may know that Tennessee is not a total fog of Bryanism?”Footnote 24 Still, most such people kept quiet, and Davidson's own mind grew much less progressive after the trial ended.
Bryan sensed opportunity. When he went to Dayton as a celebrity prosecutor, Merriam worried that “Mr. Bryan is likely to sweep the board, for he has now found an issue which involves no special economic considerations and where his well-known eloquence and piety give him enormous strength.”Footnote 25 The ACLU, moreover, struggled to develop a clear legal strategy. The organization's director, Roger Baldwin, argued that the trial turned on the issue of academic freedom, which he wanted to ground in First Amendment speech rights.Footnote 26 Others within the ACLU thought that the Butler Act amounted to the establishment of religion by the state of Tennessee, which involved different First Amendment rights.Footnote 27 Both these arguments strained, because “free speech in the classroom” then lacked legal precedent and the “religious-establishment” claim meant seeing schools as churches. The broader unconstitutionality of the Butler Act was also doubtful, because First Amendment rights were not then generally enforceable at the federal level under the Fourteenth Amendment.Footnote 28 When Darrow joined Scopes's defense team, some ACLU allies distanced themselves from the trial. Felix Frankfurter tried to get Darrow off the case and argued publicly that beating Bryan meant winning over public opinion rather than relying on judicial decisions.Footnote 29 Samuel Untermeyer refused to help the ACLU with the case, but he also told Bryan that the prevailing “grand-stand play” would make it difficult “to keep the trial within the legal limits.”Footnote 30
Indeed, the trial was a spectacle from the start. About two hundred journalists went to Dayton and over two thousand newspapers published their articles on “the queerest story of the generation,” as Editor & Publisher put it, “weird as a nightmare, side-splittingly funny, darkly tragic, a huge joke, a sinister threat … all about everything and all about nothing.”Footnote 31 Whipping things up most was H. L. Mencken, who had made his name by mocking democracy, Christianity, and the South, and who found the whole show “five times better than I expected.”Footnote 32 Mencken's dispatches framed the trial's significance through a series of spectacular cultural conflicts. Some of these involved oppositions between science and religion, and one of his pieces portrayed a local “religious orgy.”Footnote 33 But many other pieces made claims about regional barbarity, rural backwardness, and Bryan's demagoguery. “The rabble is in the saddle,” Mencken wrote with rapt revulsion, “and down here it makes its first campaign under a general beside whom Wat Tyler seems like a wart beside the Matterhorn.”Footnote 34 Beyond the content of his journalism, Mencken's very presence seemed to raise the resentment stakes. When he left Dayton early to deal with editorial duties in Baltimore, a rumor that angry locals had chased him out of town became a national story. “Mencken's Epithets Raise Dayton's Ire,” splashed the New York Times. “Citizens Resent Being Called ‘Babbitts,’ ‘Morons,’ ‘Peasants,’ ‘Hill-Billies,’ and ‘Yokels’; Talk of Beating Him Up.”Footnote 35 This was not true, but nor did it need to be. What mattered was the semi-ironic headline and its grievance-mongering frisson.
The trial's abundant ballyhoo had the political function of amplifying and escalating its cultural conflicts while foreclosing the possibility of either resolving them or moving on to other issues. The Manchester Guardian reported that Daytonians most disliked “the spectacle of many outsiders coming a distance to tell them what to do.”Footnote 36 But as an outsider itself and especially as a British publication, the Guardian could not hope to observe the spectacle without magnifying its conflicts. Scopes's conviction was a foregone conclusion, yet many contemporaries saw the trial's real significance in its ever-increasing publicity. Julia Collier Harris, a Georgia journalist and New South liberal, argued that “fundamentalism of every kind is spreading its flamboyant banners in Dayton.”Footnote 37 From Bryan's perspective, however, the flamboyancy of the banners was critical. In fact, he focussed more directly on the role of the press as the trial proceeded. “Irreligious editors,” Bryan argued, “have scoffed at the idea of the schools being controlled by those who support them.”Footnote 38 Ordinary citizens, he suggested, would rightly resent the smirks of the liberal media. The trial's circus dynamics thus drew in journalists themselves as both participants and observers, both publicists and reporters.
