[Note: This discussion is intended to complement "Passing from Light into Dark." Both deal with issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and national identity as foci of the "culture wars" of the 1920s. This site looks at politics, broadly construed, through the prism of the Klu Klux Klan. Its counterpart looks at popular culture, again construed broadly. My hope is that together they provide a coherent view of some of the key developments of the decade.
I first began serious research into the Klan and the politics of the 1920s when Charles W. Estus, Sr. and I guest curated an exhibition on the "Swedish Creation of an Ethnic Identity for Worcester, Massachusetts" at the Worcester Historical Museum, a project underwritten by a public programs grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Professor Estus and I co-authored an accompanying monograph and cataglogue, gå till Amerika (Worcester Historical Museum, 1994), for which I wrote the chapter on "The Tribal Twenties. During that period Professor Estus and I had numerous and intense conversations from which I learned much. I cannot overstate their value in shaping my thinking. I have also benefitted more than I can say from my exchanges with my friend Gerd Korman. His work on Americanization was an early influence on my own. More recently, his studies of American traditions of anti-Semitism have taught me much. I have also learned a great deal from Robert O. Paxton's essay on the five stages of fascisms; from Nancy MacLean's Behind the Mask of Chivalry; from William D. Jenkins, author of Steel Valley Klan and an advisor to the exhibition; and from Kathleen M. Blee's Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. -- John F. McClymer, October 13, 2001]
Though men and women drop from the ranks they remain with us in purpose, and can be depended on fully in any crisis. Also, there are millions who have never joined, but who think and feel and -- when called on -- fight with us. This is our real strength, and no one who ignores it can hope to understand America today. -- Hiram Wesley Evans, "The Klan's Fight for Americanism," The North American Review (March-April-May 1926)
How seriously are we to take Evans' claim? Did the Klan, of which he was the "Imperial Wizard and Emperor," speak not only for the millions who joined but for millions more? Was he right to boast that no one who hopes to understand America in the 1920s can succeed without first coming to grips with the views -- and the feelings -- of Klan members and sympathizers? Some historians have taken the Klan very seriously. They agree that, while it was in Evans' interest to claim the greatest possible influence for his organization, he was clearly right to argue that its adherents and sympathizers numbered in the millions. (At right is an idealized painting, unsigned, of a Kansas Klansman, circa 1925.)
How seriously are we to take Evans' essay as a statement of Klan views? Historian Loren Baritz noted in 1970 in his The Culture of the Twenties that "The Klan's Fight for Americanism" was "the best statement of the Klan's credo that has ever been written." He also pointed out that the North American Review's readership was likely to be skeptical of any claims Evans might make. This led Baritz to caution readers that the Imperial Wizard might well downplay certain aspects of Klan belief and practice even as he overstated its strength. Further, Evans knew that the editors of the Review had invited several noted critics of the KKK, including W.E.B. DuBois, to contribute articles for the subsequent issue. He thus sought to anticipate what these critics might say. This may account for his willingness to admit that, in its early days, Klan leaders "began to 'sell hate at $10 a package.'" "Hate" and the "invisible government ideas," i.e., the Klan's vigilante activities, "were what gave the Klan its first great growth, enlisted some 100,000 members, provided wealth for a few leaders, and brought down upon it a reputation from which it has not yet recovered." That the KKK survived its beginnings, according to Evans, "is nothing less than a miracle," explicable only as "one of those mysterious interventions in human affairs which are called Providence."
Evans would have hardly made such an admission in an official Klan publication, although claims that Providence watched over the KKK were common in that literature. Nonetheless, "The Klan's Fight for Americanism" makes no apologies for its members' attempts to impose their views upon "liberals," immigrants, Catholics, Jews, or peoples of color. Instead it sounds a clarion call for the Klan's "progressive conservatism" and celebrates its influence in American public life. Still, the question remains: How seriously should we take the Klan's "credo" as a guide to its appeal? As Robert O. Paxton pointed out in "The Five Stages of Fascism" in The Journal of Modern History (1998):
Although one can deduce from fascist language implicit Social Darwinist assumptions about human nature, the need for community and authority in human society, and the destiny of nations in history, fascism does not base its claims to validity upon their truth. Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travellers. They subordinate thought and reason not to Faith, as did the traditional Right, but to the promptings of the blood and the historic destiny of the group. Their only moral yardstick is the prowress of the race, of the nation, of the community. They claim legitimacy by no universal standard except a Darwinian triumph of the strongest community.
