Bradley Phipps from bphipps.co.uk has provided us with this fascinating article on 1920s America. Was the 1920s a decade of fun, liberal values? Or was it rather a time of great conservatism? Bradley presents his view by looking at key topics in the decade – race, immigration, female suffrage, prohibition, the economy and election results.
It’s tempting, partly due to portrayal in the media and literature, to see the 1920s in America as a time of consensus around progressivism and liberalism, consumerism, excess, and fun. Whilst there are elements of truth in this, the decade which came to an abrupt and memorable close in the 1929 Wall Street Crash was actually a time of reactionism, conservatism, and division.
Before delving into the experience of different groups in society and looking at some important issues like prohibition, it’s important first to briefly set the scene. The 1920s was, in part, a battle between conservative forces and progressive forces. This battle was epitomized in religion, which is where much of the attempt to make society more moralistic stemmed from. There was a fierce battle raging during the decade between the traditionalists and the modernists in religion, with questions over how the Bible should be interpreted and whether theories like evolution – which challenged the usual wisdom of how the world worked – should be taught in schools. This battle in religious issues spilled over into just about everything else, with the forces of conservatism attempting to preserve tradition and what they believed to be morality, and other forces seeking a more liberalized, free society. The conservative forces certainly won the war of ideas during the Twenties, though the 1930s would in many ways be in quite stark contrast due to Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.
Race relations and Immigration
There are a number of areas to look at when assessing the decade, one of the most important being race relations and immigration. Whilst it’s true to a certain degree that the Roaring Twenties were a period of prosperity and liberalism for some people, for new immigrants and African-Americans, this cannot be seen to be the case. The decade saw resurgence in nationalist and racist sentiment, as well as more understandable concerns about immigration. The division in race was most clearly seen in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which probably benefited from the nationalist sentiment and racial tensions which the First World War had brought up, as well as the migration of African-Americans to the north. The Klan’s membership rose rapidly to around 6 million in 1920, which totaled over 5% of the population at the time. Whilst that may not sound impressive, the KKK wielded substantial influence in politics, and as there was general popular consent for things like immigration restrictions and less of a liberal attitude towards race relations compared to what we have today, the Klan did not come under serious threat throughout the decade. Even politicians, who often have different and more moderate views than the public at a given time, were in general agreement with their voters in terms of restricting immigration. In 1921, the Emergency Immigration Act was passed, which severely reduced immigration and did so partly on race-based lines in terms of blocking off immigration from the Middle East. These restrictions were tightened further still in the 1924 Immigration Act, which placed further restrictions and quotas on immigration in a further attempt to please the public. There appeared to be a conservative consensus during this time on the issue of immigration; both the public and the political classes were in consensus that there should be a large reduction in the number of people settling in the country, and there was also general agreement that the race of a potential immigrant should play a deciding role.
The difficulties for immigrants and minorities during this period were not just political though; the Klan did not limit its activities to the political arena. The passing of the immigration restriction legislation was a success for the Klan; it had in many ways fulfilled its purpose. With the public satisfied at the restrictions on immigration, membership of the Klan plummeted from its peak of 6 million in 1924 down to just 30,000 in 1930. But during the 20s, such was its fervor in defending what it believed to be traditional, white, Protestant values and morality, that it took to more violent methods to attack those who it believed to be corrupting the morals it defended, including violence against black people up to and including the infamous public lynchings, serving as yet more evidence against the fairly common perception of the decade as being liberal, care-free, and fun.
Women are often portrayed as having a new-found freedom in 1920s America, having undergone a sexual liberation and seen their role in society turned on its head. This is perhaps the only section of society where the myth of the 1920s fits quite well. There can be no denying that for many young women, their willingness to challenge the status quo increased; photographic evidence alone serves as evidence of new short skirts, provocative dances, and more open and flagrant promiscuous behavior. In contrast to the attempts to enforce morality and good behavior, youthful women found a new side of life and many of them embraced it with open arms, throwing themselves into exciting new jazz music and dances like the Charleston. Luchtenburg succinctly summarizes the increased personal freedom of women: “Before the war, a lady did not set foot in a saloon; after the war, she entered a speakeasy as thoughtlessly as she would go into a railroad station.”
