Life works when people follow rules. No nation or group of people can work if its people do not follow the laws and rules and do as they please. Some rules are just a matter of being polite. We hold the door open and say please and thank you. Other rules are laws. We cannot steal or kill anyone.
In some cases, our government tries to make us good by making bad behavior expensive. Sin taxes that make cigarettes expensive, for example, are a way of society getting people to stop smoking. However, is this a good idea? Can we make people good by making bad behavior illegal? And what happens when we extend this idea to thoughts. Can we make bad thoughts illegal?
What do you think? Can laws make us moral?
RACISM IN THE 1920s
Foreigners had been flowing into Ellis and Angel Islands for years. African Americans had been moving north for jobs and promoting new ideas about equality and justice. Many White, Protestant, Americans, especially in rural areas, had a feeling that their nation, sense of identity, and way of life was threatened. This sense was clearly seen in the popularity of the 1915 movie, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Based on The Clansman, a 1915 novel by Thomas Dixon, the film offers a racist, White-only view of the Reconstruction Era. The film shows White southerners controlled by Northern carpetbaggers who help freed slaves hurt White men and women.
The heroes of the film were the Ku Klux Klan, who saved the Whites, the South,
and the nation. While the film was not like by many African Americans and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) for its historical mistakes and hurting the characters of freed slaves, it was celebrated by many Whites who thought what is showed about the Reconstruction Era was true.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which had not been active since the end of Reconstruction in 1877, got a lot of new attention following the film. Just months after the film’s release, a second form of the Klan was created at Stone Mountain, Georgia, under the control of William Simmons. This new Klan now publicly (openly) gave up violence and received a lot more support. It liked protestantism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism, and its calls for more immigration restrictions, gave the group a level of acceptance by those who had similar thoughts.
Unlike those who came before, the group was not only a male group. Members of the Klan in the 1920s also included many women, with chapters of its women’s members in locations across the country. These women’s groups were active in a number of change related activities, such as wanting to make alcohol illegal and Bibles at public schools. But they also participated in more typical Klan activities like burning crosses and the public put down of Catholics and Jews. By 1924, this Second Ku Klux Klan had six million members in the South, West, and, particularly, the Midwest. To give an idea of how popular the Klan was in the 1920s, more Americans were Klansman than there were in the nation’s labor unions at the time. While the leaders said they were against violence, its members still used threats, violence, and fear against its victims, particularly in the South. The new Ku Klux Klan was a violent group with a peaceful face.
The Klan’s new popularity did not last long. Several states fought the power and influence of the Klan through anti-masking legislation, that is, laws that stopped from wearing masks in public. As the organization faced a series of public scandals, such as when the Grand Dragon of Indiana murdered a White schoolteacher. More important people and groups started to say that the Klan was not good. Jewish organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League, which had been founded just a couple of years before the new Klan, helped Jewish people push back against the Klan. Also, the NAACP, which wanted to ban the film The Birth of a Nation, worked to lobby congress and tell the public about lynching, the illegal hanging of African Americans by angry groups of people. In the end, however, it was the Great Depression that put an end to the Klan. As the number of dues-paying members went down, the Klan lost its power and became weak until the 1950s.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
A Pro-KKK Cartoon from 1926 showing the Klan chasing out St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, along with snakes representing the evils the Klan believed foreign Catholics brought with them. Ironically, many of these evils, including intolerance and control were the same things the Klan did, but who, unlike Catholic immigrants, were not willing to show their faces.
Many Americans felt that the nation was falling apart after World War I. They thought that more people moved to the cities and as different looking people moved to America were signs of a change in the wrong direction. People on farms started to fear the way cities were leading change. On the other hand, people in cities thought farms were full of people who were not able to keep up with the times.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon criticizes the modernists as too willing to break the moral rules of the Bible, which the artist thinks leads in the end to disbelief in god.
The fight between the modernists of the cities, and the traditionalists of the countryside was best showed by the trial of a teacher in Tennessee in 1925.
When Charles Darwin announced his theory that people and monkeys had come from a common ancestor in 1859, he sent shock waves through the Western world. The Theory of Evolution tested the Bible’s version of the creation of the world, and churches debated whether to accept modern science or continue to follow the old Bible sayings. By the 1920s, most of the churches in cities had been able to accept both Darwin’s theory and the Bible, but countryside preachers chose only to follow the Bible as truth and rejected Darwin’s theory. These religious fundamentalists saw the Bible as the only truth.
