CURRICULUM / Decades / The Roaring '20s

The Roaring '20s


Part 2: Politics in the 1920's

With the end of World War I and the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, Americans entered the distinctive 1920s — an era of Republican leadership, nationalistic and fundamentalist movements, and changing social conventions. Electing Republican presidents who favored business expansion rather than regulation, the American public enjoyed apparently unlimited prosperity, while fear of radicals and foreigners combined to almost completely close off America to immigration and contributed to the resurgence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Religious fundamentalism revived as new moral and social attitudes came into vogue. Additionally, the first radio broadcasts and motion pictures expanded Americans' access to news and entertainment.


During the 1920s, three Republicans occupied the White House: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Harding was inept, Coolidge was mediocre, and Hoover was overcome by circumstances he neither understood nor could control. Harding's campaign slogan, “A return to normalcy,” aptly described American politics for the entire period. The nation turned away from the reforming zeal of the Progressive Era and the moral vision of Wilson's wartime leadership toward a government whose domestic economic policies opposed federal regulation and encouraged business expansion.


Although he was affable and popular, Harding's naivete made him a disaster as president. Mindful of his own weaknesses, he tried to select the best men possible for his cabinet, with Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Henry C. Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, and Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. These men were responsible for the accomplishments of Harding's brief administration, which included stimulating business growth, cutting taxes, and negotiating disarmament treaties.

Several of Harding's other appointments left much to be desired, however, and resulted in major scandals that rocked the government. Charles Forbes, for example, headed the newly formed Veteran's Bureau, even though he had carefully avoided the draft. He was convicted of fraud and related felonies involving the agency's hospital construction funds. Meanwhile, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was at the center of the Teapot Dome scandal, in which he secretly leased naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to private companies headed by Edward Doheny and Harry F. Sinclair in return for no‐interest, noncollateral “loans.” After resigning his office, Fall was convicted of bribery, and the government canceled the leases. The administration was further disgraced when Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty was implicated in a bribery case involving an official in the Alien Property Office and indicted but acquitted for taking money from liquor dealers evading Prohibition. Harding was not directly involved with the corruption, and he died in office (August 2, 1923) before the charges against his appointees became public.


Harding's vice president, Calvin Coolidge, came to national attention in 1919 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he ended the Boston police strike. Coolidge did not believe the president should take an activist role in government, and he was as opposed to the regulation of business as Harding had been. His famous quip “The business of America is business” summed up the Republican creed of the 1920s. An honest if taciturn man who had no connection with the scandals of his predecessor's cronies, Coolidge was the Republican choice for president in 1924. The Democrats found it harder to choose a candidate.

The two main Democratic contenders mirrored the split in American society that existed during the '20s. William Gibbs McAdoo represented the rural, Protestant, and “dry” (pro‐Prohibition) parts of the country, while the urban, immigrant, and “wet” (anti‐Prohibition) population supported Alfred E. Smith, the Irish‐American, Roman Catholic governor of New York. With neither candidate able to sway enough votes, the Democratic convention compromised on the conservative Wall Street lawyer, John W. Davis on the 103rd ballot. The election picture was complicated somewhat by Robert LaFollette's revival of the Progressive party, which organized a coalition of farm groups and unions, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Davis was strong only in the South and LaFollette took his own state of Wisconsin; Coolidge won decisively in both the popular and electoral vote.


When Coolidge decided not to run for a second term in 1928, the Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Even though he had never held elective office, Secretary of Commerce Hoover had a distinguished career in public service and was well regarded for his work with the Food Administration and in relief efforts after the war. The Democrats, operating with a stronger urban wing than in the previous election, nominated Governor Al Smith for a second time. With the country still riding the high tide of prosperity that the Republicans took full credit for, Hoover was nearly impossible to beat, especially with Smith's serious drawbacks as a candidate. The Democratic Party's platform supported Prohibition, but Smith favored the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Additionally, anti‐Catholicism remained a factor in American politics. Many Protestant churches, both fundamentalist and mainstream denominations, urged their parishioners to vote their faith. The combination of Prohibition and religion cost Smith several states in the Deep South and contributed to Hoover's landslide victory.

A closer look at the election results gave the Democrats some hope for the future. Although they did not add any electoral votes to his column, Western farmers abandoned their traditional home in the Republic party and supported Smith. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the nation's 12 largest cities that voted Republican in 1924 also switched allegiance four years later. This trend suggested that with a candidate who did not have Smith's obvious weaknesses, the Democrats might be able to forge a winning coalition by holding on to the Deep South and building a stronger base in the urban Northeast and Midwest.