Aside from in the social context, the increasing move for more power for women in politics was seen in the suffrage movement which became increasingly powerful before the 1920s. This culminated in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in August 1920, when women were finally given the right to vote on equal terms with men. Opposition came primarily in the form of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, which disbanded after the 19th amendment was successful, but continued to publish works which opposed the liberation of women and their changing role in society. There was also considerable opposition in Congress, with 25 members of the 100-strong Senate voting against the amendment, alongside a number of abstentions. There was also considerable difficulty in getting the amendment ratified by some states, particularly Southern states, where members of the state legislature faced considerable lobbying by various groups.
Even the politicians and lobbyists who supported women’s suffrage cannot necessarily have been doing so purely out of the moral cause of increasing women’s rights and making the nation more democratic. The extent of the dominance of conservative thinking in the era can be seen in Daniel Okrent’s argument, who believed they could only make alcohol illegal and have popular consent for doing so with the votes of women, who were generally more in favor of it becoming illegal than men.
Interestingly, even the women’s suffrage movement cannot be seen as entirely progressive and liberal; particularly in the South, the women campaigners sought to gain more support from men by playing upon the issue of race. They said it was unfair that males from ethnic minority groups could vote whilst women could not. Even more divisively, there was also the suggestion that allowing women to vote would ensure that white voters remained dominant and more politically powerful than minority groups. We can see that even the progressive political causes in the decade were in some ways heavily regressive and conservative.
Something important during the 1920s that we’re all aware of is prohibition. Alcohol became illegal in early 1919 with the passing of 18th Amendment and whether it should continue to be so remained a contentious issue throughout the following decade. Prohibition is the best and clearest example of an increasing trend towards enforcing morality and an attempt to return to traditional Protestant values. The nation was divided over the issue, with much of the division being between traditional rural areas and the more liberal and less morally strict urban areas. Leuchtenburg writes that prohibition served as a way for rural America to “impose their social mores on city folk”; for Protestants to stop Catholics drinking; and for Anglo-Saxons to change the behavior of immigrants. As is well known, making alcohol illegal led to a reliable source of income for many criminal and mafia gangs, and so far from enforcing morality, prohibition is often seen as just opening up new avenues of immorality.
Similarly, prohibition led to speakeasies and other illegal hidden parties at which people continued to indulge in alcohol. However, despite the common wisdom that prohibition was a complete failure, it did actually succeed in substantially reducing alcohol consumption, a reduction which largely remained in place even when prohibition had ended. By 1933, when prohibition came to an end, alcohol consumption was 70% what it had been before prohibition. Whilst not a raving success, it’s safe to say it fulfilled its purpose at least a little bit. Though of course other factors could also have led to these variations in consumption.
Conversely, prohibition brought out the very worst in the American policing system; bribery was common, with many police willing to turn a blind eye to illegal bars provided they had received a bribe or other benefit for doing so. This is an important lesson for today - laws imposed without significant popular consent cannot work; they will be subject to capricious enforcement. Leuchtenburg argues that the public anger at the police’s mix of corruption and harsh treatment of bars led to anti-police sentiment springing up, with one example being crowds cheering on the boat of a bootlegger in New York when being pursued by the police.
Perhaps the weakness of the whole attempt to enforce morality upon parts of society which were pursuing liberalization was that Eliot Ness, a key prohibition enforcement agent and leader of the elite ‘Untouchables’ group, died an alcoholic.
Radical political dissent during the Twenties was not tolerated. It is important to view policies in era in context. Having just come out of the First World War, the United States now saw a new threat emerging in Russia. The threat was Red. The Bolshevik revolution in what was to become the Soviet Union began in 1917, leading to a civil war between defenders of the old Tsarist regime, and those who sought to impose a communist-inspired regime. America has always feared communism – it is anathema to its principles of liberal democracy and free trade, and red scares have become part of its history. Whilst McCarthyism in the 1950s is fairly well-known, the red scare during the 1920s is less well remembered.
There was increasing government action against radical left-wing political groups and moves to clamp down on leftist groups had already begun before the 1920s, as seen most clearly in the arrest and imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs – the leader of the American Socialist Party - who had performed remarkably well in elections considering his outsider political position. Deportations without due process or trials became common, particularly against the Socialist International Industrial Workers League; in January 1920 around 10,000 people were arrested for holding radical political views. Furthermore, the immigration acts which were discussed earlier were also used to restrict radical literature and punish any immigrants with sympathies towards left-wing political groups.