Charles Darwin had first published his theory of natural selection in 1859, and by the 1920s, many standard textbooks contained information about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Fundamentalist Protestants targeted evolution as representative of all that was wrong with urban society. Tennessee’s Butler Act made it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower form of animals.”
Primary Source: Photograph
Clarence Darrow, a well known lawyer, came to Dayton to speak up for John Scopes and the teaching of science. The idea of religious leaders being able to decide what could and could not be taught in schools made him angry.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) thought these laws limited the freedom of speech and led the defense of people who believed in evolution. It offered to pay for the lawyer for any Tennessee teacher willing to fight the law in court. That man turned out to be John Scopes, a science teacher and football coach in Dayton, Tennessee. In the spring of 1925, he walked into his classroom and read, from Hunter’s Civic Biology, part of a chapter on the evolution of people and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. His arrest soon followed, and a trial date was set.
Former presidential candidate and fundamentalist leader William Jennings Bryan came to town to defend the Bible. Bryan had been giving speeches across the country about the spread of non-Christian people and how religion had a lower and lower place in schools. He was known for offering $100 to anyone who would admit to being descended from a monkey. Clarence Darrow, a well known lawyer and agnostic, led the defense team. He said that, “Scopes isn’t on trial, civilization is on trial. No man’s belief will be safe if they win.” This made people happy who were afraid that fundamentalists were about to say what Americans could and could not think.
The trial turned into a news event. When the case was opened, journalists from across the country went to the town of Dayton. H. L. Mencken of The Baltimore Sun gave the trial its nickname: the Monkey Trial. Many people came to Dayton to watch. Business people sold everything from food to Bibles to stuffed monkeys. It was the first trial to be broadcast on national radio.
In the end, Scopes was found guilty and had to pay $100. This was never really in question, as Scopes himself had said he broke the law. But the trial provided a lot of excitement. The drama only rose when Darrow made the unusual choice of calling Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. Knowing of Bryan’s beliefs of a literal reading of the Bible, Darrow gave him a series of questions designed to put down such a belief. In the end, people who approved of the teaching of evolution saw Bryan as foolish, but many Americans thought the cross-examination an insulting attack on the Bible and their religion.
The Scopes Monkey Trial was not the only evidence that fundamentalist Christian belief was growing in the 1920s among rural (countryside) and White Americans. Another example of this change was the arrival of Billy Sunday as a national figure. As a young man, Sunday had gained fame as a baseball player. Later, he became more famous as the nation’s most followed evangelist, drawing huge numbers of people at camp meetings around the country. He was one of the most influential evangelists of the time and knew some of the richest and most powerful families in the country. Sunday called for many Americans around fundamentalist religion and got support for making alcohol illegal. Seeing that Sunday was popular, Bryan tried to bring him to Dayton for the Scopes trial, but Sunday refused.
Even more amazing than the rise of Billy Sunday was the popularity of Aimee McPherson, a Canadian Pentecostal preacher. She led the Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and spoke to the large number of Midwestern people who had moved to California. Her message promoted the fundamental truths of the Bible. Her message was old, but her style was new. Dressed in tight-fitting clothes and wearing makeup, she held radio-broadcast services in large places that looked like concert halls and put on spectacular faith-healing performances. Putting together Hollywood style and modern technology with a message of fundamentalist Christianity.
Primary Source: Photograph
The Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles was the center of Aimee Semple McPherson’s Foursquare Church. It is still open today.
After many decades of hard work, the Temperance Movement finally succeeded in making alcohol illegal in the United States when, on October 28, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was implemented through the Volstead Act, which first started on January 17, 1920. A total of 1,520 Prohibition agents from three separate federal agencies, the Coast Guard, the Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service Bureau of Prohibition, and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prohibition, were tasked with enforcing the new law.
The work to make people follow the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act was always difficult. Outlawing drugs, especially a drug like alcohol that has a long history of use, is a hard mix of police work and changing public opinion. With the job of enforcing the law separated between different police groups, it was hard to know who was in charge in what areas, and who was responsible for what jobs. The land also make the job hard. America is a nation with many places to hide illegal brewing and alcohol making operations. To make things worse, Canada and Mexico did not ban alcohol and the long borders with Canada and Mexico made it very difficult to stop bootleggers from bringing alcohol into the country.