An American Fascism?
Is it appropriate to label the Klan of the 1920s "fascist"? Surely it is one of the most overused terms in contemporary discourse. Yet, Paxton points to the first Klan as "the earliest phenonemon that seems functionally related to fascism." "In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan . . . was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe." Nancy MacLean, in Beyond The Mask Of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994), makes a similar argument: "Not only in its world view, but also in its dynamics as a social movement, the [second] Klan had much in common with German National Socialism and Italian Fascism." Klan leaders of the 1920s and 1930s acknowledged this kinship themselves, she points out.
Further, as we will see, the second Klan espoused all of the "mobilizing passions" Paxton identifies as characteristic of fascism:
Feelings propel fascism more than thought does. We might call them mobilizing passions, since they function in fascist movements to recruit followers and in fascist regimes to "weld" the fascist "tribe" to its leader. The following mobilizing passions are present in fascisms, though they may sometimes be articulated only implicitly.
1. The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
2. The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group's enemies, internal as well as external.
3. Dread of the group's decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic and cosmopolitan liberalism.
4. Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence, if necessary.
5. An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
6. Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny.
7. The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group's success in a Darwinian struggle.
If the Klan of the 1920s was a fascist movement, how seriously are we to take the views Evans put forward? Paxton identifies five "stages" of fascism. It is the first two -- "the initial creation" and "their rooting as parties in a political system" -- that relate to the KKK. The Klan never advanced beyond the second stage, and reached that only partially and ineffectually. "First-stage fascism," Paxton notes, "is the domain of the intellectual historian, for the process to be studied here is the emergence of new ways of looking at the world and diagnosing its ills." Further, he argues, "comparison is of little help to us at this first stage, for all modern states have had protofascist movements and publicists since the 1914-1918 war." The very ubiquity of these movements suggests "that we can hardly attribute their origin to any one particular national intellectual history." Instead, Paxton holds, fascist movements emerged everywhere where democracy was sufficiently implanted for disillusionment with it to emerge. Where national peculiarities do come into play is in how fascist intellectuals and spokespeople drew upon particular national traditions to articulate their message.
Here, then, is a guide to reading Evans' essay and other Klan pronouncements.
- Such works articulate "welding passions," deeply felt, otherwise inarticulate beliefs, prejudices, fears, resentments, and hatreds.
- They use ideas opportunistically. Of eugenics, for example, Evans wrote:
We are pleased that modern research is finding scientific backing for these convictions [about the importance of "racial instincts"]. We do not need them ourselves; we know we are right in the same sense that a good Christian knows that he has been saved and that Christ lives -- a thing which the intellectual can never understand. These convictions are no more to be argued about than is our love for our children; we are merely willing to state them for the enlightenment and conversion of others.
- Klan leaders measured the worth of their speeches and other works by the way their intended audience responded. Evans put this quite plainly:
We in the lead found ourselves with a following inspired in many ways beyond our understanding, with beliefs and purposes which they themselves only vaguely understood and could not express, but for the fulfillment of which they depended on us. We found ourselves, too, at the head of an army with an unguessable influence to produce results for which the responsibility would rest on us -- the leaders -- but which we had not foreseen and for which we were not prepared. As the solemn responsibility to give right leadership to these millions, and to make right use of this influence, was brought home to us, we were compelled to analyze, put into definite words, and give purpose to these half conscious impulses.
Evans and his colleagues clearly succeeded in putting "these half conscious impulses" into "definite words." The measure of their success is the fact that they built the largest fascist movement of the 1920s, Italy's alone excepted. If they did not succeed in finding a long-term niche for themselves in the political party system, this spoke to the opposition they encountered from the objects of their attacks, especially within the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and the success of the Republican Party in implementing key conservative policies during the 1920s, on the other.
In the case of the Democratic Party, the key battleground was the 1924 Convention. The Klan endorsed William Gibbs McAdoo, the frontrunner for the nomination. Senator Oscar Underwood of Alabama and Governor Al Smith of New York both called upon the party to repudiate the Klan by name in the platform. This motion failed by four votes. The vote, however, was not a Klan victory. Instead it meant that Smith and Underwood had more than enough strength to challenge McAdoo and effectively prevent him from getting the nomination which required a two-thirds majority. Finally, after 98 ballots Smith withdrew. On the 103rd ballot the nomination, now thoroughly worthless, went to John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis then did what the platform failied to do; he repudiated the Klan by name. McAdoo's political career was over. Smith won the nomination in 1928.
