The Scopes Trial

Homo Neanderthalensis
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925)


Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer -- that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.

On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man's possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.


The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders -- that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous -- by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.

Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob's hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it, would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can't understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.

This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as of something going on in the race in general, but as of something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, a French Revolution, a war for democracy, a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive -- and a few are enough to carry on.


The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex -- because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged -- and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple -- and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throw up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth -- a Coolidge, a Wilson or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.


What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera -- a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.

That is why Beethoven survives. Of the 110,000,000 so-called human beings who now live in the United States, flogged and crazed by Coolidge, Rotary, the Ku Klux and the newspapers, it is probable that at least 108,000,000 have never heard of him at all. To these immortals, made in God's image, one of the greatest artists the human race has ever produced is not even a name. So far as they are concerned he might as well have died at birth. The gorgeous and incomparable beauties that he created are nothing to them. They get no value out of the fact that he existed. They are completely unaware of what he did in the world, and would not be interested if they were told.

The fact saves good Ludwig's bacon. His music survives because it lies outside the plane of the popular apprehension, like the colors beyond violet or the concept of honor. If it could be brought within range, it would at once arouse hostility. Its complexity would challenge; its lace of moral purpose would affright. Soon there would be a movement to put it down, and Baptist clergymen would range the land denouncing it, and in the end some poor musician, taken in the un-American act of playing it, would be put on trial before a jury of Ku Kluxers, and railroaded to the calaboose.

The Scopes Trial

Mencken Finds Daytonians
Full of Sickening Doubts
About Value of Publicity
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 9, 1925)

Dayton, Tenn., July 9. -- On the eve of the great contest Dayton is full of sickening surges and tremors of doubt. Five or six weeks ago, when the infidel Scopes was first laid by the heels, there was no uncertainty in all this smiling valley. The town boomers leaped to the assault as one man. Here was an unexampled, almost a miraculous chance to get Dayton upon the front pages, to make it talked about, to put it upon the map. But how now?

Today, with the curtain barely rung up and the worst buffooneries to come, it is obvious to even town boomers that getting upon the map, like patriotism, is not enough. The getting there must be managed discreetly, adroitly, with careful regard to psychological niceties. The boomers of Dayton, alas, had no skill at such things, and the experts they called in were all quacks. The result now turns the communal liver to water. Two months ago the town was obscure and happy. Today it is a universal joke.

I have been attending the permanent town meeting that goes on in Robinson's drug store, trying to find out what the town optimists have saved from the wreck. All I can find is a sort of mystical confidence that God will somehow come to the rescue to reward His old and faithful partisans as they deserve -- that good will flow eventually out of what now seems to be heavily evil. More specifically, it is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrahs.

But will these refugees bring any money with them? Will they buy lots and build houses, Will they light the fires of the cold and silent blast furnace down the railroad tracks? On these points, I regret to report, optimism has to call in theology to aid it. Prayer can accomplish a lot. It can cure diabetes, find lost pocketbooks and restrain husbands from beating their wives. But is prayer made any more efficacious by giving a circus first? Coming to this thought, Dayton begins to sweat.

The town, I confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horse-blocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty -- a somewhat smallish but nevertheless very attractive Westminster or Balair.

The houses are surrounded by pretty gardens, with cool green lawns and stately trees. The two chief streets are paved from curb to curb. The stores carry good stocks and have a metropolitan air, especially the drug, book, magazine, sporting goods and soda-water emporium of the estimable Robinson. A few of the town ancients still affect galluses and string ties, but the younger bucks are very nattily turned out. Scopes himself, even in his shirt sleeves, would fit into any college campus in America save that of Harvard alone.

Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. I have heard absolutely no whisper that Scopes is in the pay of the Jesuits, or that the whisky trust is backing him, or that he is egged on by the Jews who manufacture lascivious moving pictures. On the contrary, the Evolutionists and the Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard in a group to distinguish one from another.

The basic issues of the case, indeed, seem to be very little discussed at Dayton. What interests everyone is its mere strategy. By what device, precisely, will Bryan trim old Clarence Darrow? Will he do it gently and with every delicacy of forensics, or will he wade in on high gear and make a swift butchery of it? For no one here seems to doubt that Bryan will win -- that is, if the bout goes to a finish. What worries the town is the fear that some diabolical higher power will intervene on Darrow's side -- that is, before Bryan heaves him through the ropes.