While making, selling, and transporting of alcohol was illegal, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed private people to make wine and cider from fruit, but not beer, in their homes. Up to 200 gallons per year could be produced. Some vineyards grow grapes they said was for home use. Also, the words of the act did not say people could not drink alcohol. Many people saved alcohol during the ending part of 1919 before selling it became illegal in January 1920. As Prohibition went on, people began to see it as an example of class divisions, since it unfairly favored the rich who could afford to buy a lot at one time.
Primary Source: Photograph
Police officers dump illegal alcohol during the 1920s.
The rift between the Dries, who favored prohibition, and the Wets who wanted to make alcohol drinking and selling again, depended on the old debate over whether drinking was right or wrong. This fight over what is the right thing to do during the age of prohibition led to more crime. People who wanted to make alcohol illegal did not know they were causing more crime. Large criminal organizations that controlled the illegal making and sale of alcohol grew in the 1920s. Powerful gangs paid police officers and politicians, and threatened others. These criminals make $3 billion each year, none of which was taxed, and changed cities into battlegrounds between bootlegging gangs.
Chicago, the largest city in the Midwest and one of the United State’s great big cities along with New York and Los Angeles, became a home for people who ignored Prohibition. Many of Chicago’s most famous gangsters, including Al Capone and his enemy Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the 1920s, Capone controlled all 10,000 Chicago speakeasies which were illegal nightclubs where alcohol was sold, and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Many other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activity in Chicago and other cities.
THE EFFECTS OF PROHIBITION
Making alcohol illegal changed music in the United States, most of all it changed jazz. Illegal drinking places became more popular during the time of prohibition than bars had been, which is one reason a lot of jazz musicians from New Orleans moved to big northern cities such as Chicago and New York. As jazz was played in more cities, different kinds of jazz developed in different cities. In this way, prohibition may have also helped to make it easier for mixing of Blacks and Whites, as African American musicians spent time with White listeners.
Prohibition also changed the way men and women acted. As the old type of bars began to die out and more people went to speakeasies, public drinking was no longer just for men. For alcohol sellers, who wanted to grow the size of their market, they started to advertise to women also.
By the 1930s, the Great Depression had settled over the country. Millions of Americans were out of work and times were hard. Americans were ready for a drink. On December 5, 1933, ratification of the 21st Amendment ended the 18th Amendment. As Prohibition ended, some of its supporters, including John D. Rockefeller, agreed that it had failed.
In a positive ending, however, the overall drinking of alcohol dropped and remained below pre-Prohibition levels. In the end, the Temperance Movement succeeded in reducing, if not stopping, the drinking of alcohol in America.
Clearly prohibition failed. Americans simply did not want to be told they could not drink alcohol. In fact, prohibition of alcohol did not lead Americans to give up alcohol, it made us drinkers who also had to put up with more crime.
In the case of the Butler Act, fundamentalists were unable to make laws to tell Americans what they could and could not think about where humans came from, and in the case of the KKK, they failed to turn the entire nation against immigrants, Jews, Catholics and African Americans.
All of this work to make people think worked in some ways, but not fully. On the other hand, some laws such as those that stop crime, are still with us today and seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping people from hurting others.
What do you think? Can laws make us moral?
BIG IDEA: The 1920s was a time when there were major conflicts between Americans about what was right and wrong.
Fueled partly by the popularity of a movie celebrating the Ku Klux Klan in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the KKK became popular and quite common in the 1920s. They targeted their hatred on African Americans, immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Although the Klan’s leaders promised to be non-violent, in reality the members of the Klan carried out numerous lynching and other forms of terrorism.
The 1920s saw the rise of Christian Fundamentalism who reacted to new inventions and excitement about science by teaching that truth can be found in the Bible. Most importantly, they focused on preventing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution from being taught in public schools because it conflicted with the Biblical story of creation.
