Sweeping in its wide-reaching changes, the 1920s in the United States brought the country rapid prosperity and cultural power. But the glitz and glamour could only partly conceal the rot occurring within political and financial institutions, while the increasing societal integration fostered by urbanization led to a backlash from rural elements and even the government itself. The Roaring Twenties, as the decade came to be known, were loud, bold, and brash – but there was a callous, vicious undercurrent too, leading to price drops, strikes, race riots, and ultimately economic ruin.
This theme of initial luster quickly turning rotten was on display in presidential politics. The presidential election of November 1920 was the first in which women exercised their right to vote, which had been gained with passage of the 19th Amendment just a few months previously. Warren G. Harding, a newspaper tycoon and playboy, won by a landslide against Democrat James M. Cox, capturing 34 of the 48 states and notching up the first Republican victories in Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.
With this apparently decisive mandate, Harding turned right around and became one of the most corrupt presidents in American history. From 1921 to 1922, Harding’s administration, via Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, accepted bribes to lease some federal oil reserves to two private companies, in what became known as the Teapot-Dome Scandal. It was the most egregious instance of fraud in a highly fraudulent term of office. Harding eventually had to cancel the leases under an order of the Supreme Court. After the president’s death in 1923, vice president Calvin Coolidge took over and later won the election of 1924.
Thanks to World War I, the United States had become the largest creditor nation in the world: its allies had gone into enormous debt to American banks to finance their seemingly endless escalation of all-out warfare with the Axis powers, which finally came to an end in November 1918. Britain, France, and Italy poured enormous amounts of money into the U.S. to pay down the $8 billion in American war loans granted during the course of the armed struggle. During the 1920s, this money was in turn funneled into American businesses and utilized to provide loans to American workers. Contrasting with the deplorable state of stagnation throughout most of Europe wrought by the war, in the U.S., the windfall from war loans was used to build cars, road infrastructure, manufacturing centers, hotels, theaters, and department stores at a frenzied pace. The country entered an economic boom, with unemployment dropping to less than 5 percent. By the end of the decade, roughly 85 percent of all urban homes in the country would have access to electricity, and with more disposable income than before, Americans could afford new luxuries like refrigerators, cars, radios, washing machines, and going to the movies. The Roaring Twenties were in full swing.
And swing became an apt way to describe these years, because the boom of prosperity would lay the seeds of its own downfall within the decade. The symptoms were already visible at the outset in the widening gulf between provincial-rural and modernizing urban development.
The need for increased industrialization to meet demand for manufactured supplies and weapons during the First World War had fueled urbanization, as evidenced by the 1920 Census, which showed that most American citizens resided in cities, marking a first in American history. Yet the rural population was still a sizeable part of the whole: in 1920 that urban-rural percentage split was roughly 51 to 49, and throughout the ‘20s, more than 40 percent of Americans had rural, farm-based addresses.
A stark divide emerged between rural and city dwellers though. The economic boom may have been electrifying American homes during the 1920s, but this benefit was really only felt in urban areas. In 1922, only 3 percent of American farms were electrified, and that percentage stayed below 10 percent for the entire decade. Added to this sense of being severed from the urban lifestyle was real economic hardship in the countryside, which began with the fall in agricultural prices in 1920. As a result of high demand, commodities like corn, wheat, and cotton had all attained high prices, which led to windfall revenues for farmers, which in turn encouraged spending some of that money on increased acreage, new growing, and new borrowing against this trend from banks to fund even more agricultural expansion. Problem was, these aggressive expansion efforts didn’t take into account the decline in agricultural prices that would come once demand was exceeded by overproduction and soldiers were demobilized, reducing the level of demand itself. Both came to pass, and the result was an abrupt drop in agricultural prices in 1920, severely damaging farm revenues and in turn reducing farmers’ access to bank credit. Added to all of this was decreasing demand for large-scale human agricultural labor, due to the ever-increasing mechanization of the industrializing cities. The cumulative effect of these changes was so severe that it caused a prolonged economic depression for farm workers that lasted the entire decade.
With the uprooting changes of urbanization and fast wealth came increased racial assimilation and sexual freedom in the cities. Vibrant communities of Americans of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Russian, Chinese, Hispanic, and other non-British ethnic backgrounds, built through years of immigration, asserted themselves in urban areas and gained cultural prominence. Many rural Americans were riled by this hedonistic, cosmopolitan culture – especially since in their view it had deprived them of economic prosperity and had perhaps even caused the rural depression. This ire spurred the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, originally begun as an organization of Confederate veterans aiming to resist the Republican Party’s goals of full civil liberties for African-Americans during Reconstruction in the South. During the 1920s the Klan expanded its mandate to encompass a war against urban privilege and what it saw as the reasons for that offense: large-scale immigration, interracial relations, alcohol, and sex. Accordingly, the Klan began campaigning as a white Protestant “nativist” organization not just against African-Americans but also against many of the immigrant ethnic groups which had become part of the fabric of American society. Klan membership soared to include more than 4 million people in the 1920s.
