Lecture Notes for the 1920s

Lecture Notes for the 1920s

Lecture Notes for the 1920s

President Woodrow Wilson’s coalition had dissolved by 1920. This was due in part to the failure to ratify the Versailles Treaty, Join the League of Nation, and the Progressives achievement of their major goals. Add to this was the abuses of the Wilson administration during the so-called “Red Scare” of l919. Between 1919 and 1920, hundreds of Americans were illegally arrested and tried for conspiring with the Russian Communist Party to overthrow America.

Historians have often caricatured William G. Harding, the Republican senatorial candidate for President in 1920. Some lamented his only qualification for President was that he looked like one. Intellectually, one scholar scoffed that if Harding came across an idea, he would carry it around until it died of old age and senility. A nice man, he often found it difficult to say no, especially to his friends and women. Indeed, Harding’s father once remarked that had he been a woman, he would have always been in a family way. Nan P. Britton or “Nanny,” was Warren G. Harding’s mistress, who publicly revealed in 1928, that he had fathered her daughter shortly before his election as President in 1920. Years later, DNA tests, proved to a certainty he had fathered the child.

Still, Harding’s promise to return America to normalcy won him the presidency.

B. Harding as president:

1. He made appointments that included good and bad choices.

a. His good choices included Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State; Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce; Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture.

His bad choices included the so-called “Ohio gang,” friends, from his time as governor of Ohio.

His four Supreme Court appointments were all very conservative, chosen to roll back progressivism. They struck down federal child labor laws, moved to limit the power of unions, limited federal regulation of business, backed the pro-business policies of Andrew Mellon, and limited government spending.

During his term, Republicans established the General Accounting Office that passed tax reductions for the rich, and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of l922, a higher tariff for business.

Harding also named conservative advocates of big business to head major regulatory agencies.

In race relations his record was mixed, on the one hand he opposed interracial marriage, declaring “race amalgamation there cannot be,” but supported federal job opportunities for African Americans, spoke against vigilante racism, urged the nation to deal with the “race question,” verbally attacking the Ku Klux Klan and supporting anti-lynching legislation.

However, the weakest part of Harding’s administration was the scandals of the “Ohio gang.” Colonel Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau looted 200 million dollars illegally selling government medical supplies to private contractors. Harding allowed him to flee to Europe to escape prosecution. Eventually, he returned and served time in Leavenworth federal prison. Harry Daugherty, his attorney general, was tried for conspiracy on charges of selling illegal liquor permits and pardons. Acquitted, he was forced to resign by President Calvin Coolidge. The biggest scandal involved Albert Fall, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, who allowed private companies to exploit government-owned oil deposits at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and received more than $400,000 . He was the first serving cabinet member convicted of a crime and sentenced to a year prison.

The end of Harding:

Troubled by the scandals President Harding suffered a fatal stroke. His death spared him from public disgrace. Some historians quipped Calvin Coolidge looked as though he had been weaned on a “pickle,” became president. The fifth generation son of farmers supported the business interests more than Harding did. After his election in 1924, labor and farming suffered under “Silent Cal.” Employers used various devices to keep out unions. These included:

The “American plan”—the open shop that allowed employers not to hire unionists.

“Yellow dog contracts” —workers forced to agree not to join a union.

“Industrial democracy” and “welfare capitalism”—offered workers alternatives to unions.

Because of these things police union membership declined dramatically during the twenties.

The 1920’s was also a paradox of modernity and fundamentalism:

The decade was also referred to as the “aspirin age,” “Roaring Twenties,” “era of excess,” and a “time of Fords, flappers, and fanatics.”

A.Economic Progress

Economic progress was rooted in technological advances like the manufacture of continuous strip-sheets in steel and tin machines to make glass tubing.

New machines revolutionized the construction industry with power shovels, belt and bucket conveyors, pneumatic tools, concrete mixers, and dump trucks.

The communications industry witnessed the development of automatic switchboards, dial phones, and teletype machines.

Innovations in chemicals and synthetics included rayon, Bakelite, and cellophane.

-Real wages for many Americans increased about 11% during the decade, and the length of the workweek shortened from 47.4 hours a week in l920 to 42.1 in l930.

The twenties also saw the emergence of the consumer society (cars, movies, radio, etc.), a bigger middle class, and suburbanization.

Advertising came into its own, and the use of credit boomed during the twenties.

