Tag Archives: University of Missouri-Kansas City

Looking for John Washington Butler and Finding Johnny Cash

2 Jun

The Scopes Monkey Trial is one of my favorite topics to discuss with students, and it ranks high for several reasons. First, it took place in Tennessee, and it is important for them to know that not all important events happen in faraway places. Second, it was a debate between religion and science, and that debate continues ninety years later. Third, it is an interesting story with interesting people.

When we talk about the trial, a few people tend to stand out. William Jennings Bryan had been a leader in the Democratic Party for thirty years and saw this as one last fight for ordinary citizens. Clarence Darrow was the most famous lawyer in the country and also viewed himself as a defender of the people. John Scopes was a high school teacher and coach who agreed to a publicity stunt and ended up with his name in the history books.

Of course, a lot of other people played important roles, and I try to talk about as many as possible. However, there is one person who played a vital role who tends to get skimmed over.

A lot of time is spent on the Butler Act, the law that banned the teaching of evolution, but little time is spent on its author, John Washington Butler. I know from an episode of American Experience that he was a member of the Tennessee legislature and that he represented the counties of Macon, Sumner and Trousdale, all of which are just across the Cumberland River from where I am sitting. However, that is about it.

With that in mind, I went looking for John Washington Butler. First, I wanted a picture of him and found it at findagrave.com.Butler

Then, I did what I tell my students not to do. I went to Wikipedia and found an article that was three sentences long. Obviously, that did not provide much information. However, there is one thing useful about Wikipedia. The sources at the bottom of the articles can be valuable.

Butler’s page has two links. The first is an entry by Jeanette Keith in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. It is a short sketch of the man and provides some insight into why he pushed for the ban on teaching evolution. I know this is a good place to find information because I wrote an article about a local sportswriter for the online encyclopedia.

The second source links to an article by Doug Linder for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. It goes into great detail about Butler’s life and political career. It also describes the morning when Butler wrote the bill in his home.

My problem is that I do not know where the writer got this information. There are a few notes, but they do not provide much help. Also, there is another issue that may have been an accident but may also lead to questions about this article. When describing the trial, the following is written.

Sue Hicks, a local member of the prosecution team, ridicules the defense claim of unconstitutionality. It is “perfectly ridiculous to say,” Hicks says, “that a teacher…can go in and teach any kind of doctrine he wants.” What if, she wondered, a teacher hired to teach arithmetic decided he would rather teach architecture?

I highlighted the pronoun because Sue Hicks was a man. Legend states that he was the inspiration for “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. The story goes that the writer, Shel Silverstein, attended a speech by Hicks and was inspired to write the song.

That is an interesting story, but it has gotten me off subject. After my search for John Washington Butler, I know more than when I started. I know what he looks like. I know some things about his life and his career. However, I do not know as much as the Internet would like for me to believe.