Some journalists tried to cover the trial in ways that confronted its conflicts and reached for consensus. For example, Marcet Haldeman-Julius wrote a careful account for the Haldeman-Julius Monthly, an independent socialist paper that she edited with her husband Emanuel.Footnote 39 Seeking to cool “the super-heated, jazzy atmosphere” that seemed so dominant, she portrayed John Washington Butler as a good man, “full of innate courtesy and kindness,” much like her own friends and neighbors in Girard, Kansas. He told Haldeman-Julius that “the way you've been raised” explained your political views; she told her readers that despite Bryan's campaign against evolution, “Mr. Butler and many of his fellow Tennesseans have been proudly interested as well as informed and set quietly thinking by the campaign of education carried on at Dayton by Darrow.”Footnote 40 In Haldeman-Julius's account, the trial served to educate Daytonians about evolution rather than fuel opposition to outsiders. But even if some local citizens became more interested in evolution itself because of the trial, the prospects for consensus beyond it were bleak. Joseph Wood Krutch had grown up in Tennessee and now worked in New York for The Nation; he saw the trial as “a symptom of the vast gulf which lies between the two halves of our population.” And yet he offered no real answer to “the question of how this gulf may be bridged.”Footnote 41
Moreover, the most popular and influential coverage of the Scopes trial was directly invested in keeping the circus going. The Haldeman-Julius Monthly and the weekly Nation had tiny circulations compared with major commercial dailies like the Chicago Tribune, but these were the papers that saw the trial as pure entertainment. The Tribune sent its star reporter Philip Kinsley to Dayton; he wrote pieces that described Darrow as a dashing “Chicago prophet” beneath headlines like “DARROW RIPS INTO BIGOTRY.”Footnote 42 Nor could Kinsley resist deriding Bryan's career as a Florida real-estate dealer.Footnote 43 But the Tribune also had an economic interest in sustaining the trial's spectacle. As a commercial product in a competitive media market, the paper relied on events like the Scopes trial to outsell its rivals. By publishing sensational pieces by journalists like Kinsley and syndicating celebrities like Mencken, and by integrating these editorial choices into broader corporate strategies, the Chicago Tribune achieved a daily circulation of 650,000 in 1925.Footnote 44 It also used new technologies to promote its brand. The Tribune's radio station WGN broadcast the Scopes trial live across the nation – the first time this happened with any American court proceeding – and its very name announced that the Tribune was the “World's Greatest Newspaper.”Footnote 45
The circus politics of the Scopes trial thus turned assorted cultural divisions into a single media spectacle that intensified the conflicts it staged. And these dynamics pushed usually sober journalists towards increasingly polarized arguments. George Fort Milton, the editor of the Chattanooga News and another New South liberal, had argued against banning evolution in Tennessee's public schools but now he sought to defend southern ways from northern attacks. Observing that fundamentalists lived everywhere in America and that the trial could have happened in “Kansas or Missouri, in Washington, or the State of Maine,” Milton insisted that Tennessee should not be “crucified on the cross of public opinion as a bog of bigotry.”Footnote 46 Walter Lippmann, now directing the editorial page of the New York World, began to abandon his earlier policy of publishing letters from liberal Tennesseans lamenting the whole “publicity stunt.”Footnote 47 As Lippmann ran piece after piece on the “sectarian fury” beneath the “circus atmosphere,” he eventually accused Bryan of committing “spiritual treason against the people of the United States.”Footnote 48 But such charges then pushed southern editors to insist that their region could do without the advice and attacks of the New York World.Footnote 49
These conflicts and resentments were deepened by the issue of expert testimony. The ACLU had arranged for various experts, mostly (though not only) from northern universities, to give evidence about the scientific truth of evolution and its theological compatibility with Christianity.Footnote 50 In response Bryan argued that out-of-town elites ought not to interfere with the decisions of Tennessee's citizens. Speaking in court for the first time, Bryan observed that New Yorkers would naturally oppose efforts to enforce prohibition if Tennesseans sent “experts to testify how good a thing prohibition is to New York and to the nation.” And so, he said, “it isn't proper to bring experts in here to defeat the purpose of the people of this state by trying to show that this thing that they denounce and outlaw is a beautiful thing that everybody ought to believe in.”Footnote 51 Bryan's argument worked in the strict legal sense that most expert testimony was read into the appellate record and not heard by the jury. But it also worked in the broader political sense that anti-Bryan journalists became ever more incensed. The Chicago Tribune saw the exclusion of expertise as evidence that Bryan had gone “mad.”Footnote 52 Liberal southern newspapers were drawn further toward Bryan. The New Orleans Times-Picayune had so far avoided taking sides, but now it printed letters from pro-Bryan readers arguing that “you should handle this matter more carefully and give each side the same publicity.”Footnote 53
