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America in a New Age, Political Conflicts

Sacco-Vanzetti Case, Volstead Act, Clarence Darrow, religious fundamentalism, Al Smith

Political and cultural debates divided Americans of the 1920s. Major issues of the decade reflected a split between urban and rural, modern and traditional, radical and reactionary. Nativist, anti-radical sentiments emerged in a 1921 trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. Two anarchists, Italian immigrants, were tried and convicted of murder. Many believed that the men’s immigrant origins and political beliefs played a part in their convictions. The case evoked protests from socialists, radicals, and prominent intellectuals, and remained a source of conflict for decades. Nativism also inspired the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The new Klan targeted Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, as well as African Americans. It thrived in the Midwest and Far West, as well as in the South. With its women’s auxiliary, the Women of the Klan, it raised millions of dollars and wielded political power in several states, including Oklahoma, Oregon, and Indiana.

Conflict also arose over religious fundamentalism. In 1925 John T. Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher, was tried for breaking a state law that prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. This theory, its foes said, contradicted the account of creation in the Bible. Scopes and the American Civil Liberties Union believed that the law violated freedom of speech, an argument made by Scopes’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Reporters converged on Dayton, Tennessee, to witness the courtroom battle between traditionalism and modernism. Scopes was convicted, although the verdict was later reversed on technical grounds.

The battle over Prohibition, finally, symbolized the divisive spirit of the 1920s. “Drys” favored Prohibition and “wets” opposed it. The Volstead Act of 1919, which enforced the 18th Amendment, prohibited the manufacture, sale, or distribution of alcoholic beverages, but was riddled with loopholes. Organized crime entered the liquor business; rival gangs and networks of speakeasies induced a crime wave. By the end of the 1920s, Prohibition was discredited, and it was repealed in 1933.

Meanwhile, the conflict between “wets” and “drys” played a role in the presidential election of 1928. The Democratic candidate, Al Smith, governor of New York, was a machine politician and a “wet,” who represented urban, immigrant constituencies. Republican Herbert Hoover, an engineer from Iowa, was a “dry” who represented rural, traditional constituencies. A foe of government intervention in the economy, Hoover envisioned a rational economic order in which corporate leaders acted for the public good. Promising voters “a chicken for every pot and a car in every garage,” Hoover won a substantial majority of votes, except in the nation’s largest cities. But he had the misfortune to assume office just before the nation encountered economic collapse.

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