The 1920s are often called the Roaring Twenties because to many the decade seemed to be one long party. Many urban Americans celebrated the new “modern” culture. However, many rural Americans believed traditional society was under attack. Nativism and racism increased, women sought to break free of traditional roles, and supporters of the new morality clashed with those who supported more traditional values.

Nativism and Immigration Policies

Why did nativism strengthen during the 1920s, and how did the government deal with the tensions?

The 1920s was a time of economic growth, but it was also a time of turmoil. An economic recession, an influx of immigrants, and cultural tensions combined to create an atmosphere of disillusionment and intolerance. The fear and prejudice many felt toward Germans and Communists during and after World War I expanded to include all immigrants. This triggered a general rise in racism and nativism—a belief that one’s native land needs to be protected against immigrants.

During World War I, immigration to the United States had dropped sharply. By 1921, however, it had returned to prewar levels, with the majority of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe. Many Americans blamed the bombings, strikes, and recession of the postwar years on immigrants. Many believed immigrants were taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to soldiers returning home from the war.

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

The Sacco-Vanzetti case reflected the prejudices and fears of the era. On April 15, 1920, two men robbed and murdered two employees of a shoe factory in Massachusetts. Police subsequently arrested two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for the crime.

The case created a furor when newspapers revealed that the two men were anarchists, or people who oppose all forms of government. They also reported that Sacco owned a gun similar to the murder weapon and that the bullets used in the murders matched those in Sacco’s gun. The evidence was questionable, but the fact that the accused men were anarchists and foreigners led many people to assume they were guilty, including the jury. On July 14, 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and sentenced to death. After six years of appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

"I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph."

— Bartolomeo Vanzetti before his execution, The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, 2007

Return of the Ku Klux Klan

The group that most wanted to restrict immigration was the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. The old KKK began in the South after the Civil War and used threats and violence to intimidate newly freed African Americans. The new Klan also targeted Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and other groups said to be “un-American.” William J. Simmons founded the new Ku Klux Klan in 1915, with a pledge to preserve America’s white, Protestant civilization. With the help of professional promoters to sell Klan memberships, more and more people joined. By 1924, membership was close to 4 million as it spread beyond the South into the North and West.

Klan membership began to decline in the late 1920s, mainly due to scandals and power struggles among its leaders. In addition, new restrictions on immigration deprived the Klan of one of its major issues.

National Origins Act

American immigration policies became more restrictive in response to nativist groups like the KKK. Even some business leaders, who had favored immigration as a source of cheap labor, now saw the new immigrants as radicals. In 1921 President Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act, which restricted annual admission to the United States by ethnic group. In 1924 the National Origins Act made immigration restriction a permanent policy. The law set quotas at 2 percent of each national group represented in the U.S. Census of 1890—long before the heavy wave of Catholic and Jewish immigration from southern and eastern Europe. As a result, new quotas deliberately favored immigrants from northwestern Europe.

Increasing Mexican Immigration

Employers still needed immigrants, a source of cheap labor, for agriculture, mining, and railroad work. Mexican immigrants could fill this need because the National Origins Act exempted natives of the Western Hemisphere from the quotas. Large numbers of Mexican immigrants had already begun moving to the United States due to the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. The act funded irrigation projects in the Southwest and led to the creation of large farms that needed thousands of workers. By the end of the 1920s, nearly 700,000 Mexicans had migrated to the United States.

A Clash of Cultures


Why do you think some Americans feared the “new morality”?

Groups that wanted to restrict immigration also wanted to preserve what they considered to be traditional values. They feared that a “new morality” was taking over. This trend glorified youth and personal freedom and brought big changes—particularly to the status of women.

Changes for Women

Having won the right to vote in 1920, many women sought to break free from traditional roles. Women who attended college often found support to pursue careers. Many working-class women took jobs because they needed the wages, but work was also a way to break away from parental authority and establish financial independence. Romance, pleasure, and friendship became linked to successful marriages. Sigmund Freud’s theories also affected people’s ideas about relationships, especially his theories about human sexuality. Women’s fashions changed during the 1920s: women “bobbed,” or shortened, their hair and wore flesh-colored silk stockings. Some women, known as flappers, smoked cigarettes, drank prohibited liquor, and wore makeup and sleeveless dresses with short skirts.

Many professional women made major contributions in science, medicine, law, and literature. In medicine, Florence Sabin’s research led to a dramatic drop in death rates from tuberculosis. Public-health nurse Margaret Sanger believed that families could improve their standard of living by limiting the number of children they had. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921 to promote knowledge about birth control. During the 1920s and 1930s, the use of birth control increased dramatically, particularly in the middle class.

Religious Fundamentalism

While many Americans embraced the new morality of the 1920s, others feared that the country was losing its traditional values. They viewed the consumer culture, relaxed ethics, and changing roles of women as evidence of the nation’s moral decline. Many of these people, especially in rural towns, responded by joining a religious movement known as Fundamentalism, a name derived from a series of Christian religious pamphlets titled The Fundamentals, published by millionaire Lyman Stewart.

Fundamentalists believed that the Bible was literally true and without error. They defended the Protestant faith against ideas implying that human beings derived their moral behavior from society and nature, not God. In particular,  they rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which said that human beings had developed from lower forms of life over the course of millions of years. Instead, they believed in creationism—the belief that God created the world as described in the Bible.

Two popular evangelical preachers, Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, stirred supporters by preaching in very nontraditional ways. Sunday, a former professional baseball player, drew huge crowds with his rapid-fire sermons and on-stage showmanship. McPherson conducted her revivals and faith healings in Los Angeles in a flamboyant theatrical style, using stage sets and costumes that expressed the themes of her highly emotional sermons.

In 1925 Tennessee outlawed any teaching that denied “the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible,” or taught that “man descended from a lower order of animals.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised for a teacher willing to be arrested for teaching evolution. John T. Scopes, a biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered. At Scopes’s trial, William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, was the prosecutor representing the creationists. Clarence Darrow, one of the country’s most celebrated trial lawyers, defended Scopes. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. The trial had been broadcast over the radio, and Darrow’s blistering cross-examination of Bryan hurt the Fundamentalist cause.

"You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free."

—Clarence Darrow, address to the court in People v. Lloyd, 1920


The movement to ban alcohol sales grew stronger in the early 1900s. When the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January 1920, the Volstead Act gave the U.S. Treasury Department the power to enforce Prohibition, marking a dramatic increase in federal police powers.

In the 1920s, Treasury Department agents made more than 540,000 arrests, but Americans still ignored the law. People flocked to secret bars called speakeasies to purchase alcohol. Liquor also was readily available in rural areas through bootlegging—the illegal production and distribution of alcohol. Huge profits could be made smuggling liquor from Canada and the Caribbean. Organized crime became big business, and gangsters used their money to corrupt local politicians. Al Capone, one of the most successful and well-known gangsters of the era, had many police officers, judges, and other officials on his payroll.

The battle to repeal Prohibition began almost as soon as the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. The Twenty-first Amendment, ratified in 1933, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. Though diseases and some social problems were reduced, Prohibition did not improve society as dramatically as its supporters had hoped.

Reviewing Vocabulary



Using Your Notes



Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 6A, 13B

TEKS: 26C, 26D


Writing About History

TEKS: 5A, 6A