The circus finale came with Darrow's decision to cross-examine Bryan as an expert witness on matters of biblical interpretation. Darrow had tried this before in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, though Bryan refused to debate him there.Footnote 54 However, Bryan now took the stand and submitted to Darrow's questions about the accuracy of the Bible, the age of the Earth, and whether or not the locals were “yokels.”Footnote 55 The Darrow–Bryan encounter was the trial's most spectacular moment, which came to represent the triumph of science over superstition to the likes of Mencken.Footnote 56 Yet the New York World had “no sympathy at all for the manner in which Mr. Darrow heckled Mr. Bryan.”Footnote 57 The now pro-Bryan New Orleans Times-Picayune argued that Darrow had “betrayed himself as the bitter, cynical, contemptuous agnostic, intolerant of the faith of simple minds and resentful of the beliefs of a kindly people seeking, perhaps narrowly and unadvisedly yet sincerely and earnestly, to preserve religious concepts in the minds of their children.”Footnote 58 Marcet Haldeman-Julius observed that most Daytonians “believed their hero was winning,” while the Arkansas Gazette judged Bryan “a brave figure to them.”Footnote 59 Krutch wrote of Bryan that “even as he loses he wins.”Footnote 60
In the trial's aftermath, the political consequences of its circus dynamics continued to generate fierce debates among liberals, socialists, and conservatives. For it seemed very doubtful that victory belonged to anyone. Scopes had certainly lost; he was convicted of a misdemeanor and fined a hundred dollars by the judge.Footnote 61 And the ACLU lost, because the Butler Act was upheld and no legal precedents were set. The organization hoped that “laws of this kind will hereafter meet the opposition of an aroused public opinion,” but the spectacle had been so polarizing that this seemed unlikely.Footnote 62 When Bryan suddenly died five days after the trial ended, few thought him buried. Mencken did his best with a pitiless obituary that called Bryan “a walking malignancy,” but most were more respectful.Footnote 63 Even the New York World managed to say some nice things, while also worrying that the drama of Bryan's death would “weight his words at Dayton with the solemnity of a parting message and strengthen their effect on his fellow citizens.”Footnote 64 The Last Message of William Jennings Bryan quickly appeared as a pamphlet edited by George Fort Milton, while antievolution activists went on getting bills through the legislatures of Mississippi, Arkansas, and elsewhere.Footnote 65
One of the trial's most incisive postmortems appeared two months later as an editorial in The Crisis by W. E. B. Du Bois. Unlike most commentators, Du Bois had actually been a public-school teacher in rural Tennessee; he long remembered the lack of basic classroom resources and the many material struggles of country life.Footnote 66 He saw media spectacles as distractions from more pressing economic and racial issues, and he stressed that “the folk who leave white Tennessee in blank and ridiculous ignorance … are the same ones who would leave black Tennessee and black America with just as little education as is consistent with fairly efficient labor and reasonable contentment.”Footnote 67 Still, the trial had divided national opinion and dominated the news for weeks, so Du Bois did not simply dismiss it as insignificant. He also thought that culture mattered politically, especially as testimony, and he contested attempts to depoliticize cultural claims. Ultimately Du Bois argued that real democracy required honest and critical public debates, to which he saw Scopes-style conflicts as serious political obstacles.Footnote 68 So, precisely because of its circus dynamics, the trial had exposed some difficult truths about the United States. “Dayton, Tennessee, is America,” Du Bois wrote: “a great, ignorant, simple-minded land, curiously compounded of brutality, bigotry, religious faith and demagoguery, and capable not simply of mistakes but of persecution, lynching, murder and idiotic blundering, as well as charity, missions, love and hope.”Footnote 69