The lack of Christian heat that I have mentioned is probably due in part to the fact that the fundamentalists are in overwhelming majority as far as the eye can reach -- according to most local statisticians, in a majority of at least nine-tenths. There are, in fact, only two downright infidels in all Rhea county, and one of them is charitably assumed to be a bit balmy. The other, a yokel roosting far back in the hills, is probably simply a poet got into the wrong pew. The town account of him is to the effect that he professes to regard death as a beautiful adventure.

When the local ecclesiastics begin alarming the peasantry with word pictures of the last sad scene, and sulphurous fumes begin to choke even Unitarians, this skeptical rustic comes forward with his argument that it is foolish to be afraid of what one knows so little about -- that, after all, there is no more genuine evidence that anyone will ever go to hell than there is that the Volstead act will ever be enforced.

Such blasphemous ideas naturally cause talk in a Baptist community, but both of the infidels are unmolested. Rhea county, in fact, is proud of its tolerance, and apparently with good reason. The klan has never got a foothold here, though it rages everywhere else in Tennessee. When the first kleagles came in they got the cold shoulder, and pretty soon they gave up the county as hopeless. It is run today not by anonymous daredevils in white nightshirts, but by well-heeled Free-masons in decorous white aprons. In Dayton alone there are sixty thirty-second-degree Masons -- an immense quota for so small a town. They believe in keeping the peace, and so even the stray Catholics of the town are treated politely, though everyone naturally regrets they are required to report to the Pope once a week.

It is probably this unusual tolerance, and not any extraordinary passion for the integrity of Genesis, that has made Dayton the scene of a celebrated case, and got its name upon the front pages, and caused its forward-looking men to begin to wonder uneasily if all advertising is really good advertising. The trial of Scopes is possible here simply because it can be carried on here without heat -- because no one will lose any sleep even if the devil comes to the aid of Darrow and Malone, and Bryan gets a mauling. The local intelligentsia venerate Bryan as a Christian, but it was not as a Christian that they called him in, but as one adept at attracting the newspaper boys -- in brief, as a showman. As I have said, they now begin to mistrust the show, but they still believe that he will make a good one, win or lose.

Elsewhere, North or South, the combat would become bitter. Here it retains the lofty qualities of the duello. I gather the notion, indeed, that the gentlemen who are most active in promoting it are precisely the most lacking in hot conviction -- that it is, in its local aspects, rather a joust between neutrals than a battle between passionate believers. Is it a mere coincidence that the town clergy have been very carefully kept out of it? There are several Baptist brothers here of such powerful gifts that when they begin belaboring sinners the very rats of the alleys flee to the hills. They preach dreadfully. But they are not heard from today. By some process to me unknown they have been induced to shut up -- a far harder business, I venture, than knocking out a lion with a sandbag. But the sixty thirty-second degree Masons of Dayton have somehow achieved it.

Thus the battle joins and the good red sun shines down. Dayton lies in a fat and luxuriant valley. The bottoms are green with corn, pumpkins and young orchards and the hills are full of reliable moonshiners, all save one of them Christian men. We are not in the South here, but hanging on to the North. Very little cotton is grown in the valley. The people in politics are Republicans and put Coolidge next to Lincoln and John Wesley. The fences are in good repair. The roads are smooth and hard. The scene is set for a high-toned and even somewhat swagger combat. When it is over all the participants save Bryan will shake hands.

The Scopes Trial

Impossibility of Obtaining Fair Jury
Insures Scopes' Conviction,
Says Mencken
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 10, 1925)

Dayton, Tenn., July 10. -- The trial of the infidel Scopes, beginning here this hot, lovely morning, will greatly resemble, I suspect, the trial of a prohibition agent accused of mayhem in Union Hill, N.J. That is to say, it will be conducted with the most austere regard for the highest principles of jurisprudence. Judge and jury will go to extreme lengths to assure the prisoner the last and least of his rights. He will be protected in his person and feelings by the full military and naval power of the State of Tennessee. No one will be permitted to pull his nose, to pray publicly for his condemnation or even to make a face at him. But all the same he will be bumped off inevitably when the time comes, and to the applause of all right-thinking men.

The real trial, in truth, will not begin until Scopes is convicted and ordered to the hulks. Then the prisoner will be the Legislature of Tennessee, and the jury will be that great fair, unimpassioned body of enlightened men which has already decided that a horse hair put into a bottle will turn into a snake and that the Kaiser started the late war. What goes on here is simply a sort of preliminary hearing, with music by the village choir. For it will be no more possible in this Christian valley to get a jury unprejudiced against Scopes than would be possible in Wall Street to get a jury unprejudiced against a Bolshevik.