As for the success of the Republicans in implementing conservative positions, a most impressive case in point is immigration restriction, a cause the Klan vigorously espoused. The Republicans delivered on this with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 which targetted precisely those nationalities the Klan labelled most dangerous. The Klan vociferously opposed the role of Catholics in public life, to cite another important issue. Since these Catholic officeholders and office seekers clustered in the Democratic party, it was the Republican party which provided the candidates to oppose them. The Klan supported Prohibition. It was Coolidge and then Hoover who carried the standard of "the noble experiment," as Hoover called it.
In addition, historians point to the scandals within the leadership of the KKK, ranging from instances of fraud to the trial of Indiana Klan leader D.C. Stephenson for kidnapping and rape. However sincere the convictions of millions of members, Klan leaders came from the ranks of travelling salesmen, confidence artists, and opportunists generally. Their inability to keep these proclivities hidden from the membership undoubtedly weakened the KKK. What is striking in this regard is how long this process of disillusionment took.
The Klan's inability to become a part of the political party system, except for brief periods of time in a few scattered states, as a result, does not mean its import was trivial. Clearly we must heed Evans' claim that one has to understand the Klan and the "half conscious impulses" it expressed in order to understand the public life of the 1920s. Had the Steel Strike of 1919 with its communist leadership succeeded, had the Red Scare crackdown on leftwing political movements been less thorough, had the bombings of 1919-20 continued into the 1920s, had Klan leadership been bent on political power rather than personal gain, had, in short, conditions been more favorable to the emergence of the KKK as a political party, it might well had succeeded.
As it was, the Klan exerted significant influence. This was true in many localities where Klan members effectively "policed" their communities. They might object to a theater showing "immoral" pictures or warn an alleged wife beater to desist or pressure a school committee to crack down on a "liberal" teacher or ban a particular book. Klan influence was felt in many political races where a reputed "Klan vote" put one or another candidate in office. Here the secrecy of the Klan could work to enhance or to diminish its role. Unlike other "blocs," candidates could not be sure of the size of a "Klan vote." Nor, in many cases, could the Klan show clearly that its role was decisive.
Its greatest impact, perhaps, was upon the "spirit of the age." This is notoriously difficult to define, especially since different people experience any given period of time very differently. Nonetheless the Klan and the "impulses" it articulated did much to define the spirit of the twenties. One way of capturing this is to pay attention to ways in which Klan pronouncements echoed themes sounded more broadly in the culture. The most obvious of these is eugenics.
Nordic America Aggrieved
The Klan claimed "to speak for the great mass of Americans of old pioneer stock." Their ancestors, "hardy, adventurous and strong men and women," won a continent and created the American nation. Their "remarkable race character," passed on to their descendants, "made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men." In spite of this, "these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed." What had gone wrong? Evans' initial formulation in "The Klan's Fight for Americanism" was intentionally vague:
There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years. There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing. Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.
Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
Historians have difficulty taking such laments seriously save when made by fellow intellectuals, such as Joseph Wood Krutch. His The Modern Temper (1929) painted a similar picture of the loss of "clear, straightforward" purpose, of "futility" in religion, of the collapse of traditional morals. Krutch, the sort of "deracinated" intellectual Evans and the Klan scorned, had no solution, other than resignation, to offer. Evans and the Klan did.
For Krutch, the loss of purpose arose inexorably out of scientific research. Darwinism was a triumph of the random, a compelling argument against the belief that a beneficient Deity ruled over all. "Futility" in religion grew out of this and also out of historical and anthropological research. The more scholars knew about the origins of the Bible, the more they compared religious and mythological systems from around the world, the more difficult it became to hold to the faith of one's fathers. So too with the collapse of traditional morals. They had rested upon a biblical foundation, as interpreted by middle-class Victorians. With the Bible in doubt, with Victorian an epithet, and with middle-class verities shattered by the war, a new generation set out to find new rules. Krutch could, and did, bemoan these developments. He even speculated that "more primitive" societies, ones not so "palsied over with doubt," would likely come to the fore. He too, that is, saw a loss of American vitality in these developments.
