The infamous criminal-defense attorney Henry Drummond arrives in Hillsboro vilified as an atheist but leaves, after losing the trial, as a hero. To the audience—and to many of the townspeople—Drummond makes a convincing case for the right of a human being to think. He accomplishes this feat by exposing the contradictions underlying his witnesses’ inherited religious beliefs. During the case, Drummond demonstrates that people know less than what they believe themselves to know. His greatest triumph in the name of free thought is getting Howard Blair to admit that he has not made up his mind about evolutionary theory. When we hear this admission, Drummond’s point becomes clear: freedom of thought becomes the freedom to be wrong or to change our minds. The world, viewed in this light, is full of possibilities.
Although Drummond typically exposes the shortcomings of his subjects’ beliefs in gentle fashion, his cross-examination of Matthew Harrison Brady causes humiliation and hysteria. Brady self-destructs when his convictions about the literal truth of the Bible wither under the light of Drummond’s skepticism. Until that point, Drummond deploys his wry wit—his purple suspenders from Nebraska, his cracks about the unfairness of Brady’s title and the judge’s announcement of a Bible meeting but no evolutionist meeting—to no one’s harm, while ironically exposing the injustice that his defendant faces. While Drummond’s attack of Brady is not mean-spirited, it is devastating. At the same time, the power of Drummond’s attack stems not so much from Drummond’s wit as from the weight of Brady’s egotism, stubbornness, and arrogance as they collapse in his ranting testimony.
Unlike Brady, Drummond does not conceive of truth as a set of fixed rules that can be read from a book and imposed on society. His wonder about the world, which he shares and encourages in Cates, allows him to “look behind the paint,” to interpret events for more than their obvious meanings. Drummond’s thorough examination of his witnesses’ beliefs exposes complexities and contradictions in the same way that Cates’s microscopes reveal to his students complexities of life and matter not visible to the naked eye.