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The Turbulent 20's - Roaring or Snoring?

The 1920's were an odd time. On one hand we called it the roaring 20's. America experienced a time of great wealth and new modern ideas. The role of women changed, sports and entertainment stars were celebrated and modern technology changed America's landscape. On the other hand, however, America remained fiercely conservative and religious. We feared public dissent and rural America attempted to turn back the clock of progress. The reality is that America was a divided nation.

While the US was at war with the Triple Alliance many citizens opposed the war. The government felt that opposition to government policies in time of war threatened our national security. Restrictive laws such as the Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed in order to silence opposition. Many outspoken people were jailed. It was a time of great national crisis and the Constitution was thoroughly tested.

A. What were the Espionage and Sedition Acts? (1917)

1. Persons who commit the following acts may be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 20 years:

a. willfully cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military forces . (Espionage Act)

b. prohibited disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive remarks about the form of government, flag or uniform of the United States. It even prohibited the opposition to the purchase of war bonds. (not investment advice!) (Sedition Act)

B. What was the result of the Espionage Acts during World War I?

1. Eugene V. Debs, arrested and convicted for opposing the war, 10 years. Gained over a million votes in a run for President while he was in prison.

2. Charles Schenck, member of the Socialist Party, sentenced to 15 years for publishing pamphlets urging citizens to refuse to participate in the draft. He called the draft slavery, among other things.

C. How were the Espionage and Sedition Acts challenged?

(Schenck v The United States)

1. Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, passed by Congress in 1914. The Espionage Act made it illegal to defame the government or do anything that might retard the war effort. Schenck, a member of the Socialist Party, opposed the war and printed and distributed pamphlets urging citizens to oppose the draft which he likened to slavery. Schenck claimed his first amendment rights were violated.

2. The court ruled against Schenck saying that the Espionage Act did not violate the first amendment and that in times of war the government may place reasonable limitations on freedom of speech. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes outlined the courts opinion by explaining that when a "clear and present danger" existed such as shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom of speech may be limited.

Even though things like the Espionage and Sedition Act occurred the US still became a more modern, faster and wealthier nation.

The 1920's were a time of great social change characterized by apparent prosperity, new ideas, and personal freedom. Known as the "roaring twenties" America was reacting to the depression of the World War. It was like a giant party. New technology, new ideas and great change. Yet under the surface the same conservative values still flourished. The economic boom of the era was short-lived, but most of the social changes were lasting.

 What were some of the manners and moral changes that occurred?

1. America's population generally shifted from rural areas to more urban ones.

More than half of the nations population now lived in cities and towns.

2. Urban communities life was now unquestionably lively and stimulating. There were many things to see-museums, art exhibits, plays, athletic events, trade expositions, and the like.

3. New ideas in science were examined and often accepted. Of course this was the case in the cities more so than in the small towns. In small town America most people remained relatively conservative. (See Scopes Monkey Trial) People now tended to be judged on their accomplishments rather than on their social background.

As life in the United States began to undergo changes, many felt the gnawing insecurity associated with change. The heroic person who could face the trials of competition or the dangers of the unknown became larger than life. The hero had come up against the strongest adversaries and won. For people living in uncertain times, the hero was proof that a brave and strong-willed man or woman could win out over fears of the unknown or the impossible.


What qualities seem to have been idolized in the 1920's?

1. Writers Speak for the twenties

A. F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side Of Paradise and The Great Gatsby. He won instant acclaim as the spokesman for the twenties generation. In these novels and others, he described the confusion and tragedy caused by a frantic search for material success.

B. Ernest Hemingway expressed disgust with prewar codes of behavior and the glorification of war. He also developed a clear, straightforward prose that set a new, tough, "hard-boiled" literary style

2. Sport Heroes

A. Babe Ruth - Perhaps the greatest baseball player who ever lived. He led the Yankees to seven world series and his record for Home Runs (Total and in a season - 60) stood for years. Ruth was a media icon and fan favorite.