But these claims remained catnip for Mencken. In Notes on Democracy (1926), Mencken continued to mobilize conflicts between the urban “civilized minority” and the rural “eternal mob.” A musician playing Bach in Tennessee, for example, “would be hailed before a Judge Raulston, tried by a jury of morons, and railroaded to the calaboose.”Footnote 70 This kind of combative iconoclasm helped consolidate Mencken's celebrity as perhaps the most influential critic in the United States. In 1926 he was the subject of over five hundred editorials; he loomed above cities on billboards; he compiled any publicity about himself for further distribution by his publishers.Footnote 71 Notes on Democracy appealed to Joseph Wood Krutch as a “Rabelaisian disquisition,” while Lippmann argued that Mencken's book revealed “the paradox of his popularity.”Footnote 72 This paradox was that Mencken's whole mode of cultural criticism did not simply oppose spectacular conflicts like the Scopes trial, but also crucially depended on their continuation. “I enjoy democracy immensely,” Mencken had concluded. “It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.”Footnote 73 But if conflicts between Mencken's audience and Bryan's constituency became dominant politically, and if this continued to drive editorial and economic decisions across the newspaper industry, then perhaps the circus would continue indefinitely. Mencken's audience expected spectacular excess from Bryan's constituency for its fun; Bryan's constituency demanded a certain disdain from Mencken's audience for its force. If each depended on the other's opposition, and if the media went on profiting from their symbiosis, then the political consequences would be circular and conservative.
Among the many liberals made anxious by this mode of politics, few fretted more than white southern advocates of the New South. For this project was now old, while the South still seemed vulnerable to Mencken. The sociologist Howard Odum argued for more modernization and social science, but he also began to see this frankly as “a peace without victory … Better a decade of research than a cycle of futility,” he concluded forlornly.Footnote 74 The literary critic Edwin Mims tried to trumpet progress in The Advancing South (1926); he conceded that “Mencken's violent diatribes have strengthened the conservative forces,” but concluded that southern public opinion had nonetheless witnessed a “rising tide of liberalism.”Footnote 75 Mims argued that white elites should manage regional modernization, maintain racial segregation, and minimize Scopes-like debacles. But Mencken responded by blaming the trial on “Mims and his fellow pussyfooters” for lacking the will to lead the South.Footnote 76 Both Mims and Odum, moreover, were part of the broader problem that Du Bois had identified, because their basic positions were elitist, racist, and wishful. Even their friends found them implausible. When the novelist Ellen Glasgow read The Advancing South she doubted that such priggish stuff could achieve much, and she told Mims that “fanaticism, intolerance and hypocrisy” were “beginning to boil over again” across the whole country.Footnote 77
Menckenian conflicts and spectacles continued to shape the American mainstream in the later 1920s. Sinclair Lewis seized the moment with Elmer Gantry, a ruthless satire on small-town fundamentalism dedicated to Mencken that became America's best-selling novel in 1927. To research it Lewis had travelled to Kansas City, Missouri, where he befriended many liberal ministers. But in the novel itself the preacher protagonist is venal and lascivious, while the earnest antagonist ends up a mob victim after speaking out about “the ‘monkey trial’ at Dayton.”Footnote 78 Lewis's publishers told him that “the publicity on Elmer Gantry is amazing … We are advertising it, of course, in every conceivable way from here [New York] to the Pacific Ocean.”Footnote 79 Thus Elmer Gantry extended and deepened the trial's earlier conflicts as entertaining and popular fiction. Krutch reviewed it diffidently as a book about the American grotesque, while Lippmann criticized Lewis directly for turning his characters into “stereotypes.”Footnote 80 Still, so much publicity surrounded Elmer Gantry that even its critics seemed complicit in its consequences. “Mr. Lewis's types,” wrote the labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg, “are but the moron victims crowding at the right wing of a culture at whose enlightened left wing Mr. Lippmann sits as a connoisseur and critical apologist.”Footnote 81
Here was the difference between how socialists and liberals understood the politics of cultural conflict. Stolberg agreed with Lippmann “when he says that there is an ever-widening cultural gap between the industrial centers and the country districts,” but they disagreed about both why and what to do.Footnote 82 Lippmann sought to bridge the gap and calm the circus with a broadly liberal consensus. Three months after the trial ended Lippmann addressed the annual meeting of the Indiana State Teachers’ Association in a huge fundamentalist church, the Cadle Tabernacle of Indianapolis, where he argued that schools and newspapers could together produce better public debates.Footnote 83 However, Stolberg saw cultural conflicts as political distractions from wider economic struggles; he wanted to stop the circus by changing the subject. Stolberg spent most of his time covering strikes and other union issues at a low moment for the labor movement, though he also helped Lewis research a never-finished “labor novel.”Footnote 84 Lippmann kept writing about Scopes and even tried Socratic dialogues in American Inquisitors (1928), where Bryan and Jefferson and others discuss various schemes of public education. Yet the dialogues reach few conclusions and when “Mr. Mencken” crops up the suspiciously Lippmann-like Socrates gets flustered and confused.Footnote 85
