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Nativism and fundamentalism in the 1920s

In the 1920s, a backlash against immigrants and modernism led to the original culture wars. 

Overview

  • The old and the new came into sharp conflict in the 1920s. While many Americans celebrated the emergence of modern technologies and less restrictive social norms, others strongly objected to the social changes of the 1920s.
  • In many cases, this divide was geographic as well as philosophical; city dwellers tended to embrace the cultural changes of the era, whereas those who lived in rural towns clung to traditional norms.
  • The Sacco and Vanzetti trial in Massachusetts and the Scopes trial in Tennessee revealed many Americans’ fears and suspicions about immigrants, radical politics, and the ways in which new scientific theories might challenge traditional Christian beliefs.

Transformation and backlash in the 1920s

While prosperous, middle-class Americans found much to celebrate about a new era of leisure and consumption, many Americans—often those in rural areas—disagreed on the meaning of a “good life” and how to achieve it. They reacted to the rapid social changes of modern urban society with a vigorous defense of religious values and a fearful rejection of cultural diversity and equality.

Nativism in the early twentieth century

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, immigration into the United States rocketed to never-before-seen heights. Many of these new immigrants were coming from eastern and southern Europe and for many English-speaking, native-born Americans of northern European descent the growing diversity of new languages, customs, and religions triggered anxiety and racial animosity.
In reaction, some embraced nativism, prizing white Americans with older family trees over more recent immigrants and rejecting outside influences in favor of their own local customs. Nativists also stoked a sense of fear over the perceived foreign threat, pointing to the anarchist assassinations of the Spanish prime minister in 1897, the Italian king in 1900, and even President William McKinley in 1901 as proof. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917, the sense of an inevitable foreign or communist threat grew among those already predisposed to distrust immigrants.
The sense of fear and anxiety over the rising tide of immigration came to a head with the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were accused of participating in a robbery and murder in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. There was no direct evidence linking them to the crime, but—in addition to being immigrants—both men were anarchists who favored the destruction of the American market-based, capitalistic society through violence. At their trial, the district attorney emphasized Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical views, and the jury found them guilty on July 14, 1921.
Despite subsequent motions and appeals based on ballistics testing, recanted testimony, and an ex-convict’s confession, both men were executed on August 23, 1927.
1923 photograph of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Photograph of Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, 1923. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Opinions on the trial and judgment tended to divide along nativist-immigrant lines, with immigrants supporting the innocence of the condemned pair. The verdict sparked protests from Italian and other immigrant groups as well as from noted intellectuals such as writer John Dos Passos, satirist Dorothy Parker, and famed physicist Albert Einstein. Muckraker Upton Sinclair based his indictment of the American justice system, the “documentary novel” Boston, on Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial, which he considered a gross miscarriage of justice.
One of the most articulate critics of the trial was then-Harvard Law School professor Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to be appointed to the US Supreme Court by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. In 1927, six years after the trial, he wrote in The Atlantic, “By systematic exploitation of the defendants’ alien blood, their imperfect knowledge of English, their unpopular social views, and their opposition to the war, the District Attorney invoked against them a riot of political passion and patriotic sentiment; and the trial judge connived at—one had almost written, cooperated in—the process.”
To “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 introduced numerical limits on European immigration for the first time in US history. These limits were based on a quota system that restricted annual immigration from any given country to 3% of the residents from that same country as counted in the 1910 census. The National Origins Act of 1924 went even further, lowering the level to 2% of the 1890 census, significantly reducing the share of eligible southern and eastern Europeans since they had only begun to arrive in the United States in large numbers in the 1890s. Both labor unions and the Ku Klux Klan supported the bill. When President Coolidge signed it into law, he declared, “America must be kept American.”

