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The Great Depression (1920–1940)

History SparkNotes

The Conservative Backlash: 1919–1929

The Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age: 1920–1929

The Onset of the Depression: 1928–1932

1919 Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) is ratified Congress passes Volstead Act
1920 Red Scare
1921 Sacco-Vanzetti trial Congress passes Emergency Quota Act
1924 Congress passes Immigration Act of 1924
1925 Scopes Monkey Trial


At the same time that the liberalism of the Jazz Age flourished, so did a movement of social conservatism—perhaps the most identifiable example of which was Prohibition. Ratified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the sale, manufacture, and consumption of alcohol. Reformers had been trying to pass prohibition laws since the 1830s and 1840s but had never before achieved such success. Congress also passed the Volstead Act, which established the federal Prohibition Bureau to enforce the amendment. Enforcement of the ban on alcohol proved difficult as bootleggers continued to produce and sell liquor illegally, and drinking continued to take place in underground speakeasies. The Prohibition experiment lasted only fourteen years, as Congress repealed it by ratifying the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.

Political Divides and Organized Crime

Although Prohibition did significantly reduce the national consumption of alcohol, it alienated a huge portion of Americans—many of them European immigrants—who were accustomed to drinking regularly. The law also sparked intense debate, as “wet” politicians (often Democrats) decried the hypocrisy of the “experiment” while “dry” politicians (generally Republicans) preached the new law’s moral and social benefits.

Prohibition also brought negative consequences to American society, such as the birth of organized crime. Big-name gangsters such as Al Capone illegally produced and distributed alcohol, bribed local police forces to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities, and became extremely powerful. Federal agents in the newly formed Prohibition Bureau, who were grossly understaffed and overworked, could do little to stop the gangsters’ activities.

New Restrictions on Immigration

Many Americans stood firmly against immigration during the 1920s. Although nativist groups such as the Know-Nothings and the American Protective Association had been around since the 1800s, Congress had rarely given in to these groups and had done little to stem the flow of immigrants into the United States. All this changed in 1921, however, when Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in response to the unceasing wave of new immigrants into the country.

As its name implied, the Emergency Quota Act established a specific, unalterable number of immigrants from each country who would be allowed to enter the United States every year. Specifically, each immigrant’s country of origin could send only 3 percent of the number of persons from that country who were living in the United States in 1910; all other immigrants would be shipped back to the countries from which they came. Three years later, Congress repealed the Emergency Quota Act and passed the Immigration Act of 1924 , which changed each foreign country’s annual immigrant quota to 2 percent of the number of persons from that country who were living in the United States in 1890.

In general, immigration had been a boon to the rapidly expanding U.S. economy during the nineteenth century, as immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and southern Europe had provided invaluable labor in city factories. The Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, however, effectively slammed the door shut on the bulk of new immigrants. The effect was enormous and reduced the number of yearly arrivals by about 500,000 annually—blocking almost all southern and eastern Europeans. The number of immigrants from northern and western Europe, on the other hand, remained relatively steady, between 150,000 and 200,000 per year. These laws implemented the first severe limitations on immigration after nearly a century without much restriction.

The Red Scare

Congress passed these new restrictive immigration laws in part because of the growing fear of socialism that was spreading through southern and eastern Europe. After Russia collapsed to communism in the Russian Revolution of 1917, panic swept across the United States. In the Red Scare of 19191920, Americans became suspicious that they might fall victim to a communist plot to take over the country. The two main methods that workers’ unions used to create fair labor agreements—striking and collective bargaining—came to be seen as tools of socialists and anarchists. As a result, labor unions were frowned upon and dwindled in number and size. Several hundred Americans who affiliated with the Communist and Socialist parties were arrested, as were labor organizers and others who criticized the U.S. government.

The Socialist Party’s growing membership in the United States was also perceived as a threat, especially since labor organizer Eugene V. Debs received nearly a million popular votes in the presidential election of 1920. Even though the Red Scare eventually subsided, the fear of socialism and communism in the United States never truly went away. It would eventually resurface in the 1950s and throughout the Cold War.

The Sacco-Vanzetti Trial

Americans’ fears of immigration and socialism coalesced in the sensational Sacco-Vanzetti Trial of 1921, in which Italian-born Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried for murder. The two also happened to be self-proclaimed atheists and anarchists, which did not win them any favor from the conservative segment of the public. Although historians have concluded that both men were most likely guilty of the crime, at the time of the trial itself, the defendants’ ethnicity and communist affiliations weighed far more heavily than any hard evidence. In the end, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder and executed.

Fundamentalism vs. Darwinism

Millions of Americans also found a renewed sense of faith during the 1920s, defending traditional interpretations of the Bible against scientific theories that challenged those traditions. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were particularly threatening because they suggested that the world had been created over the course of millions of years—rather than seven days as the Bible stated—and that human beings were just one by-product of the evolutionary process. Fundamentalists, those who believed in the literal translation of the Bible, contested Darwin’s theories in an extremely heated debate.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Nothing encapsulated the battle between fundamentalists and evolutionists better than the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the trial, Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was accused of presenting Darwin’s theories to high school students, in violation of a state law that forbade the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Some of the nation’s finest lawyers descended on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to present their arguments for the case, with numerous journalists in tow. Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and fundamentalist prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (of late-1800s populism fame) provided the highlight of the trial when Darrow made Bryan look ridiculous on the witness stand. Although Scopes was ultimately found guilty and fined for his transgression, the fact that Bryan and his team came across as silly and unreasonable ended up bolstering the evolutionists’ side of the debate.

The Reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan

The growing Protestant conservatism of the day also manifested itself in the swelling membership of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. Although the Klan of the 1920s was still ultraconservative and militant, it looked quite different from the Klan of the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age. Whereas the Klan of the past had formed in the South to suppress blacks’ civil liberties, the new KKK was a national movement against not only blacks but also Catholics, Jews, alcohol, immigration, communism, and even birth control. Membership jumped to several million by the middle of the 1920s.

The newer, bigger, angrier KKK was also a significant part of the fundamentalist movement during the first half of the decade. Though the Klan existed primarily to intimidate minority groups, it also served as a social organization for conservatives, especially in the South and Midwest. Klansmen and -women would organize picnics, parades, parties, and festivals for members to celebrate and discuss politics. Membership dwindled, however, after numerous scandals were uncovered within the organization. In addition, other conservative movements of the 1920s began to achieve many of the Klan’s goals: “undesirable” immigrants were being turned away, Prohibition was in effect, communists were being persecuted, fundamentalists had won the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the economy was “roaring.”

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