The trap of the trial, then, lay in how its circus politics framed the spectacle of cultural conflict as the overwhelming and inescapable fact of American life. To many contemporary observers, these were the dynamics that shaped the 1928 election, when the Republicans and Democrats offered familiar economic orthodoxies and clear cultural contrasts in the presidential candidacies of Herbert Hoover and Al Smith.Footnote 86 As Bryan's old Democratic rival and as the governor of New York, Smith struggled to win over white southern voters who resented what George Fort Milton called “his dripping wet views, his Tammany origin, background and environment, and his general Manhattanite point of view.”Footnote 87 In the end Smith lost not only Tennessee but also New York, while Norman Thomas carried the small socialist rump, and Hoover won a crushing victory for conservative normalcy. Trying to make sense of this result, Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard argued that the anti-Catholic “whispering campaign” against Smith suggested that the “dense ignorance and prejudice of the Scopes case in Tennessee, which we had flattered ourselves was limited to backwoods districts, are in reality to be found in every American community.”Footnote 88 More starkly, Du Bois argued that the election both exposed and betrayed democracy itself. Urgent issues like “the role of organized wealth in industry, the future of organized labor, the distribution of national income,” Du Bois wrote, had been evaded again by a campaign that seemed to deepen public apathy and systematically ignore the ongoing disenfranchisement of African Americans. Du Bois's doubts about democracy in America grew with both his dejection at the election and his scorn for Scopes-style circuses.Footnote 89
Many white liberals, meanwhile, continued to argue that the trial's trap could only be escaped by doubling down on consensus through modernization. Where this argument had once been made by the New South partisans like Odum and Mims, now it was developed by more national figures like Lippmann and Krutch. For example, Krutch's disenchanted study of The Modern Temper (1929) identified stoicism and humanism as sources of hope for a liberal modernity, and yet concluded austerely that “unresolvable discord” would remain “the fundamental fact” of “the world in which we must continue to live.”Footnote 90 Similarly, but a bit less bleakly, Lippmann's Preface to Morals (1929) argued that “the acids of modernity” corroded old certainties but also created a “complex pluralism” that could sustain more moderate and tolerant forms of democratic politics.Footnote 91 On this view, the very process of modernization would create consensus eventually. Liberals might push it along through middlebrow public moralism; Lippmann's Preface to Morals became a best seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.Footnote 92 They could also study modernization's sociology, especially the apparent “lag” between economic change and cultural habits, through Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd's Middletown (1929).Footnote 93 The post-Scopes liberal hope, then, was that consensus would emerge through the gradual but inexorable consolidation of a middlebrow Middletown modernity.Footnote 94
Conservatives responded to this position by developing explicitly antimodern and antiliberal modes of cultural politics. Thus the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers and critics variously associated with Vanderbilt University, argued that southern culture was a crucial conservative exception to an otherwise liberal modernity in I'll Take My Stand (1930). John Crowe Ransom, the leading Agrarian, claimed that the South's cultural heritage was old and European; that its contemporary identity was rural, religious, and white; and that its political hopes still lay with the Bryanite wing of the Democratic Party.Footnote 95 While northern liberals argued that modernization would destroy what remained of Bryan's constituency, southern conservatives tried to reclaim it as a political vehicle for antiliberal cultural campaigns. Ransom later retreated from these positions along with many other Agrarians, not least because other southerners accused them of evading the issue of segregation.Footnote 96 Nevertheless, Donald Davidson came to see the Scopes trial as a national humiliation. He continued to dwell on its implications and argued in I'll Take My Stand that southern conservatives needed to promote an “agrarian restoration.”Footnote 97 By the 1950s Davidson had embraced white supremacist activism as chair of the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government (a massive-resistance organization) and he openly argued that defending southern culture meant advocating “democracy for white people.”Footnote 98 Davidson's career thus realized some of the most revanchist dimensions of conservative cultural politics.