The decade was also referred to as the “age of managers.”

Men like Bruce Barton told the glories of capitalism. His book, The Man Nobody Knows (1925), depicted Jesus as a great salesperson and corporate manager (i.e., the 12 apostles).

As mentioned, the twenties saw the decline of labor unions, the first time in a period of prosperity. It resulted from of the conscious effort of Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon (referred to as the “high priest” of business-oriented welfare capitalism) to destroy organized labor.

B. The New Sexuality

The decade was noted for changing sexual mores often depicted by the “flappers.”

Many young people held permissive attitudes toward risqué movies, blue books, and discussions of sex. Such films as Old Wives for New and Golden Bed were popular. Novels with titles like Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Sex Life in Greece and Rome and One of Cleopatra’s Nights were popular.

As mentioned about the l920s marriage was challenged by the increase in the number of divorces (1910:100,000, 1929- 200,000 divorces).

Psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theories expanded the discussion of sexual behavior and personality in society.

The nineteenth amendment (August 26, 1920), expanded women’s right to vote nationally. Women did not rush in great numbers to vote, but it was the beginning of a right long overdue.

C.Race, Ethnicity in the Twenties

Since World War, I many Americans, especially those of Anglo-Saxon heritage, came to view with suspicion, xenophobia, and hatred, individuals from non-Western European countries. They supported the opinion of writers like Lothrop Stoddard (The Rising Tide of Color, l920) and Madison Grant’s (The Passing of a Great Race, 1916) that increasing non-white or Southern and Eastern ethnic groups would cripple the intellectual and superior generations of future Americans.

Anti-Immigration efforts saw the passage of the National Origins Act (1924). The act set quotas on the number of immigrants from various countries. Based on the l890 census, it was designed to limit the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern European countries, Asia and Africa. The highest number of immigrants allowed each year would come from Western European countries and the least from Africa and Asia.


With the overthrow of Reconstruction, a de Jure caste system called Jim Crow flourished in the South, while discrimination and de facto segregation ruled in the North. Between l880 and l915, the leadership of Booker T. Washington counseled patience, hard work, and accommodation to second-class citizenship and Jim Crow. Explicit in his Atlanta Exposition Speech (1895) was his acceptance of segregation and belief that hard work (Gospel of Wealth) would gradually lead to the acceptance of African-Americans, economic opportunities, and the end of racial violence against blacks. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred as Southern race riots against people of color increased (Wilmington, N.C., l898). The first two decades saw numerous race riots. In the “Red Sumer of 1919”, there were 25 major and minor race riots in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. However, the worst race riot in American history occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. Even before, with the Springfield, Illinois race riot in l908, it suggested Washington’s optimism was misplaced, and many Americans, particularly a significant minority of whites rejected his philosophy.

The establishment of the bi-racial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (l909) signaled the beginning of the “era of legalism” in which the NAACP through its Legal Redress Committee sought to end Jim Crow, second-class citizenship, and segregation through the enforcement of the 14 and 15th Amendments.

With the help of outstanding Constitutional lawyers like Moorefield Storey and Louis Marshall, the early NAACP won a number of significant Supreme Court decisions including:

United States v. Guinn (1915) Supreme Court declared the “Grandfather Clause” used to disfranchise black voters unconstitutional.

2. Buchanan v. Warley (1917) The Supreme Court declared residential segregation by law unconstitutional in Louisville, Kentucky. To circumvent the intent of the Supreme Court’s ruling, whites either through their contractors or homeowner associations REPLACEed a clause in their deeds prohibiting the selling of their homes to anyone other than Caucasian. These were known as “Racial Restrictive Covenants.” Individuals who violated the covenants were hauled into court and charged with breach of contract. In l948, the NAACP won a case before the Supreme Court, Shelley v. Kraemer, which ruled the covenants were not enforceable. The court ruled that whites could make covenants and not violate the 14th Amendment, but once individuals sued in court and the state supported the covenants, it then violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This effectively ended the racially restrictive covenants.

2. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927), The Supreme Court declared the Texas all-white Democratic primaries unconstitutional. Texas whites were able to circumvent the court’s ruling by reorganizing the Democratic Party as a private club, subject to its requirements. However, in Smith v. Allwright (l944), the Supreme Court ruled that since the state extended the right of the party to exist as an arm of the state, it, therefore, could not reorganize as a private club. Thus the all-white Texas primary (and by virtue all states) was unconstitutional.