Racial violence, sparked by nativism and racial segregation, spiked in the 1920s as Klan members launched their gambits to take over as many local and state governments as they could. In 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city thriving on an oil boom built in no small part by a thriving African-American business district, racial tensions boiled over when an angry white mob confronted a black mob looking to protect a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman – wrongfully accused, as it turned out. But the ensuing race riot resulted in over 300 people killed, over 1,200 homes destroyed, and more than 200 homes looted – with more than 6,000 African-Americans arrested. Two years later, an attack led by a group of whites on the largely African-American town of Rosewood, Florida destroyed the entire town and evicted the black residents permanently.
Repelled by this type of violence, many African-Americans were by this time taking part in the “Great Migration,” which saw millions of African-American men and women migrate to the North, Midwest, and West from the period of roughly 1916 to 1970, fleeing legalized racial and wage discrimination in the South, under what were known as the “Jim Crow” laws. Between 1910 and 1920, the black population of New York City had grown by 66 percent, while that of Philadelphia had grown by 500 percent. The increased black population in the Harlem district of New York City in 1924 launched the “Harlem Renaissance,” a profusion of African-American cultural creativity that included writers, painters, musicians, and actors, among whom were Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker.
The 1920s also saw a rise in American political currents inspired by the international situation, because revolution was in the air. In late 1917, an insurrectionist cell of Russian Marxists called the Bolsheviks had successfully removed the Tsar from power and, through several years of bloody civil war, installed themselves as rulers of the Russian Empire. Their doctrine of Marxism, a version of communism, held that money should be allocated to people in proportion to the productive output of each individual, and that most large corporations – including banks – should be nationalized to secure this type of capital allocation. These ideas sent shockwaves into the U.S., inspiring like-minded American movements. In response to resulting unlawful uses of federal power, which resulted in thousands of people being arrested and detained without warrants, Roger Nash formed the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, in 1920, which eventually secured the release of hundreds of falsely accused citizens.
And the ACLU wasn’t afraid to step into a culture war that reached into the nation’s schools. During the 1920s, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was a highly controversial subject in the American educational system, accentuating the divide between rural provincialism and urban modernity. In 1925, Tennessee had passed a law called the Butler Act that made teaching evolution illegal – and the ACLU quickly pounced, issuing a press release offering its services to challenge the validity of the law. A group in Dayton, Tennessee, headed by a local businessman, corralled John Scopes, a high-school math and physics teacher who had used materials on evolution in his courses, to take the stand as having taught evolution – thereby attracting the interest of the ACLU. Though the publicity-seeking motives of the people who put Scopes in the spotlight were rightfully questioned, the resulting trial, in which Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act, nonetheless allowed the public wide access to the arguments for both sides of the dispute.
Taking the side of the prosecution was famed populist and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s decision to take part in the Scopes trial brought well-known defense attorney Clarence Darrow – also a leading member of the ACLU – into the ring on the side of Scopes. It was a landmark trial in many ways, especially because the goal of the defense was to have the jury find the defendant guilty – and that’s what happened. Scopes was fined $100 but the cultural divide over evolution gained steam. Tennessee’s anti-evolution law was upheld, and Mississippi and Texas both passed laws in 1925 that in effect banned teaching of the theory.
The war between provincialism and modernity, of course, wasn’t confined to high-school textbooks. The anti-Red hysteria had gripped the country in its entirety, and it put in its sights the recent immigrants to the U.S. who held radical political views. This paranoia was all on display with the handling of another highly important trial of the 1920s: the murder trial of two Italian anarchist immigrants named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They had been accused of robbing a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts and murdering two of its employees in 1920. Though a state court found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty in the following year, many leftist sympathizers believed they were prejudicially convicted due to their anarchist beliefs. Despite international protests for the men to be retried, and the fact that in 1925 a man under sentence of murder named Celestino Madeiros confessed that he had taken part in the crime, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927.
Meanwhile, nativists whipped up support for immigration restrictions to curtail immigration from the likes of Sacco and Vanzetti, whom they believed were disrupting the social fabric of the country. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned additional immigration from Asia and severely restricted immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere. Also, it provided funding and enforcement provisions for deporting immigrants who violated its provisions.
Though the war-funded glitz of commercial expansion had suppressed dissent, discouraged union membership, and put a glossy veneer on the urban side of the rural-urban divide in America, the fundamental problem of overproduction that had affected the countryside also resulted in negative consequences for the cities, which would eventually send shockwaves throughout the entire country. There were warning signs in the early ‘20s, as the abrupt transition away from war production – resulting in decreased demand for goods and labor – led to a pretty severe recession from 1920 to 1921.
Let’s look at a review question to see what you remember:
Which of the following was NOT a result of the economic boom that took place in the U.S. during the 1920s?
- Increased amounts of disposable income for many urban dwellers, enabling the purchase of innovative household goods.
- The Harding administration’s susceptibility to the bribes of the Teapot-Dome Scandal.
- The banking sector and much of the public’s appetite for risky stock purchases, ultimately leading to the stock-market collapse of 1929.
- A disincentive against joining labor unions, made more effective by a smear campaign by large employers that equated union membership with communism.
The correct answer is B.
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