B. Harold Edward "Red" Grange - College football hero, this running back drew tens of thousands to watch him play and helped popularize college football.

C. Jack Dempsey - One of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Lost a dramatic title match to Gene Tunney.

D. Bill Tilden and Helen Wills--Tennis champions who epitomized grace and poise. These star athletes helped popularize the sport of tennis.

E. Johnny Weismuller - Olympic gold medal winning swimmer who later starred in Hollywood as Tarzan Lord of the Jungle.

 

3. Other important Heroes

A. Charles A. Lindbergh--He flew a nonstop flight from New York to Paris in thirty-three and a half hours. He was the man who epitomized heroism in the twenties. Lindbergh became a world and national hero who characterized courage and doing the impossible.

B. Louis Armstrong--a trumpeter who played the first jazz heard north of Mason-Dixon line.

C. W. E. B. Du Bois--founder of the NAACP and worked hard to improve the lives of blacks in America.


How Did the Role of Women Change in the 1920's?

During World War 1, women served their country in almost every possible capacity. They took jobs in steel foundries, chemical plants, and munitions factories. Many went overseas as nurses in the newly created Army Corps of Nurses. Their experiences away from home and traditional women's work gave them a strong moral argument for the right to vote. The many tactics of the women and the shameful way they were treated finally forced Congress to deal with the issue. President Wilson, finally declared himself in favor of woman suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on August 26th 1920.

Many women's styles changed as well. The popular hair style of the time was for women's hair to be cut short into a bob. These modern women were known as "flappers."

Between 1910 and 1930 the proportion of women in the labor force remained at about 20 percent. However, there was a notable change in the kinds of work that some women did. The number of female cooks, dress makers, household servants, and farm hands dropped. The number of women doctors, bankers, lawyers, police and probation officer, social workers, and hairdressers rose.

For all the changes in status during the twenties, it was still generally accepted-even by most women-that "woman's place is in the home." Men should earn more than women, it was thought, because usually they supported wives and children. Women workers generally were single. In some states, women teachers who married lost their jobs.

SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL

he 1920's was not all "roaring" as we shall see. There were many, especially those in power who preached conservatism and moderation. America turned towards the right, we were a religious god fearing nation. This religious traditionalism brought about serious constitutional questions, ones that have yet to fully answered.

The Scopes Monkey Trial - 1925 - In 1925 in Dayton Tennessee a group of teachers decided to test a law called the Butler Law. The Butler law made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution and instead mandated the biblical interpretation of creationism. The teachers felt that academic freedom and integrity as well as separation of church and state was at stake. Twenty four year old science teacher and football coach John T. Scopes would teach the class. Knowing he would be arrested Scopes taught the class and set into motion one of the most important trials in American history.

Scopes was arrested, as expected, for violating the Butler Law. At the ensuing trial William Jennings Bryan (Yes, the Populist guy!) acted as special prosecutor. World famous criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. The trial raged on for days. The judge did not allow any of Darrow's scientists to testify and public sentiment in the Bible Belt was against Scopes. Bryan portrayed Darrow as an agnostic and atheist. In desperation Darrow put Bryan himself on the stand. Darrow brilliantly was able to get Bryan to admit that the word of the bible is not literal, it was interpreted. This seemed to destroy the whole case. Darrow asked for immediate judgment and when the jury came back Darrow was shocked...he had lost! The judge levied the minimum fine possible ($100) against Scopes. Later that year the Scopes conviction was overturned on a technicality.

What did all this prove? Well for one it showed the religious and conservative nature of America. It also displayed the vast differences between the big cities and the small towns. The big city newspapers covering the trial scoffed at the Butler Law as small minded and archaic. In the cities Scopes was a hero but in Dayton Tennessee he was a criminal.

America was left with many questions. Were we to be a modern nation, the nation of Lindbergh and the roaring twenties or were we to be the nation of religious right wing conservatives? Only time would tell.


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