The Great Depression (1920–1940)

by: History SparkNotes

The Conservative Backlash: 1919–1929

Summary The Conservative Backlash: 1919–1929


1919Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition) is ratifiedCongress passes Volstead Act
1920Red Scare
1921Sacco-Vanzetti trialCongress passes Emergency Quota Act
1924Congress passes Immigration Act of 1924
1925Scopes 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 The Prohibition experiment lasted only fourteen years, as Congress repealed it by ratifying the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.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.

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