The 1920s: Life in These United States

As the new decade began, Warren G. Harding took over the presidency after campaigning to return America to normalcy. On November 2, 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the presidential election results. This spawned not only a new industry, but also a new way to disseminate news about the nation, its leaders, and its current events. Harding was the first president to address the nation using this new medium.

In keeping with his promise, Harding was a hands-off president who delegated much authority. Unfortunately, his trusted advisors sullied the administration with numerous scandals (Teapot Dome being the greatest). But before Harding could be impeached for any wrongdoing, he died in office in 1923, amid speculation of foul play. Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office and restored trust in the executive branch. Great prosperity prevailed; Coolidge felt no need to interfere with the economy. This attitude encouraged speculation in the stock market, and as often occurs in boom times, many lived beyond their means.

The Teapot Dome scandal, named after an oil field in Wyoming, involves United States Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall leasing the rights to public oil fields to private oil companies (without competitive bid-ding) in exchange for thousands of dollars. Fall was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison making him the first cabinet member to go to jail for his actions while in office.

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties received this distinction because of the outrageousness of the times. Prohibition restricted many people's lifestyles, tempting them to disobey the law. Illegal “speakeasy” bars flourished along with gangsters and organized crime.

The mindsets of many also changed. Cultural influences originated at the movies, in the work of well-known writers, and on Broadway. The 1920s served as the golden era for New York theater, which in prior decades had consisted of farces, melodramas, and musicals, but nothing of much literary merit. The Roaring Twenties spawned playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill and Noel Coward. Their creativity was welcomed. Also, a new style of music hit the nation with its African-American folk rhythms combined with popular and European music. W. C. Handy, a black musician, was unable to attract a music publisher for his song “St. Louis Blues,” so he published it himself in 1914. Forever after, his sound was known as jazz.

The Jazz Era, which many say first took hold in New Orleans, flourished with talented musicians such as Louis Armstrong. As African-Americans migrated north for better industrial jobs, it caught hold in Chicago and in Harlem, a section of New York City that was undergoing its own renaissance.

The Radio

After KDKA broadcast the election results, radio took hold. Prior to World War I, amateur operators in dozens of cities regularly transmitted music and speech, but the war ended all that. As peace fell on the nation, the activity resurfaced, and radio as an industry blossomed. In 1925, WSM Radio in Nashville, Tennessee, began airing barn dance music, which would later become known as the Grand Ole Opry. In 1927, Congress expanded the Radio Act of 1912 to reflect this new industry, no longer run by amateurs but by commercial enterprises. Later, in 1934, it would be revised again with the creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider license applications and renewals for radio stations. The FCC also set guidelines for obscenity and false claims in advertising.

For years the Anti-Saloon League of America (ASL) had urged saloonkeepers to give up their businesses. By 1900, millions of men and women regarded drinking alcoholic beverages as a dangerous threat to families and society. On December 22, 1917, Congress submitted to the states the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” By January 1919, ratification was complete.

A Test of the Constitution

The 1925 trial of a biology teacher named John Scopes, who had been arrested for teaching theories of evolution that contradicted the biblical version of creation, was another famous broadcasting moment. In his state of Tennessee, the law banned teaching any information that conflicted with the biblical account. Those who could not travel to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, could listen to the live broadcast. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) named defense lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent Scopes in the carnival-like atmosphere that the trial created.

Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan led the battle for the fundamentalists. Whether Scopes received a fair trial (a prayer opened each court session, and expert evolutionists were banned from taking the stand) is unclear. Scopes was found guilty, but was fined only $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the local court's decision, citing a technicality. Although it never reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Scopes trial served to showcase many freedoms in the Bill of Rights — the freedoms of speech, religion, and the separation of church and state.

Immigration Policies Are Tightened

The 1924 Immigration Act became another controversial political issue stemming from the Red Scare, for it set quotas on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Many in the mass wave of immigration originated from southern and eastern European countries. The American labor unions became concerned that continued immigration would threaten their jobs. Congress responded by passing the act, which limited immigration to 2 percent of each nationality present in the United States in the year 1880. This year was chosen mainly because at that time there were very few people of Far Eastern and East European descent present in the United States, thus severely limiting further influx.

This was a turning point for the country. No longer were the huddled masses ensured a home in America, land of the free. Years later, the Immigration Act of 1965 put an end to national quotas for immigration, making individual talents and skills or close relationships with U.S. citizens a better basis for admittance.

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