Krutch cared deeply about ideas. Darwinism might undercut one's belief in a "clear and straightforward" purpose in human life, but that did not change its scientific validity. The "higher criticism" in Biblical Studies might challenge one's faith, but one could not ignore the evidence. Nor could one categorically deny the right of a new generation, dismayed by the carnage of WWI and its aftermath, to question received wisdom. Hence the pessimism of The Modern Temper.
For Evans, as we have seen, convictions trumphed ideas. Truth lay not in science, much less in historical investigations. It lay in "race instincts." What Nordic Americans felt, however inarticulately, was true precisely because they felt it. There was an kind of eugenics of ideas. Nordic Americans have learned, he wrote:
. . . that alien ideas are just as dangerous to us as the aliens themselves, no matter how plausible such ideas may sound. With most of the plain people this conclusion is simply based on the fact that the alien ideas do not work well for them. Others went deeper and [have] come to understand that the differences in racial background, in breeding, instinct, character and emotional point of view are more important than logic. So ideas which may be perfectly healthy for an alien may also be poisonous for Americans.
Similarly, although immigrants might use the same words as patriotic Nordic Americans, they could rarely, if ever, achieve genuine Americanism. "Americanism, to the Klansman, is a thing of the spirit, a purpose and a point of view, that can only come through instinctive racial understanding." Most "aliens" do not "understand those principles, even when they use our words in talking about them." On the other hand, Nordic Americans, even when unable to express their beliefs, still embodied the purest Americanism.
Not only was there a spiritual crisis, according to Evans, there was an economic one as well. "We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us." "We" could no longer guarantee our children's futures. Hence the declining birth rate of Nordic Americans. Who were these "strangers"? Evans did not specify. Readers of Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem presumably filled in the blank for themselves.
Related was the claim that "they" dominated American politics. This was due to the bloc system of voting:
Every kind of inhabitant except the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under the orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.
The most important instance of this was the opposition to McAdoo in the 1924 Democratic National Convention which Evans decried as a Catholic plot to take over the Democratic Party, one barely foiled by the Klan. As a consequence of these usurpations, "the Nordic American today is a stranger in large parts of the land his father gave him."
As a simple statement of fact, this was wildly incorrect. But it was true, as Klan recruiters kept reminding potential members, that Irish Catholics and others who were not "real" Americans dominated city government in Boston, New York, and other major cities. Irish Catholic women dominated the ranks of school teachers, their brothers the ranks of the police. Little wonder, Klan spokesmen charged, that Catholics had enjoyed such success keeping Bible reading out of the schools or that bootleggers openly flouted the Volstead Act.
Who were "they"? Who had stolen the Nordic Americans' patrimony? First and foremost, "they" were Catholics. The "Roman Church" is "fundamentally and irredeemably, in its leadership, in politics, in thought, and largely in membership, actually and actively alien, un-American and usually anti-American." "Old stock Americans . . . see in the Roman Church today the chief leader of alienism, and the most dangerous alien power with a foothold inside our boundaries," Evans wrote. [Click on handbill to view its complete text.]
This, like the Klan's appropriation of eugenics, sounded a theme broadly heard in American public life. William Robinson Pattangall, defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Maine in 1924, ran on a platform sharply critical of the Klan. He later admitted that he had seriously underestimated the salience of anti-Catholicism. "I did not even know it [hatred from "the long-dead days of the religious wars"] existed, did not realize at all how persistent such a hatred could be when there was nothing to excite it" except "the Klan's brilliant incendiarism." Yet Pattangall himself stated in a 1925 article in The Forum that the Klan's "complaints made against the Catholics and foreign-born are very largely true." More specifically:
The most valid of all the charges the Klan brings against the Roman hierarchy is that secretly it does not accept the American principle of the separation of church and state, but furtively goes into politics as a church and attempts to use its spiritual hold on its members as a means for political control.
The Forum had, in its preceeding issue, August 1924, sponsored an "impartial discussion of the Americanism of the Roman Catholic Church" and its reporter who most frequently wrote critically about the KKK, Stanley Frost, warned in the June 1928 issue that Al Smith's "inevitable" defeat, should he gain the nomination, would likely lead to the creation of a "Catholic Party" modelled on those of Europe. Similar discussions of the "Catholic influence" upon American politics filled the newspapers and magazines of the 1920s.
