CHAPTER 23. PART II. CONSERVATIVE REACTION TO PROGRESSIVISM:
RESURGENCE OF CONSERVATISM IN THE 1920S
ECONOMIC AND DEMOGRAPHIC FORCES
After the end of World War I, as is usual following a war, the people of the United States turned away from world affairs to concentrate on their own personal and family concerns. The immediate post-war period was one of considerable affluence. Disenchantment with world affairs combined with money to spend produced an era of disillusioned play called the Jazz Age.
MIDDLE CLASS THREATENED
Post-war conservatism proved to be extremely conservative indeed. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first was the Russian revolution of October 1917. Many Americans feared that such a revolution might happen in their own country. Another reason for the high degree of conservatism was the rapid influx of immigrants in the decades preceding the war. Further complicating the picture, many of the new immigrants were from southeastern Europe, lands farther away from Great Britain. As the new immigrants poured in, anti-immigration feelings mounted. The result was the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924. The anti-foreigner feeling was especially reflected in the 1924 law. This restricted immigration to no more than 150,000 persons per year (or 1.5 million per decade). It also set quotas, whereby the number of immigrants allowed into the United States from any one foreign country was to be 2 percent of the number of foreign-born Americans of such nationality based on the 1890 census. (Need one point out that the ethnic composition of the United States in 1890 was quite different compared to 1924?)
The increasing immigration led to membership increases in nativist groups. Intolerance was the rule of the day. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence and by 1924 had a membership of nearly four and a half million. Violent racial conflict reached its peak in 1919 (Wilson, 1973:108). In that year more than twenty riots or racial incidents erupted, mostly in the nation's cities. The violence was usually instigated by the whites against the blacks when the blacks reacted negatively to a racial incident. Blacks became so discouraged that they increasingly turned from the goal of assimilation to black nationalism, as in Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement.
At this time in American history it was dangerous to be even thought a radical. During the war Congress passed a Sedition Act. This law gave the secretary of labor the power to deport those aliens and others believing in the overthrow of the government. In this atmosphere a reign of terror prospered -- one much worse than the future McCarthyism following the end of the Korean War. Obviously, there were socialists in the ranks of labor, but the reaction was out of all proportion to the provocation.
The medical problems of President Wilson contributed to this atmosphere of fear. Wilson had always suffered from ill health, but seventeen months before the end of his second term he suffered a cerebral thrombosis that partially paralyzed his left side. He virtually became an invalid. Many observers felt that Mrs. Wilson and the group around her actually ruled the country.
In 1919, under the cover of the drastic war-time sedition act, the overly-aggressive Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer, known as the Fighting Quaker, directed a series of raids in which the forces of the law rounded up communist and socialist leaders for deportation to Russia. On New Year's Day 1920 the attorney general detained some 6,000 people. There were no trials, but many deportations.
EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY (CONSERVATIVE VERSION)
There was an overall rise of conservatism in the nation. This included a reaction against idealistic internationalism (Curti, 1982:668-674). Some authors went so far as to say the war itself had been a mistake. Part of this reaction can be seen in Congress's rejection of Wilson's League of Nations. Complimenting this rise of isolationism was an upswing in rhetoric that glorified the superiority of Americans. Conservative laissez-faire ideas swung back into popularity with many demanding that government keep its hands off American business. In the field of religion, the popular idea that Jesus himself was the prototype of the modern businessman replaced the reform-minded idea of the Social Gospel.
ELECTION OF A CONSERVATIVE PRESIDENT AND A CONSERVATIVE CONGRESS
Warren G. Harding and the Election of 1920
The desire to return to "normalcy" following the war to end all wars was one reason for the election of Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio to the office of the presidency. The choice of Harding gave the nation the most corrupt administration since that of Ulysses S. Grant. Everyone agreed that Harding himself was a "nice man," but when he went to the White House so did his group of intimates known as the "Ohio gang." These men had a field day until corruption became public knowledge. The first revelation was that Harding's pal, "Colonel" Forbes, had been misappropriating monies via his position as director of the Veterans' Bureau. Forbes resigned.
Partly to get away from the worries produced by the scandals, Harding took a trip across the United States and then to Alaska. On the return trip he contracted ptomaine poisoning from eating bad sea food, then got pneumonia, and in August 1923 died of an embolism in San Francisco.
Vice-President Calvin Coolidge became President. Referring to Coolidge's personality, the historian Frederick Lewis Allen (1952:117) described him as "one of the most negative characters ever to attain high American office," but he is exactly what the American public wanted. "Silent Cal" first came to national attention during the Boston police strike of 1919 when he was Governor of Massachusetts. In an exchange of telegrams with Samuel Gompers, the famous labor leader, Coolidge became a national sensation with the statement that "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
Calvin Coolidge and the Election of 1924
Personality-wise, Coolidge may have been deficient, but in spite of the increasing revelations of the Harding scandals, he was able to restore confidence in American government. The man some people said was weaned on a pickle may have been taciturn to the point of frustration, but he was honest. In fact, the people thought so highly of him that they elected him president in his own right in the election of 1924. One reason for his considerable popularity was that he kept the prosperity of the 1920s going strong with his pro-business policies. For instance, he reduced both income and inheritance taxes in his second term.
Herbert Hoover, the Election of 1928, and the Start of the Great Depression
Republican Herbert Hoover became president of the United States in the election of 1928. Not even a year later the stock market crashed, October 29, 1929 and the economy started its quick descent into depression.
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