On the far right in the 1930s, moreover, this kind of politics was radicalized still further. In Kansas, for example, the fundamentalist preacher and fervent anti-Semite Gerald B. Winrod regularly invoked Scopes-style conflicts to claim that cultural threats like evolution and Elmer Gantry were destroying “true American civilization.”Footnote 99 This looked a lot like fascism to many contemporaries.Footnote 100 In Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935) the dictator Buzz Windrip was partly inspired by Winrod, while the hero Doremus Jessup says directly that fascism could well happen in a country where Bryan had “made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution.”Footnote 101 But as Stolberg also observed, American fascism often reflected contingent alliances between capitalist elites and conservative activists that mobilized deeply modern forms of mass communication. “To play the fascist game,” Stolberg argued, was to produce violently cynical versions of right-wing vigilantism that could play ambiguously on spectacular rumors of corruption and conspiracy.Footnote 102 The American far right in the 1930s partly relied on shrewd media strategies to radicalize such rumors into an imminent sense of civilizational collapse.Footnote 103 And figures like Winrod built directly on earlier cultural conflicts to push conservative claims to their rightmost extremes. These claims thus show how starkly the Scopes circus could become, as Du Bois had warned, “no laughing matter.”Footnote 104 Far-right cultural crusades and even fascist games were ominous possibilities that lurked within the trial's conservative trap.
During and after the 1930s, debates about what the Scopes trial had meant changed while the American political mainstream moved away from earlier cultural conflicts. But the trial's trap continued to animate conservative arguments that could be variously escaped, negotiated, or intensified down the twentieth century. The New Deal moved away from the Scopes circus mostly through a basic political emphasis on confronting economic and international crises, but also through targeted cultural agendas that promoted a national liberal consensus. For example, the Federal Writers’ Project produced a series of state guidebooks that provided a “road map for the cultural rediscovery of America.”Footnote 105 One Tennessee tour suggested briefly stopping in Dayton before swiftly proceeding to Chattanooga, where you could see the promise of the Tennessee Valley Authority.Footnote 106 With such state-led modernization projects providing jobs alongside a popular cultural nationalism, the New Deal tried to drive Americans away from the 1920s and toward more forward-looking modes of modern liberalism. George Fort Milton saw the TVA as the South's salvation, while Donald Davidson opposed it as a Yankee imposition.Footnote 107 Whether seen as savior or bulldozer, the TVA became a vivid symbol of liberal modernity within and beyond Tennessee during the 1930s and 1940s. Where the spectacle of cultural conflict had once produced a conservative circus politics, many now saw federal agencies like the TVA as evidence of “democracy on the march.”Footnote 108
As the New Deal gave way to the Cold War, the Scopes trial reemerged in American memory on different political terms. The key text driving this change was Inherit the Wind, both as a 1955 play and as a 1960 film, but there were books and articles too. In these accounts the trial came to matter mostly as a debate about science and religion and as a contest over individual rights, while its cultural conflicts were downplayed as basically harmless ballyhoo from a bygone era.Footnote 109 Both the play and film versions of Inherit the Wind showed much frenetic media coverage, but as they proceed the circus recedes and the drama culminates with a struggle between scientific liberalism and religious reaction. The film ends with Spencer Tracey's Darrow humiliating Bryan (Fredric March) and distancing himself from Mencken (Gene Kelly); its final shot has Darrow leaving the courtroom with copies of both the Bible and Darwin as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays in the background (“his truth is marching on!”). The trial's Cold War adaptations thus offered audiences straightforward morality tales that ended with clear victories for liberal modernity. As an anti-McCarthy production, Inherit the Wind took the position of Edward R. Murrow: demagogues were dangerous, the public was vulnerable, but a few good liberals could save the day. Still, many old features of the trial's trap endured. Conservatives in the 1950s continued to develop influential modes of media activism and antiliberal argument.Footnote 110