When not Catholic, "they" were often Jews. Interestingly, Evans steered clear of some anti-Semitic stereotypes. In 1923, when warning of "The Menace of Modern Immigration" at the Texas State Fair (on Klan Day), he conceded that Jews were a talented people who obeyed "eugenic" laws. They could not become real Americans, however, because centuries of persecution had engrained in them a congenital inability to feel patriotism. No Jew, no matter if he and his descendants lived in the U.S. for a thousand years, could experience the sentiments of love for his new country an immigrant from Britain might feel within a year. By 1926, in his North American Review essay, Evans conceded that some Jews might indeed become true Americans. The Jew's
abilities are great, he contributes much to any country where he lives. This is particularly true of the Western Jew, those of the stocks we have known so long. Their separation from us is more religious than racial. When freed from persecution these Jews have shown a tendency to disintegrate and amalgamate. We may hope that shortly, in the free atmosphere of America, Jews of this class will cease to be a problem.
Not so with "the Eastern European Jews of recent immigration." They were not "true Jews." Anthropologists "now tell us that these are . . . only Judaized Mongols -- Chazers." Unlike the "true Hebrew," there was little hope that such people could assimilate. Evans' anti-Semitism was mild compared to that voiced by Henry Ford who turned his Dearborn Independent into an organ for the most vicious and irresponsible accusations. It was Ford who popularized the spurious Protocols of the Elders of Zion by using it as the basis for The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Published first as articles in the Dearborn Independent and then in four volumes, The International Jew attributed all of the nation's ills and every feature of modern life of which Ford personally disapproved to a Jewish conspiracy. [It is widely available on the internet, as with the link above, courtesy of present-day anti-Semitic and white supremacist organizations.]
"They" were also all "low standard" immigrants, irrespective of religion. This was an old argument by the time Evans made it. Its first exponent was Francis Amasa Walker, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the Bureau of the Census, in the 1880s. He traced the declining birthrate of "old stock" Americans to the increase in immigration. Immigrants, he argued, undersold American labor. Desiring to protect his "American" standard of living, the "old stock" American had fewer children. Walker's argument was at the core of the fear of "race suicide" expressed by Madison Grant and others in the 1910s and 1920s and at the core of the eugenics movement. In Evans' version of it, which was perfectly orthodox, the Nordic American could "outwork" any other race but he could not overcome the alien's ability to "underlive" him. Evans quoted Madison Grant to the effect that "the mere force of breeding" of these "low standard peoples" would inevitably displace the Nordic. This led Evans to an apocalyptic prediction:
We can neither expel, exterminate nor enslave these low-standard aliens, yet their continued presence on the present basis means our doom. Those who know the American character know that if the problem is not soon solved by wisdom, it will be solved by one of those cataclysmic outbursts which have so often disgraced -- and saved! -- the race.
In the final analysis, "they" proved to be anyone whose view of America did not correspond to the "racial instincts" of the Nordic American as expressed by the Klan. "They" even included some Nordic Americans, those whose "liberalism" deviated from the Klan's own "progressive conservativism."
As Paxton pointed out, none of these propositions were original to the fascist agitators of the interwar period. They were literally "in the air," as their appearance throughout the developed world demonstrates quite clearly. So, even as Evans claimed to be seeking to articulate the "half conscious impulses" of the Klan's membership, he was sounding changes on very familiar themes. Why, we need to ask, did these changes on these themes resonate so clearly and so loudly for so many? Why, that is, were so many "Nordic Americans" so aggrieved?
MacLean puts considerable stress upon the economic upheavals occasioned by the war and the postwar recession. Wartime inflation had eaten away at the purchasing power of the average consumer. Then the sharp downturn in the economy during 1919-1920 had made a bad situation worse. Yet, the Klan grew most rapidly during the early years of the 1920s boom, in 1923 and 1924. This does not mean that economic stress was not a factor, merely that it cannot by itself explain the growth of the Klan.
Paxton, looking at European fascisms, emphasizes the fear of a left-wing revolution. Certainly the United States experienced such a fear, the Red Scare that accompanied the postwar wave of strikes and of bombings. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer warned of potential Bolshevik plots to overthrow the government. In a 1920 article in The Forum magazine, he wrote:
My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants. How the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotzky doctrine in the United States is the confidential information upon which the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth. . . .
