Inherit the Wind Vs. The Scopes Monkey Trial

Inherit the Wind Vs. The Scopes Monkey Trial

Have you ever wondered who the true characters were who graced the courtroom of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial”? Inherit the Wind, a play and a movie based on the trial, paints an entertaining roster of characters, but when the curtain closes and the credits roll, it leaves one wondering what is true and what is not. The character historians have cited as being the most misrepresented is William Jennings Bryan, who is portrayed as “Brady” in Inherit the Wind.
An Introduction

Before we get started, let’s turn the clock backward and quickly review some of the key events about the trial and play. For further facinating information visit David Menton’s article, “Inherently Wind: A Hollywood History of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial”

On a hot summer day, in 1925, John Scopes, a public high school teacher, willingly allowed himself to be arrested and placed on trial in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom for violating the Butler Act, a measure restricting the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. The trial brought two famous lawyers together-William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

Bryan, a Christian, was a well-known orator, and three-time democratic candidate for president. Clarence Darrow, who was nationally known for his defense work, was a liberal and an agnostic. For more on Darrow from all over the country descended on the town, eager to record a rousing debate between religion and science.

Most of what people know about the trial today is from the popular play, Inherit the Wind, written in 1950 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The authors did not seek to write an accurate account of the trial, but rather wrote the play in order to advance their political opinions and make a statement against Christian beliefs. The play is an entertaining, yet extremely misleading account of the trial that consistently lambastes the character of William Jennings Bryan by composing words he never said, and portraying community of Dayton doing things they never did. As Historian David Menton puts it, “The historical inaccuracies appear to be systematic and of a kind that presents a consistent bias of slanderous proportions against a particular class of people and their beliefs (Menton 1994).”

The most accurate book about the trial is by Edward Larson, who won a the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book about the trial, Summer of the Gods.

Unfortunately, both the play and the film (a movie was released in 1960) are common teaching tools in the public school classroom and as a result students from elementary schools to colleges continue to absorb the play’s historical inaccuracies as well as its biases.

The following is a brief sketch of some of the interesting differences between the play and the actual event, as well as an overview of the real reason Bryan was against teaching evolution in the classroom.

The Biology Book

Bryan was not as adamant about “getting the teacher” as authors Lawrence and Lee depict in Inherit the Wind. In fact, he offered to pay Scopes’ fine, because he didn’t believe in fining or penalizing educators (Caudill 1999) . Something far more important disturbed Bryan. The biology textbook at the center of the 1925 Scopes trial, and also referred to in Inherit the Wind, was Hunter’s Civic Biology. The book stated that criminality, pauperism, alcoholism, prostitution and feeblemindedness were inherited. It continued that…”Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country…. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society”(Hunter 1914 p. 263–qtd. in Ongley 2001).

The biology book, advised that such people should be separated into “asylums” and “other places” to prevent intermarriage, and proliferation of these problems to offspring. The text also stated that the Caucasian race is “the highest type of race” (Hunter 1914 p. 196).

Bryan’s Brain

The implications of “Social Darwinism” and “Eugenics” as described above, were Bryan’s (“Brady”) principal reason for opposing the evolution theory. In Bryan’s time, the early 20th century, emerging political and social thought was drifting toward this philosophy (Ongley 2001). Bryan felt that such a social view threatened the poor and the weak, and opened the door for state-sanctioned tyranny. Bryan also argued that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth” (qtd. in Caudill 1999).

In Bryan’s mind, the belief that man was created by God was a sturdy bulwark against human rights abuses and therefore protected the dignity of human life. Bryan’s strongly held beliefs fueled his many policies and programs for protecting the “common man.” Historian David Menton writes, “He fought strenuously for some of the most progressive legislation of
his time” (Menton 1994). Bryan’s contributions include amendments to the Constitution including woman’s suffrage (right to vote), graduated income tax, direct election of senators, and an array of labor laws such as minimum wage, eight-hour work day, worker’s compensation and many policies regarding safer working conditions.

Bryan also served as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson and is credited for negotiating peace treaties with thirty nations and strengthening the U.S. position in the Caribbean (Cornelius 2001) He was nominated by the Democratic party for the presidency three times, and lost “claiming 45-48% of the popular vote” (Caudill 1999).

The Orator

Bryan was also well known for his oratory skills. (to read his famous speech dubbed “The most famous speech in political history” go to As historian R.M. Cornelius puts it, “He could speak without shouting to thousands in the out-of-doors without any means of amplification…”(Cornelius 2001). In his speeches Bryan spoke out against imperialism and militarism. He argued for increased regulation of corporations. And he battled against evolution-as it related to human origin. He maintained that it shouldn’t be taught in schools “as proven fact”, but rather should be presented as a hypothesis-which Bryan said was a scientific synonym for the word ‘guess’ (Caudill 1999). Bryan continued that “…the school children are asked to accept guesses and build a philosophy of life upon them” (qtd. In Caudill 1999).

Quotes, Notes, and Anecdotes

Six years before the trial, Bryan had spoken at John Scope’s high school graduation ceremony. Later, at the trial, they pleasantly reminisced about this fact while attending a luncheon together (Iannone 1997). Actually, the atmosphere at the Scopes trial was not as highly charged with the vindictiveness that Inherit the Wind describes. Scopes was not put into jail nor was he treated rudely by the community. There is no record of noisy prayer meetings or raging reverends. (Reverend Brown and his daughter Rachel are fictional creations.) One amusing anecdote tells about an afternoon when, after a short break in the trial proceedings, John Scopes, and Bryan’s son turned up missing. It was later discovered they went to the local swimming hole together to cool off (Iannone 1997). Darrow, the defense attorney (“Drummond”) commented about the week, “…I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon anybody’s part-any citizen here in this town or outside the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied…” (qtd. in Menton 1994).

Bryan did not die in the courtroom in a raving frenzy as the play depicts . He died one week after the trial, in his sleep. It is believed his death was most likely related to his diabetic condition (Iannone 1997). During the week after the trial Bryan inspected sites for a school, then traveled to various cities for speaking engagements (Cornelius 2001).


History confirms that Bryan and his counterparts at the Scopes trial were indeed colorful, and at times comedic. Yet the historical record and the actual trial transcript reveal a different story than Inherit the Wind, offering us deeper insights, broader issues for discussion, and more multi-dimensional characters.


Caudill, Edward: The Scopes Trial. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman, ed., (Trial Transcript) Monkey Trial, The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company. (Houghton Mifflin Research Series).

Hunter, George William. Civic Biology, New York: American Book Company, 1914. Cited online from

Iannone, Carol “The Truth About Inherit the Wind,” First Things : A Journal of Religion and Public Life 70, February 1997: 28-33. 15 January 2002.

Menton, David N. Ph.d “Inherently Wind: A Hollywood History of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial”. 1994. 2001.

Ongley John, “The Scopes Trial and Social Darwinism”. v.2.2, 15 September 2001.

Cornelius, R. M., “William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Trial”. 2001.

Lawrence, Jerome and Lee, Robert: Inherit the Wind. New York, New York: Bantam, 1960


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