MARGARET WARNER: Edward J. Larson won this year's Pulitzer Prize for history for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. It's the story of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, considered perhaps "the" premier legal battle between Evolution and Creationism in this country.
An Ohio native, Edward Larson holds dual posts as professor of law and of history at the University of Georgia. Welcome, Mr. Larson, and congratulations on winning the Pulitzer.
EDWARD LARSON, Pulitzer Prize, History: Thank you so much, and thank you for having me. You know, your show is a national treasure. I just love being on it. Thanks.
MARGARET WARNER: Wonderful. That's nice to here. All right. Refresh our memory for us. Who was John Scopes, and what was he on trial for?
EDWARD LARSON: Well, John Scopes was a high school teacher. He wasn't a biology teacher, but he was a schoolteacher, and he had joined in a test case to test the constitutionality of a law, a law restricting the teaching of human evolution in public schools in the state of Tennessee.
MARGARET WARNER: And even as the trial--even before the actual trial started, it was being called in the press at the time the trial of the century. Why was that?
EDWARD LARSON: Well, it was a sensation in a sensation-loving decade. It was a decade that produced a series of so-called sensational trials. And this brought together two powerful cultural forces that captured the nation's attention. Then the fundamentalist movement was brand new, rising as a reaction against the development of what they call modernism in the Protestant Church. Indeed, the whole term "fundamentalist" was only a couple of years old then.
And they were concerned about the evolutionary theory of evolution and its roots and its ties with modernist religion and also social Darwinism. On the other side there has been a growing concern about civil liberties in America. It's tough to think now but back then most of our basic traditions of individual liberties, like free speech, were not deeply rooted. There was a sense of majority rule that was associated with Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and many forces in American culture.
But after the repression of the red scare and during World War I, there was a growing movement among intellectual leaders in America represented in the ACLU, a concern for individual liberties, for free speech, for academic freedom, and that seemed to clash head on with this growing fundamentalist movement. And the results were what these cultural forces brought together. The nation was focused on Dayton and hearing these issues debated and what they meant for us as a people.
MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned social Darwinism. Explain that a little more.
EDWARD LARSON: Well, social Darwinism is the theory that sort of a conservative product of Darwinism that was being used by people like Carnegie and Rockefeller to defend what was sort of the exploitation of labor, the growing militarism. The Germans had used it during World War I to justify the survival of fittest mentality. It grows--it's rooted in that term--the survival of the fittest--and that because I'm a capitalist, because I'm a militarist, I have a right to be a leader.
It was also tied up with the eugenics movement, a popular cause back then that led to the sterilization and sexual segregation of people viewed as unfit or improper to breed. So those were forces that were coming out of and tried to justify their being on Darwinian grounds. Now, that's not the only way to view Darwinism, but that was there, and people were worried about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Then, of course, this trial pitted two great figures of the day--William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow--against each other. What motivated each of these men, who I think were in their mid to late 60's at the time, to get involved in this case?
EDWARD LARSON: Oh, that was the great fun of it. That's what really captured the nation's attention because here were probably nations' premier orators, nationally famous. Clarence Darrow was probably the most famous--certainly the most famous trial lawyer in America. He'd just come off the great Lippold-Lobe case in Chicago. He had a series of cases going back for years. In addition to be a great trial defense lawyer, he was also a champion of anti-clericalism, sort of in the tradition of Tom Payne.
He would lecture around the country and wrote books about the danger of popular religion and the--oh, the fallacies of Christianity and how it would--justified oppression and, oh, various natural forces that just seemed to hold people back. And he wanted freedom from people.
MARGARET WARNER: And Bryan.
EDWARD LARSON: Bryan, on the other side, Bryan was the great populist. He had been nominated three times for President of the United States. He had been secretary of state in the Wilson administration. He'd resigned in protest over the drift toward war. He was a classic liberal, and here, though, he'd been concerned partly out of concerns of social Darwinism but partly out of his own religious concerns, he volunteered to defend Tennessee's law against teach evolution in the public schools.
He did not think Darwinism, he did not believe it on religious grounds, and he thought it led to bad social results, and he thought that if the people, the majority of people anywhere took a stand that majoritarianism should rule, democracy should be in control. And so it brought this--he was defending democracy--majority rule. Clarence Darrow was defending individual rights, freedom to dissent, academic freedom. It was a classic confrontation between two of the greatest orders we ever have had in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: So when the confrontation came at the trial, what happened?
EDWARD LARSON: Well, all America was watching. It was the first broadcast trial. All of the great journalists--
MARGARET WARNER: Live radio, that's right. Live radio, is that right?
EDWARD LARSON: Live radio. WGN had a special line in there and broadcast it. It was filmed, and the films were flown out every day up to northern cities for broadcast, for showing in the theaters.
The entire transcript was printed every day in the New York Times and all the other major newspapers. All of America watched for a week while these two great orders clashed over important issues, issues of freedom versus democracy, majority rule, also over issues of science versus religion. It was quite a confrontation and quite a fascination for everyone.
MARGARET WARNER: So in a legal sense, Bryan and the anti-evolutionists won. That is, Scopes was found guilty.
EDWARD LARSON: Well, in a legal sense Scopes was found guilty but they admitted he had broken the law. It was just a misdemeanor law. It carried a $100 fine. He was offered his job again the next year. It was a setup case in the sense it was not an adversarial prosecution.
It's a test case to see whether the law was valid. But in a larger sense both sides were not really speaking to whether the law was broken or not, whether the law was a good idea and whether the law was constitutional. And on that national stage that people were listening to, well, it's much more of a draw. People were alerted through this trial of the dangers to individual freedom that can come from excesses of democracy.
MARGARET WARNER: And the big moment was, of course, when Darrow called Bryan to the stand.
EDWARD LARSON: Oh, that was the surprise. Darrow had planned it for weeks because he wanted to bring William James Bryan to the stand and ask him questions about his own understanding to show that he really didn't understand Darwinism; he didn't understand its implications for religion; and if he didn't understand it, then how could he object to it? Isn't it good, isn't it right that we get to discuss these ideas in a classroom, rather than have them suppressed?
MARGARET WARNER: This trial has been written about before. It was the subject of a long running Broadway play "Inherit the Wind," a very popular movie starring Spencer Tracy and others. Why did you--and I think you even referred to it in an earlier book you wrote--why did you decide to revisit this trial?
EDWARD LARSON: Well, no one had actually written a researched academic history, that is, going back and actually going over the archival materials, no one had written such a book about the Scopes trial in over 40 years, and during that time a whole vast array of archival material had become available, such as the ACLU papers and a lot of private papers involving both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.
In addition to all that, though, that was in the 1950's. A lot has happened since that time. In the 1950's, when that book was written, and when "Inherit the Wind" was made, fundamentalism was viewed as a thing of the past.
Anti-evolutionism was seen as an anachronism, and it was--those books were really written as a reaction as their authors were proud to state--as a reaction against McCarthyism in trying to expose those dangers to American democracy. Well, we now know that fundamentalism and conservative religion has not disappeared and the issues today can be seen, I think, in better perspective than they could in the 1950's.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Mr. Larson, thanks very much, and, again, congratulations.
EDWARD LARSON: Well, thank you so much.