I speak of prejudice in its purely philosophical sense. As I wrote yesterday, there is an almost complete absence, in these pious hills, of the ordinary and familiar malignancy of Christian men. If the Rev. Dr. Crabbe ever spoke of bootleggers as humanely and affectionately as the town theologians speak of Scopes, and even Darrow and Malone, his employers would pelt him with their spyglasses and sit on him until the ambulance came from Mount Hope. There is absolutely no bitterness on tap. But neither is there any doubt. It has been decided by acclamation, with only a few infidels dissenting, that the hypothesis of evolution is profane, inhumane and against God, and all that remains is to translate that almost unanimous decision into the jargon of the law and so have done.

The town boomers have banqueted Darrow as well as Bryan, but there is no mistaking which of the two has the crowd, which means the venire of tried and true men. Bryan has been oozing around the country since his first day here, addressing this organization and that, presenting the indubitable Word of God in his caressing, ingratiating way, and so making unanimity doubly unanimous. From the defense yesterday came hints that this was making hay before the sun had legally begun to shine -- even that it was a sort of contempt of court. But no Daytonian believes anything of the sort. What Bryan says doesn't seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement of the obvious.

Meanwhile, reinforcements continue to come in, some of them from unexpected sources. I had the honor of being present yesterday when Col. Patrick Callahan, of Louisville, marched up at the head of his cohort of 250,000,000 Catholic fundamentalists. The two colonels embraced, exchanged a few military and legal pleasantries and then retired up a steep stairway to the office of the Hicks brothers to discuss strategy. Colonel Callahan's followers were present, of course, only by a legal fiction; the town of Dayton would not hold so large an army. In the actual flesh there were only the colonel himself and his aide-de-camp. Nevertheless, the 250,000,000 were put down as present and recorded as voting.

Later on I had the misfortune to fall into a dispute with Colonel Callahan on a point of canon law. It was my contention that the position of the Roman Church, on matters of doctrine, is not ordinarily stated by laymen -- that such matters are usually left to high ecclesiastical authorities, headed by the Bishop of Rome. I also contended, perhaps somewhat fatuously, that there seemed to be a considerable difference of opinion regarding organic evolution among these authorities -- that it was possible to find in their writings both ingenious arguments for it and violent protests against it. All these objections Colonel Callahan waived away with a genial gesture. He was here, he said, to do what he could for the authority of the Sacred Scriptures and the aiding and comforting of his old friend, Bryan, and it was all one to him whether atheists yelled or not. Then he began to talk about prohibition, which he favors, and the germ theory of diseases, which he regards as bilge.

A somewhat more plausible volunteer has turned up in the person of Pastor T.T. Martin, of Blue Mountain, Miss. He has hired a room and stocked it with pamphlets bearing such titles as "Evolution a Menace," "Hell and the High Schools" and "God or Gorilla," and addresses connoisseurs of scientific fallacy every night on a lot behind the Courthouse. Pastor Martin, a handsome and amiable old gentleman with a great mop of snow-white hair, was a professor of science in a Baptist college for years, and has given profound study to the biological sections of the Old Testament.

He told me today that he regarded the food regulations in Leviticus as so sagacious that their framing must have been a sort of feat even for divinity. The flesh of the domestic hog, he said, is a rank poison as ordinarily prepared for the table, though it is probably harmless when smoked and salted, as in bacon. He said that his investigations had shown that seven and a half out of every thirteen cows are quite free of tuberculosis, but that twelve out of every thirteen hogs have it in an advanced and highly communicable form. The Jews, protected by their piety against devouring pork, are immune to the disease. In all history, he said, there is authentic record of but one Jew who died of tuberculosis.

The presence of Pastor Martin and Colonel Callahan has given renewed confidence to the prosecution. The former offers proof that men of science are, after all, not unanimously atheists, and the latter that there is no division between Christians in the face of the common enemy. But though such encouragements help, they are certainly not necessary. All they really supply is another layer of icing on the cake. Dayton will give Scopes a rigidly fair and impartial trial. All his Constitutional rights will be jealously safeguarded. The question whether he voted for or against Coolidge will not be permitted to intrude itself into the deliberations of the jury, or the gallant effort of Colonel Bryan to get at and establish the truth. He will be treated very politely. Dayton, indeed, is proud of him, as Sauk Center, Minn., is proud of Sinclair Lewis and Whittingham, Vt., of Brigham Young. But it is lucky for Scopes that sticking pins into Genesis is still only a misdemeanor in Tennessee, punishable by a simple fine, with no alternative of the knout, the stone pile or exile to the Dry Tortugas.