The Justice Department staged a nationwide series of raids on December 31, 1919 and arrested thousands of supposed revolutionaries. Most turned out to be innocent of anything worse than having a last name which suggested foreign birth. But Palmer did succeed in convincing many that a Bolshevik uprising was imminent. In this he had much help. Newspapers reported rumors as fact and editorialized stridently against "Reds" and "anarchists." Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle annointed himself that city's savior when a five-day general strike ended, a strike he claimed was an initial step on the road to revolution. The leadership of William Z. Foster in the great Steel Strike of 1919 further impressed the image of Bolshevik-led revolution on the popular imagination.
Yet, through all of this, the Klan did not grow. The American Legion did. Legion members played active roles in breaking strikes in 1919-20; the Klan did not. It was after the left had been effectively demolished that the "Invisible Empire" came into its own. Again, this is not to suggest that Paxton is mistaken. He wishes to explain why some fascist movements succeeded in gaining power, something the KKK never even approached doing.
Paxton's analysis of European fascisms raises a related, and very important, question. Fascist movements in Europe fed off the perceived weakness of established conservative parties. Where those parties were strong, as in Great Britain, fascist movements did not attrack mass followings. In the United States, however, the Klan grew prodigiously despite the demonstrated ability of the Republican Party to govern according to a conservative agenda. This perceived strength of the Republicans, as I noted above, undoubtedly played a major role in preventing the Klan from establishing itself as a permanent part of the party system. But it does not appear to have inhibited its growth.
Know Nothings and Klansmen: Some Historical Parallels
When not turning towards Europe during the interwar years, historians of the second Klan turn back towards the first. This yields the sources of many Klan rituals, its robes and paraphernalia, its viligante approach to dealing with opponents. This research establishes the importance of Thomas Dixon's romanticized view of the Klan in works like The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905) in popularizing the mythology of Reconstruction as a period of misgovernment, corruption, and tyranny. [Both "romances" are available at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill libraries Documenting the American South project.] It highlights the importance of the 1915 film version of The Clansman, D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation, and of Woodrow Wilson's endorsement of the movie as "history written with lightning." [Available at the University of New Orleans' Silent Film Web Group.]
Comparisons of the first and second Klans yield a great many differences, as well. The first Klan sought to put newly freed blacks back in "their place," i.e., to restore white supremacy. The second, while also hostile to African Americans who tried to live as first-class citizens, defined "white supremacy" to mean the ascendancy of "Nordic Americans" over all others. The members of the first Klan were overwhelmingly Protestant but anti-Catholicism formed no part of their movement. Nor did anti-Semitism. Nor did nativism. The first Klan fixated entirely upon the immediate issues of Reconstruction. Moreover, while local klaverns of the second Klan did engage in "night riding" and other forms of vigilante activity, this was not the sole focus of the KKK of the 1920s. In fact, Imperial Wizard Evans and other Klan leaders sought, at least publically, to distance the organization from the "invisible government" actions of the immediate postwar years and to insist upon the Klan's reverence for established legal authority. The first Klan, in short, was a paramilitary organization; the second was not. Still another important difference is the second Klan's insistence upon "Americanism." The first was an organization of white Southern males. The second attracted support from all sections and from women.
Some in the 1920s suggested a different historical comparison, the Know Nothing movement of the 1850s. Writing in the North American Review of January 1924, William Starr Myers noted that the Klan, "with the possible exception of masks, robes, and other like paraphernalia, . . . is an almost complete replica of the old Know Nothing movement of the 'fifties of the last century."
The Know Nothing party . . . spread over the eastern and northern sections of the country, with Grand Councils, Superior Councils, Subordinate Councils, and all the other hierarchy of a well thought out and clear cut organization. It had a grip, pass words, secret signs, and much of the ritual that has proved so attractive to the average American citizen, whether the object of an organization be fraternal, social, political, or religious. It was organized in opposition to the naturalization of foreign immigrants, then first coming to the United States in large numbers, and also opposed to the activities and spread of the Roman Catholic Church.
