Jerry Summers: Last Words Of “The Great Orator”

  • Thursday, December 7, 2023
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Everything that can be said about the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tn., in the summer of 1925 in the legal religious battle between atheist trial lawyer Clarence Darrow and three times unsuccessful presidential candidate and defender of the religious theory of evolution of man from a supreme deity, William Jennings Bryan, has probably been said by other writers, scholars, and script writers.

However there is one part of the historical epic that may be silent:

1. Contrary to the movie “Inherit the Wind” starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, Gene Kelley, only a small portion of the testimony of witness was every heard by the jury empaneled to try the case;

2. Both the prosecution and defense agreed that the facts showed that the defendant John Scopes had taught the theory of evolution of man from animals advocated by Charles Darwin and that the only real issue would be to contest the constitutionality of the Tennessee “Anti-Evolution” law adopted earlier in the same year;

3. The trial judge erroneously asserted a fine of $100 without a jury in violation of a Tennessee constitution provision that requires any penalty over $50.00 must be set by a jury and not the trial court;

4. Both sides waived closing arguments and submitted the case to Judge Raulston who singularly imposed the $100 fine;

5. No appeal of the issue of the legitimacy of the statute was ever filed by the attorney assigned that role because the Bill of Exceptions was not timely filed and was stricken from the record. Scopes v. The State, 152 Tenn. 424.

THUS TO THE POINT OF THIS ARTICLE.

William Jennings Bryan (Great Orator) and Clarence Darrow never gave their Final Arguments to the jury and court as both sides agreed to dispense with closing speeches much to the disappointment of the members of the news media who had attended the trial in the hot east Tennessee summer.

Upon request of the newspaper and radio reporters Bryan reduced his proposed final argument to writing through dictation and the 15,000 word treatise was released to the press for publication.

Bryan College was immediately created in his memory and on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the school in 1980 a 29-page reprint of his speech and four pages of supporting documents were distributed.

(Whether a copy is available at the small museum in the basement of the historic Rhea County Courthouse in downtown Dayton, Tn., or at the annual re-enactment of the trial in July each year by amateur actors, can probably be determined by a call to the Circuit Court Clerk at 423-775-7805.)

* * *

You can reach Jerry Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com

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