But aside from all this, wasn’t the economy at least growing – wasn’t everyone sharing in a newfound wealth? In some ways, yes. The economy was growing and people were generally more affluent, giving the majority more access to consumer and electric goods. However, not all shared in the increased prosperity; urban workers saw their wages increase quite rapidly, but the wages of farmers stagnated, and some manual laborers such as miners saw their wages decline, and with the rise in machinery and technology, some manual workers were replaced by automated systems. Union membership during this period fell, dropping from 5 million in 1920 to 3.5 million in 1929, a sign of general increasing prosperity as well as the government’s crackdown on radical elements. As often happens during economic booms, the gap between the rich and the poor widened, with the poorest seeing their standard of living stagnate whilst the richest saw their wealth continue to skyrocket.
Undoubtedly, though, the economy did improve the standard of living for many people during the decade. Gross National Product grew by 40% through the decade, wages for most workers rose in real-terms, and prices on some previously inaccessible goods became accessible. The prices of cars, for example, fell due to more efficient and faster production, leading automobile ownership to rocket by nearly 200%, from 8 million to 23 million people owning cars. Similarly, increasing access to the radio gave a source of entertainment in almost everyone’s home, and with increasing demand came national programming which provided most of the nation with access to some of the same programs. This boom in the economy also led to an upsurge in the number of people buying shares, with it becoming increasingly common for middle class families to buy into the market; as we know, this ended in catastrophe in 1929. The great tragedy of the decade is that, though the Wall Street Crash impacted everyone, those who bore its brunt most heavily were the poorest, who had seen the least benefit from the economic boom.
Finally, the clearest indication of the conservatism and consistency of the decade which helps to dispel the myth of the decade being progressive and unique is the actual results of election. We’ve already seen that from prohibition, to the Red Scare, to attempts to enforce morality, the politics of the decade were conservative and at times regressive. But the real flavor of a decade can be found in its election results.
In the 1920 Presidential election, Republican candidate Warren Harding won with a massive 60% of the vote, leaving the Democrat candidate James Cox with an abysmal 34%. In 1924, Coolidge was victorious with 54% of the vote, leaving the Democrat with just under 30%. This election was notable because of a rarity in American politics – the strong performance of a third party candidate, which came in the form of Robert La Follete who stood for the short-lived Progressive party. Whilst it could be argued that the Progressives split the Democrat vote, thereby allowing the Republican in by default, the vote for the Democratic candidate and the Progressive Party candidate still falls 10% short of the Republican vote. In 1928, Herbert Hoover continued the Republican ascendancy. Pledging continued economic growth, he won 58% of the vote, leaving his Democrat opponent with only 40%. Whilst some of these margins may not sound incredibly wide, bear in mind that American Presidential elections are apt to have very narrow margins of victory. In the year 2000, for example, the result between Bush and Gore was less than a percentage point apart.
But Presidential elections don’t give us the full picture. The Congress Republicans were also dominant. They gained control of the house in 1918, and comfortably retained control of it until 1930. The Republicans also gained control of the Senate in 1918, keeping it until 1932. This means the decade saw uninterrupted Republican control of the Presidency, and both chambers of Congress; a very rare thing indeed. There is no way this could have happened unless the vast majority of the public were aligned in a conservative consensus. They were content with Republican policies and did not desire change.
So we’ve seen that in very few ways can the decade which has been dubbed the Roaring Twenties be seen as a time of radical change. It was conservative and reactionary, and in some ways regressive. Even in modernizations like female suffrage, the forces of conservatism were involved in their support of it in order to ensure more support for prohibition. Modern liberal ideas had little place in this decade; they would not gain common support until the 1930s, when the much-lauded (though much-overrated) Franklin D. Roosevelt put into practice his new vision for the role of government in society and much greater regulation of the free market.
This article is provided by Bradley Phipps from bphipps.co.uk.
Want to read more? Well take a look at this article on how American stereotypes of the Japanese from World War II linger on… Click here!