Black Nationalism during the 1920s:

Not every African American supported the goal of becoming part of mainstream America or integration. The West Indian born and raised Marcus Moziah Garvey created the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1914) to liberate people of African descent from white domination and oppression.

Garvey believed in the superiority of black blood and derided integration and miscegenation as diluting the strength of black people. His goals were to create a Black Nationalist state in Africa, oust white Europeans from African countries, create a black self-sustaining economy that rivaled white countries, and a black military to challenge their military dominance.

Two important features of the UNIA was the “Back to Africa Movement,” and the Black Star Line, a failed attempt to create a fleet of ships to establish transatlantic trade between Africa and other non-white countries.

Many African Americans did not support Garvey. His greatest support came from the masses of the lower class and the working class black poor. Most working and middle-class blacks supported the NAACP’s approach ending black caste in America.

D. Reaction and Fundamentalism

From the beginning of the decade, not everyone believed progress or modernity was necessarily a good thing. As already mentioned many believed that the move toward modernity would undermine the historic core values of America. The following are expressions of that concern:

Prohibition: XVIII Amendment (January 29, 1919) prohibited the manufacture and distribution of liquor. Many fundamentalists believed the increase of alcohol or “demon rum” production and consumption led to a breakdown in societal values. Unfortunately, the Amendment had the unintended consequence of creating a black market and empire of criminals who flourished in the illegal manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages. The empire of Al Capone is the best example of how badly prohibition turned out.

For those who could not afford it, or had access to illegal “booze,” ordinary Americans resorted to the manufacture of dangerous concoctions like Jackass Brandy (caused internal bleeding), Panther Whiskey(contained fuel oil), and Soda Moon Pop( contained poisonous alcohol).

In politics, fundamentalists attempted to link political campaigns to the “Bible, Christ and the Constitution.”

While concern about modernity was conspicuous throughout the country, it was mostly a Southern phenomenon.

Another example of the fundamentalists versus the modernists was the battle over the teaching of Evolution in the schools. Many fundamentalists continued to argue the literal interpretation of Biblical scripture. Led by evangelical preachers mostly in the South, this often provided individuals with faith amid secularization and group solidarity from the disorienting experiences of migration and the rapid social change taking place in America.

Billy Sunday the baseball player turned preacher, derisively confessed he did not know any more about theology than a jackrabbit knew about ping-pong but knew “that old bastard theory of evolution was jackass nonsense.”

Another evangelical preacher against evolution was the Rev. J. Frank Norris, head of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. He built a 6,000-seat church and bathed it in searchlights making it visible for 32 miles. Norris was a crude, violent man who once shot and killed someone in his office. Norris violently opposed “that hell-born, Bible-destroying, the deity of Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution.”

Belief in Creationism versus the science of Evolution came to a climax in the John Scopes Trial (l924). Scopes was a biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee arrested for the illegal teaching of Darwinian theories of evolution. The trial was an international sensation pitting the silver-tongued orator and perennial Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, against the country’s foremost trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. Bryan defended the state’s anti-evolution law by insisting that “it is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the age of rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the heavenly Father than to know how far the stars in the heavens are apart.” Darrow crossed-examined Bryan making him look foolish trying to explain literal interpretations of Biblical events like Jonah being swallowed by a whale and walked out unscathed, and that the earth was literally built in a “day.” In the end, Scopes was convicted of the misdemeanor, fined and ultimately received a scholarship at the University of Chicago, while Darrow concluded that he had effectively examined Jennings on his fool ideas which no intelligent Christian on earth believed.

The battle between Evolutionists versus Creationism continues today still mostly in Southern and Southwestern states like Texas.

The last fundamentalist group, the Ku Klux Klan, distorted honest anxieties about modernism to launch a revival of hatred and bigotry against blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Following the film Birth of a Nation (l915), William J. Simmons, an insurance salesperson from Atlanta, Georgia, used modern advertising and public relations techniques to turn the KKK into a national organization with a membership of 4 to 5 million people, and unprecedented political power. Even Hugo Black, a Supreme Court Justice was a member of the KKK as a young man. Toward the end of the l920’s the KKK’s power declined following a scandal involving the secretary of Simmons and her alleged rape by the Grand Wizard on a train.

The paradoxical twenties ended with the crash of the stock in l929.

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