Nativism and fundamentalism in the 1920s


In the 1920s, a backlash against immigrants and modernism led to the original culture wars. Many Americans celebrated the emergence of modern technologies and less restrictive social norms, while others strongly objected to the social changes.

City residents were more likely to accept cultural changes, whereas those who lived in rural towns lived by traditional norms.

The Sacco and Vanzetti trial in Massachusetts and the Scopes trial in Tennessee revealed many Americans’ fears of immigrants, radical politics, and the ways in which new scientific theories might challenge traditional Christian beliefs.

Transformation and backlash in the 1920s

Many middle-class Americans discovered a new era of leisure and consumerism. In contrast, other Americans—especially in rural areas—reacted to the rapid social changes by clinging to religious values. They often rejected the concepts of cultural diversity and equality.

Nativism in the early twentieth century

From the late nineteenth century, immigration into the United States exploded. Many of these new immigrants were coming from eastern and southern Europe. English-speaking immigrants and native-born Americans reacted to the growing cultural diversity with growing racism and suspicion.

Some Anglos embraced nativism, which valued white Americans with roots in the United States over more recent immigrants. Nativists promoted a sense of fear over a perceived foreign threat. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, the United States was swept by a growing sense of an inevitable foreign or communist threat, especially among people who already distrusted immigrants.

One 1920 trial best illustrates nativists’ fears. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were accused of participating in a robbery and murder in Braintree, Massachusetts. There was no direct evidence linking them to the crime. They were suspects because both men were immigrants and anarchists who favored the destruction of the American market-based, capitalistic society through violence. The district attorney emphasized Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical views, and the jury found them guilty. Some evidence in their defense was not allowed. Both men were executed in 1927. Public reaction to the trial tended to divide along nativist-immigrant lines.

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 placed numerical limits on European immigration to the United States. These acts significantly reduced the number of eligible southern and eastern European immigrants. Both labor unions and the Ku Klux Klan supported the bills. President Coolidge declared, “America must be kept American.”

Source: Nativism and fundamentalism in the 1920s
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