Unlike the Klan, the Know Nothings, aka the Native American Party, were not necessarily hostile to African Americans. In fact, in states like Massachusetts, the Know Nothings vehemently denounced the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Fugitive Slave Law. In Worcester, a center of Know Nothingism, the party swept the 1854 municipal elections as its newspaper, the Daily Evening Journal, editorialized in support of abolition. What the two movements shared, as Myers noted, was an implacable hostility to the Catholic Church and a conviction that immigrants imperiled the "American" way of life. It is striking that the two highwater marks of anti-Catholicism were the 1850s and the 1920s.
Both movements adopted prohibiton as a central rallying cry. As with anti-Catholicism, the two periods in which the prohition of alcohol triumphed were the 1850s, during which most northern and midwestern states adopted one version or another of the "Maine Law" which outlawed the sale of alcohol and the 1920s. This relates to a further similarity. Both movements promoted themselves as dedicated to the reform of American life as a whole. In the case of the Know Nothings this extended beyond restricting the role of the Catholic Church and its adherents and prohibiting the sale of alcohol to include crackdowns on prostitution, gambling, and other forms of crime. It included campaigns for reading the Bible in public schools. In all of these it anticipated the second Klan.
Are these parallels significant? Do they point to similarities beyond the programmatic? Might they point to a way of making sense of both movements? I will argue that the answer to all of these questions is yes. At the heart of this argument is an insight of Alexis deTocqueville.
What keeps a great number of citizens under the same government is much less a reasoned desire to remain united than the instinctive and, in a sense, involuntary accord which springs from like feelings and similar opinions.
I would never admit that men form a society simply by recognizing the same leader and obeying the same laws; only when certain men consider a great many questions from the same point of view and have the same opinions on a great many subjects and when the same events give rise to like thoughts and impressions is there a society.
-- Alexis deTocqueville, Democracy in America
[this quotation comes from the last chapter of volume 1, available online at the U. of Virginia's Democracy in America site.]
Locke, Tocqueville held, had been wrong. To form a nation people had to share customs, habits, prejudices, traditions, a sense of commonality. But the Founders had followed Locke. The accord among Americans was to be voluntary. Further, they explicitly barred the new national government from actively engaging in the process of building a sense of nationality.
Barring the federal government from directly attempting to shape American nationality was every bit as radical an experiment as the republic itself. Cecilia Elizabeth O'Leary's To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (1999) makes this point very persuasively. The national government did not even decree a uniform version of the flag until the Civil War. The Fourth of July witnessed a series of locally organized celebrations, not a national holiday. There was no national anthem. National monuments did not exist. There was no official language. There was no national church. There was no national school system.
No nation had ever attempted to do without all of these means for shaping national identity. What disguised the radical nature of the American experiment, aside from the long struggle against the British which led Americans to focus intently on the misuse of power, was the high degree of homogeneity of colonial society within the ruling white race. White Americans were overwhelming Protestant. Use of English was virtually universal. The market-based economy was well established so that white Americans shared basic ideas about worth, fair exchange, and the value of labor. Political participation, including officeholding, was widespread. White Americans then shared the Revolutionary experience and later the naval war with France and the War of 1812 against Great Britain. In sum, they could take for granted at least some of the features of nationality Tocqueville insisted were crucial. There was no need to empower the government to create what already existed.
By the 1830s, however, sectional interests clearly threatened the sense of nationality Americans had assumed as a given. Tocqueville carefully detailed the differences he perceived in the "characters" of white Northerners and Southerners and questioned whether the Union could survive. The 1850s saw sectional divisions intensify, very much along the faultlines Tocqueville had identified. The period saw additional faultlines develop as well. Immigrants from Germany and Ireland brought differences of language, religion, and culture to the North. Know Nothings sought to proclaim an American nationality. [For an extended discussion, see "A Frame for Understanding the 1850s."] They rejected the Lockean formulation and instead tried to make Americanism a matter of customs, habits, religious belief, language, and common ancestry.
At the same time, Lockean principles were deeply engrained. Freedom of religion and the absence of an established church were cherished as uniquely American. This forced Know Nothings to repudiate Jeffersonian ideals of limited government even as they called for a renewed Americanism. Irish and other immigrants, for their part, proclaimed their own fidelity to "American" principles. They opposed Bible reading in the schools as a violation of the separation of church and state, to cite an important case in point. Their insistence upon this ultimately brought upon them a papal rebuke in the form of a condemnation of "American heresies." [See, for example, "errors" #45, 47, 48 in The Syllabus of Modern Errors (1864).]