When leading mid-century liberals argued about history and politics, however, they continued making claims about the need for consensus through modernization. For example, Richard Hofstadter framed American history since the 1890s as a complex political response to modernity's inevitable advance. His Age of Reform (1955) portrayed Bryan's 1920s career as both a doomed last stand against modern liberalism and a persistent political impulse that anticipated McCarthy's “cranky pseudo-conservatism.”Footnote 111 But as the American conservative movement became more and more powerful, the liberals found themselves stuck, because modernization had seemingly not delivered a durable national consensus. By the 1960s Hofstadter's arguments were increasingly pathological; he now saw fundamentalism as “a type of pseudo-political mentality” and figures like Barry Goldwater as “paranoid.” Earlier liberals like Lippmann had worried much about “the acids of modernity,” but Hofstadter's generation went further by seeing the right as an extreme yet pseudo-political “revolt against modernity.”Footnote 112 From this perspective, conservative activists could be simultaneously diagnosed psychologically and dismissed politically as antithetical to modern America.
When the “culture wars” broke out in the 1980s and 1990s, their many media spectacles replayed some old dynamics of the Scopes circus, yet now the political initiative lay firmly with conservatism. For despite the military metaphors and existential atmosphere, the culture wars framed circular arguments that generally favored the right. Conservatives stressed the need to defend traditional American values from liberal institutions, liberals decried the absence of consensus and the madness of conservatives, socialists found themselves marginalized from mainstream public debates, and the far right tried to turn these debates into revanchist political movements.Footnote 113 Amidst all this, various evolution trials were staged as “Scopes II,” and one such case was Seagreaves v. California (1981). “Lacking a courtroom showdown,” observed Leo Ribuffo, “ABC-TV's Nightline arranged a verbal shootout between science and religion, personified respectively by the astronomer Carl Sagan and the Far Right evangelist James Robison.” Here oppositions between science and religion quickly became proxies for broader cultural conflicts when Sagan called the Bible “authoritarian” while Robison compared science books with comic books.Footnote 114 Sagan died at sixty-two in 1996 as a celebrated science educator and anxious political liberal who sometimes called himself a socialist.Footnote 115 Robison is now seventy-seven and he remains a leading voice of right-wing grievance. He became a spiritual adviser to Donald Trump in 2016 and promoted conspiracy theories about electoral fraud in 2020.Footnote 116 After the assault on the US Capitol in January 2021, Robison continued arguing that “liberal, secular, progressive socialists” both despised and mocked “the American ‘deplorables,’ ‘scoundrels,’ ‘chumps’ or ‘mob,’ or whatever hate-filled people wanted to label them.”Footnote 117
The political history of the Scopes trial has often been seen as a struggle between scientific progress and religious reaction, or as a contest over the rights and liberties of individuals like John Scopes. As this article has shown, however, the trial also framed a debate about the relationship between cultural conflict and media spectacle in the United States. Here the trial's circus dynamics became a kind of trap that induced much complacency within liberalism while also limiting the left. In the trial's aftermath liberals made the case for consensus through modernization, conservatives fought back by defending older cultural values, the far right worked to radicalize these values, and socialists found it very difficult to make claims about economic and racial justice. The Scopes trial thus promoted and reproduced some fraught conservative patterns of American political history. These patterns continue to create problems for liberals and the left, but they have no easy solutions, because the trial amplified and escalated the conflicts it staged without ever actually resolving them. Cultural conflicts have long shaped American politics and they can be perceived and negotiated more or less well. But they are not a war that anyone can win. And when they become all-consuming spectacles, the political consequences range from hypocrisy and resentment to cynicism and condescension, with the ultimate result of drastically reducing the scope for democratic action.