Inherit the Wind: The Truth About the "Real Brady" (William Jennings Bryan) of the Scopes Monkey Trial
by Sharon Pearson


Inherit the Wind

Why should we be concerned about a Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial? There are public schools that are using the book in their literature classes. Although the book is introduced as fiction, it portrays real-life events. The book specifically distorts the characters, vilifying the Christians and elevating the evolutionists. If such a book were written intentionally distorting any other religious or ethnic minority (blacks, Jews, Moslems, etc.) it would be banned from public schools - much less actually used in classrooms.

Rich Deem, editor

Have you ever wondered who the true characters were who graced the courtroom of the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial"? Inherit the Wind, a play, book, 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.

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).1 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.2 The textbook 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).3

The biology textbook, 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).3

Bryan's Brain

The implications of "Social Darwinism" and "Eugenics" as described above, were Bryan's ("Brady") principal reason for opposing evolutionary theory. In Bryan's time, the early 20th century, emerging political and social thought was drifting toward the philosophy of eugenics.3 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."1 The idea that Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney, was the "good" guy seems to be contradicted by his decidedly eugenics worldview, having stated, "Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live."4

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).5 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.6 He was nominated by the Democratic party for the presidency three times, and lost claiming 45-48% of the popular vote.1

The Orator

Bryan was also well known for his oratory skills. As historian R.M. Cornelius puts it, "He could speak without shouting to thousands in the out-of-doors without any means of amplification..."6 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.'1 Bryan continued that "�the school children are asked to accept guesses and build a philosophy of life upon them."1

Quotes, Notes, and Anecdotes

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and ReligionSix 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.7 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.7 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..." (quoted in Menton 1994).5

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).7 During the week after the trial Bryan inspected sites for a school, then traveled to various cities for speaking engagements (Cornelius 2001).6

Conclusion Top of page

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.

References Top of page

  1. Caudill, Edward. The Scopes Trial. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
  2. Hunter, George William. Civic Biology, New York: American Book Company, 1914. Cited online.
  3. Ongley John, The Scopes Trial and Social Darwinism. v.2.2, 15 September 2001.
  4. Richard Weikart. 2004. Killing Them Kindly: Lessons from the euthanasia movement. Books and Culture: A Christian Review (Jan./Feb. 2004), 30-31.
  5. Menton, David N. Ph.D. Inherently Wind: A Hollywood History of the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial. 1994. 2001.
  6. Cornelius, R. M. William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Trial. 2001.
  7. Iannone, Carol. The Truth About Inherit the Wind. First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life 70, February 1997: 28-33.
  8. 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).
Last Modified June 2, 2005


Rich's Blog