Part 3: Change & Reaction

The 1920s were a period of dramatic changes. More than half of all Americans now lived in cities and the growing affordability of the automobile made people more mobile than ever. Although the decade was known as the era of the Charleston dance craze, jazz, and flapper fashions, in many respects it was also quite conservative. At the same time as hemlines went up and moral values seemed to decline, the nation saw the end of its open immigration policy, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the trial of a Tennessee high‐school teacher for teaching evolution.

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In the first few years after World War I, the country experienced a brief period of antiradical hysteria known as the Red Scare. Widespread labor unrest in 1919, combined with a wave of bombings, the Communists in power in Russia, and the short‐lived Communist revolt in Hungary, fed the fear that the United States was also on the verge of revolution. Under the direction of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, thousands of suspected radicals were arrested in 1919 and 1920; those that were aliens were deported. Although the Red Scare faded quickly after 1920, it strengthened the widespread belief in a strong connection between foreigners and radicalism. The bias against foreigners was exemplified in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian‐born, self‐admitted anarchists who, in 1920, were indicted for robbery and murder in Massachusetts; they were found guilty and sentenced to death in July 1921. Their supporters claimed that they were convicted for their ethnic background and beliefs rather than on conclusive evidence. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August 1927 after all their appeals were exhausted.

Hostility toward foreigners was also reflected in a fundamental change in American immigration policy. In 1920, the flow of new immigrants approached pre‐war levels. Congress responded in 1921 with the Quota Act, which set the maximum number of immigrants entering the United States annually at 350,000, apportioned at 3 percent of each nationality living in the country in 1910 (based on the 1910 census). However, this act still allowed for a significant immigration from southern and eastern Europe, alleged hotbeds of radicalism. Consequently, the National Origins Act of 1924 reduced the total number of immigrants to 150,000 a year, with quotas set at 2 percent of each nationality's population in the United States in 1890. Under this formula, the quota was less than 4,000 for Italy and around 6,000 for Poland, while the quotas for Great Britain and Germany were 34,000 and 50,000 per year, respectively. In addition to limiting immigration as much as possible, the intent of the legislation was to allow the “more desirable” immigrants from northern and western Europe to come into the United States in higher numbers.


The Ku Klux Klan, an organization formed by white southerners during Reconstruction, was revived in Georgia in 1915. The new Klan was particularly strong in the Midwest and Southwest as well as in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis. According to its supporters, it stood for law and order, “old time religion” and the moral values associated with it, immigration restriction, and opposed groups who were not 100 percent American — foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and African‐Americans. The KKK was open only to native‐born white Protestants and drew its strongest support from the working class members of that group who were in competition with blacks and new immigrants for jobs and housing. A potent force in American politics in the mid‐1920s with between three and eight million members, the Klan controlled the legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas and was key to the election of several governors and numerous local officials. The Klan declined rapidly after 1925 due to scandals involving its leadership and the drop in immigration numbers caused by the National Origins Act.


Prohibition was one of the programs the Klan supported. When the Eighteenth Amendment became effective in January 1920, Congress passed the Volstead Act to implement it. Although alcohol consumption in the United States did drop by as much as half during the '20s, people who wanted to drink found it easy to do so either by brewing their own alcohol (which was legal, as long as it was not sold) or by buying “bootleg” liquor in illegal saloons known as speakeasiesthat had sprung up everywhere. Enforcement of Prohibition was never adequately staffed or funded, and the illicit trade in alcohol contributed to the growth of organized crime. By the end of the decade, many Americans recognized that Prohibition may well have caused more problems than it solved. A national debate was joined during the 1928 presidential campaign when Smith called for an end to the “noble experiment.” Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty‐first Amendment.


Fundamentalist Protestants felt their beliefs challenged in the 1920s. Secular culture of the time seemed to have little place for religion, and church attendance was in decline. A movement to defend traditional religion by emphasizing a literal interpretation of the Bible gained momentum in the '20s and especially targeted Darwin's theory of evolution as a symbol for what was wrong in modern society. By the mid‐1920s, a number of states had enacted laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution. The law was challenged in Tennessee by a young high school biology teacher named John Scopes.

Popularly known as the monkey trial, Scopes's trial was the first ever broadcast over radio and became a national event primarily because of the notoriety of the attorneys representing each side. The American Civil Liberties Union brought in Clarence Darrow, the most famous defense lawyer in the country, for Scopes, while the World Christian Fundamentalist Union engaged William Jennings Bryan, three‐time presidential candidate and the former secretary of state, to assist the prosecution. The trial was a clash between these two men and the beliefs they represented. The high point came when Darrow called Bryan, a recognized lay authority on the Bible, as a witness, and Bryan admitted on the stand that it was possible that creation may not have taken place in six, 24‐hour days, thereby refuting a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nonetheless, the jury found Scopes guilty of violating the state's anti‐evolution statute and fined him $100.