Although some Americans wanted their children to learn the Bible’s version of creation in public school, others did not like it that Christian teachings were being enacted into law. In 1925, a great court case showed off the conflict between these modernists and traditionalists. In Tennessee, the Butler Act had made it illegal to teach any version of creation other than the story found in the Bible. When John Scopes taught Darwin’s theory he was arrested.
Great lawyers came to try the case, and although Scopes lost (it was obvious he had broken the law), the nation watched with great interest as the Bible itself seemed to be on trial.
Other leaders tapped into a growing interest in traditional religion. Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPhereson both built large followings as they toured the nation speaking to large audiences.
The 1920s are also remembered as the era of Prohibition. Beginning in 1919, alcohol was illegal in the United States. Preventing people from making, selling, buying and drinking alcohol was incredibly difficult. Although Prohibition was supposed to reduce crime, crime actually became more common as gangs fought each other over control of the making and distribution of illegal alcohol. Most famous of these was Al Capone’s gang in Chicago. Police forces, who were supposed to enforce the laws, often were paid by bar owners to look the other way, or simply ignored the law since they wanted to drink also. Finally, after 14 years, the 21st Amendment made alcohol legal again.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Ku Klux Klan (KKK): Racist organization based in the South that terrorized African Americans after the Civil War and helped establish the system of Jim Crow. They were also anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. The organization experienced a revival in the 1920s and again during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Anti-Defamation League: Jewish organization that works against anti-Semitism.
Modernists: People who embrace science and changes as positive influences on society. In the 1920s they were concentrated in cities.
Traditionalists: People who rejected changes and embraced traditional values, especially Christianity instead of science. In the 1920s they were concentrated in rural areas and the South.
Charles Darwin: British naturalist who proposed the Theory of Evolution and wrote the book “On the Origin of Species.”
Fundamentalists: People who embraced the Bible and traditional Christian teachings and rejected scientific theories that contradict the Bible. Rural areas and the Bible Belt in the South are the heart of this thinking.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Organization that provides lawyers to defend people they believe have had their basic rights violated. For example, they defend freedom of speech cases and in the 1920s, helped defend John Scopes.
John Scopes: High school biology teacher in Tennessee who was accused of violating the Butler Act. His trial became a symbol of the conflict between modernists and traditionalists during the 1920s.
William Jennings Bryan: Former populist and democratic presidential candidate who became the primary champion of traditionalist and fundamentalists in the 1920s. He promoted laws such as the Butler Act and led the prosecution at the Scopes Trial.
Clarence Darrow: Famous attorney in the 1920s who rejected traditionalism as an encroachment on individual freedom of belief and led the defense of John Scopes.
Billy Sunday: Former baseball star and widely followed evangelist preacher during the 1920s. He promoted fundamentalism and prohibition.
Aimee Semple McPherson: Preacher from Los Angeles during the 1920s who helped promote fundamentalism. She was famous for broadcasting her services on the radio and wearing fashionable cloths while preaching, as well as series of scandalous love affairs.
Bootleggers: People who imported illegal alcohol during prohibition.
Dries: People who supported prohibition.
Wets: People who opposed prohibition.
Al Capone: Nicknamed “Scarface,” he was the most famous gangster during the era of prohibition. He ran the illegal alcohol operation in Chicago and although was renowned for violence, eventually went to jail for tax evasion.
Lynching: Illegal hanging by a mob. It is a term most commonly used when White mobs hung African American men and was common throughout the South during the Jim Crow era.
Theory of Evolution: Theory proposed by Charles Darwin that all life is the result of evolution. Teaching this theory was outlawed in Tennessee by the Butler Act.
Scopes “Monkey” Trial: Trial of biology teacher John Scopes in 1925 that became a visible symbol of the conflict between modernists and traditionalists.
Speakeasy: A bar where illegal alcohol was sold during prohibition.
The Birth of a Nation: 1915 movie by D. W. Griffith that glorified the history of the KKK in the years after the Civil War. It helped revive the KKK during the 1920s.
Butler Act: Law passed in the 1920s in Tennessee that banned the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. John Scopes was charged with violating this law.
18th Amendment: Amendment to the constitution that outlawed alcohol and established prohibition.
Volstead Act: 1919 law that implemented the 18th Amendment and made alcohol illegal, thus initiation prohibition.
21st Amendment: Amendment to the Constitution ratified in 1933 that ended prohibition by repealing the 18th Amendment.