Faith, fundamentalism, and science

The negative opinion many native-born Americans held toward immigration was in part a response to the process of postwar urbanization. Cities were swiftly becoming centers of opportunity, but the growth of cities—especially the growth of immigrant populations in those cities—sharpened rural discontent over the perception of rapid cultural change. As more of the population flocked to cities for jobs and quality of life, many left behind in rural areas felt that their way of life was being threatened. To rural Americans, the ways of the city seemed sinful and extravagant. Urbanites, for their part, viewed rural Americans as hayseeds who were hopelessly behind the times.
In this urban-rural conflict, Tennessee lawmakers drew a battle line over the issue of evolution and its contradiction of the accepted, biblical explanation of history. 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 order of animals."
The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, hoped to challenge the Butler Act as an infringement of the freedom of speech. As a defendant, the ACLU enlisted teacher and coach John Scopes, who suggested that he may have taught evolution while substituting for an ill biology teacher. Town leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, for their part, sensed an opportunity to promote their town—which had lost more than one-third of its population—and welcomed the ACLU to stage a test case against the Butler Act. The ACLU and the town got their wish. The "Scopes Monkey Trial," as it was publicized by the newspapers, quickly turned into a carnival that captured the attention of the country and epitomized the nation’s urban-rural divide.
A photograph shows a group of men reading literature that is displayed outside of a building. The building bears a large sign reading “T. T. Martin, Headquarters / Anti-Evolution League / ‘The Conflict’-‘Hell and the High School.’”
During the Scopes Monkey Trial, supporters of the Butler Act read literature at the headquarters of the Anti-Evolution League in Dayton, Tennessee. Image credit: OpenStaxCollege
Fundamentalist champion William Jennings Bryan argued the case for the prosecution. Bryan was a three-time presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State until 1915, at which point he began preaching across the country about the spread of secularism and the declining role of religion in education. He was known for offering $100 to anyone who would admit to being descended from an ape. Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer and outspoken agnostic, led the defense team. His statement that, “Scopes isn’t on trial, civilization is on trial. No man’s belief will be safe if they win,” struck a chord in society.
The outcome of the trial, in which Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, was never really in question, as Scopes himself had confessed to violating the law. Nevertheless, the trial itself proved to be high drama. The drama only escalated when Darrow made the unusual choice of calling Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. Knowing of Bryan’s convictions of a literal interpretation of the Bible, Darrow peppered him with a series of questions designed to ridicule such a belief. The result was that those who approved of the teaching of evolution saw Bryan as foolish, whereas many rural Americans considered the cross-examination an attack on the Bible and their faith.

What do you think?

Why do you think there was a backlash against modernity in the 1920s?
Why do you think the American government passed laws limiting immigration in the 1920s?
Why do you think the issue of evolution became a flashpoint for cultural and religious conflict?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Zachary Green
    why was there nativism in the 1920s
    (4 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Keira
      There has always been nativism, in many time periods, including now :(, immigrants have not been welcome. So, it comes to no shock when the nativism is shown to also be a problem in the 1920s.
      (3 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Joshua
    In the Transformation and backlash in the 1920s, what does it mean by "fearful rejection"
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      We can reject things for many reasons. Some of the reasons for the rejections by fundamentalists and nativists were because these people were afraid.
      Not everything believed by fundamentalists and nativists is based on fear, but enough of the rejections in the 1920s WERE based on fear to make it worth mentioning in the lesson.
      (5 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Liam
    Would the matter of both nativism and religious fundamentalism be considered a response to the new urbanised America that was developing at the time?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      The fundamentalism can be better considered a response to the horrors of WWI and the involvement in international affairs, although it was partially a response to the new, modern, urban, and science-based society, as shown in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Jacob Aznavoorian
    who opposed nativism in the 1920s and why?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Nativism posited white people whose ancestors had come to the Americas from northern Europe as "true Americans". So Italian-americans, Portuguese-americans, Greek-americans, Syrian-americans, Eastern european-americans, African-americans, Hispanic-americans (in short, people of color) opposed nativism.

      Fundamentalists posited a very narrow understanding of their religion (in the 1920's, fundamentalists were generally Protestant Christians, though there were also Catholic Christian fundamentalists then, and fundamentalism is not particularly Christian. There are fundamentalist Hindus in India, fundamentalist Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Fundamentalist Jews in Israel & Brooklyn, and fundamentalist Muslims in Saudi Arabia). Anyway, thinking believers oppose fundamentalism wherever they are, and whatever religion or non-religion that they believe.
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Christian Yeboah
    what was the cause and effect of the Scopes Trial?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The cause was that a scientific theory (natural selection) challenged the beliefs of the legislators in Tennessee, who outlawed the teaching of that theory. In the eventual trial, those legislators were "made monkeys of". This year, 2021, legislatures in many states are mounting a similar offensive against critical race theory. These will also be made monkeys of.
      (1 vote)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Mona J Law
    I never fully understood why Scopes went on trial. Can someone help me understand why he went on trial?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      The article mentions the Butler Act, which was a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. John Scopes broke this law when he taught a class he was a substitute for about evolution. The trial was exacerbated and publicized to draw attention to Dayton, Tennessee, as well as the fundamentalism vs. evolution argument.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user hailey jade🖤🩶🤍💜
    Why not just put them in camps, make sure they're not against democracy then let them go? They must have had families.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user jb268536
    What happen in 1920.
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Grant Race-car
    why nativesm a ting
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gonzalezaaliyah
    How did America make its feelings about nativism and isolationism known?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      One of the most apparent ways was to refuse to join the league of nations. Harding worked to preserve the peace through international cooperation and the reduction of armaments around the world. Despite the refusal of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Harding was able to work with Germany and Austria to secure a formal peace. He convened a conference in Washington that brought world leaders together to agree on reducing the threat of future wars by reducing armaments. Out of these negotiations came a number of treaties designed to foster cooperation in the Far East, reduce the size of navies around the world, and establish guidelines for submarine usage. These agreements ultimately fell apart in the 1930s, as the world descended into war again. But, at the time, they were seen as a promising path to maintaining the peace. https://philschatz.com/us-history-book/contents/m50153.html
      (1 vote)