Summing Up At Dayton

Strictly speaking, there was no summing up of the Scopes case. What the judge said to the jury was confined to that aspect of the trial, which was, of course, the reason why there was a trial, and a judge and jury to try it-the fact that young Mr. Scopes had broken a law of the state of Tennessee. But that matter could have been disposed of in an hour. That matter was not what brought a hundred newspaper writers to Dayton and for some two weeks made it the centre of a tempest of world publicity. What the press wanted to hear was the summing up by Mr. Bryan for the prosecution. Especially the latter. It was the talk of the town for weeks past that Mr. Bryan had been preparing his oratorical masterpiece, something that would outshine even his famous cross of gold effort which thirty years ago lifted him out of obscurity and made him thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. The masterpiece remains unborn. The tragic death of Mr. Bryan forever prevents his plan to speak it throughout the country from pulpits and platforms. Of course, it will be printed. Doubtless it will be widely read, and newspapers will quote bits of it; but lacking the sounding board of Dayton, coldly shaped forth by the printers and not passionately thundered out by the great orator speaking literally to millions by aid of the modern magic of the radio, Mr. Bryan’s summing-up speech, so far as its bearing on the Scopes case is concerned, will be flat as champagne left over from a banquet board.

But it will have the pathetic appeal attached to the death-bed utterances of famous men. It will be Mr. Bryan’s profession of faith, uttered from beyond the grates of death. It will play its part in the great debate to which the Scopes trial was the prelude; but it will come, not as part of that case, but as the beginning of a new campaign in which Mr. Bryan will be potently engaged through his message and the influence of his personality....

What effect the volubility of the press will have on the millions of its readers is a curious problem in the psychology of democracy.... The Scopes case was like a hall meant for a great debate on topics of the most serious import: religion, science, human liberty, man’s soul, and God-a hall in which clowns jostled the lecturers, and sometimes lectured themselves, while so many gargoyles had been stuck on the walls and ceilings that the assembled crowds could only stare, or guffaw, or shake their heads in bewilderment. This journal stated before the trial began that the accompaniments of the case, in the way of publicity stunts, circus features, and the preliminary ballyhooing, were most likely to destroy whatever value it might otherwise possess as an agency to turn men’s minds to the serious consideration of the relation between science and religion. The reality of what occurred at Dayton surpassed anticipations. The above opinion still seems a valid one....

The Commonweal

August 5, 1925

About the Author