Increasing levels of sectional hostility, corruption within the leadership of the Know Nothings, the party's inability to develop a coherent policy vis a vis slavery in the territories, and the rise of the Republican Party all contributed to the demise of the Native American Party. Even so, the Know Nothings demonstrated the potency of an appeal to "real" Americans, those who felt that their grandfathers' participation in the Revolution and the War of 1812 gave them a special claim to American nationality.
Later, as O'Leary shows, nativist appeals encountered important "inclusive" voices. The most visible "patriotic" organization of the post Civil War years, the Grand Army of the Republic, made up of Union veterans, included Irish Catholic and African American veterans in some of its local organizations. As the GAR campaigned for flying the American flag over public schools, for example, it did not attack the Americanism of the foreign born. Postwar patriotic societies in the North made participation in the Civil War the key test of patriotism. It was a test African Americans and Irish and German Americans could all pass with flying colors.
Not until the 1880s and early 1890s did another broadly based nativist movement emerge, the American Protective Association (APA). Its members renewed charges of unwonted Catholic influence in public schools and urban governments. They also revived claims that Catholics owed allegiance to the Pope and did not accept the American principle of separation of church and state. The APA, like the Know Nothing movement, fizzled. In large measure this was, as Richard Jensen has shown, because the established parties channeled ethnic and cultural rivalries into electoral politics. In the North and Midwest the Republican Party reliably upheld the interests of "old stock" Protestants, including temperance. For its part, the Democratic Party tended to attract Catholics, especially among the Irish, and other immigrants, though to a lesser extent. But, since both parties appealed both to "old stock" and to immigrant voters, they tended to muffle overt religious conflicts even as they gave them expression.
By 1914 vast numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, along with continued migration from older sources, had made the United States the most diverse nation in human history. Its citizens spoke scores of languages, adhered to dozens of faiths, and cherished cultural traditions of the most diverse sorts. Worcester, Massachusetts offers an example.
More than two-thirds of the city's residents were immigrants or their children, a proportion which had held steady for decades. Newcomers to the city came (in order of numerical strength) from New England, Ireland, Sweden, Quebec, English-speaking Canada, and Great Britain. Large and rapidly growing numbers hailed from Italy and the Russian and Austrian empires, most of whom were Poles or Jews. Greece, Finland, Armenia, and Syria were also significant sources of newcomers. The Albanian and Lithuanian communities were also growing. Several of these groups published their own newspapers. All had their own churches, many their own schools. The Irish and French Canadians allied to form their own bank (Bay State Bank) and their own hospital (St. Vincent's). Swedes formed the Skandia Credit Union which later became Commerce Bank. They also built Fairlawn Hospital.
Most groups had their own cemetaries; all had their own funeral directors. So too with other professionals such as dentists, doctors, and lawyers. Bakeries and groceries specialized in specific ethnic goods. Downtown merchants, seeking a citywide clientele, advertised the availability of French, Swedish, and Italian-speaking clerks.
Groups also found their own niches in the city's economy. Yankees and Swedes dominated skilled blue-collar jobs; the Irish made almost no headway in that sector, despite decades of effort. Second-generation Irish-American women, on the other hand, dominated the ranks of public school teachers. Few Swedish, French-Canadian, Italian, or Greek women followed their lead.
These examples suggest the limited extent to which different nationalities worked together. The same was true of housing. No single group monopolized a neighborhood, although the Swedes came close to doing so in the Quinsigamond Village section of the city. But even though members of diverse groups often lived next door to each other, they did not form a community. French Canadians, for example, built their own Catholic church in the Oak Hill section directly across Hamilton Street from the Irish Catholic church. The two were literally a snowball's throw away from each other, something pupils at their respective parochial schools proved every winter.
Members of different groups did share, to a significant extent, the public schools, despite the increasing number of private schools. And they shared in city government and in politics. Sharing did not imply harmony. Protestants accused Catholics of secretly not believing in the separation of church and state. For their part, Catholics opposed the reading of the Bible in the public schools on the grounds that it would violate that very principle. Protestants, New Englanders reinforced by Swedes, also squared off against Catholics, led by the Irish with uncertain support from French Canadians and Italians, over the issue of alcohol consumption. Each year a referendum on the "licensing" of saloons generated great political interest and passion. The "Wets" almost always won, because there were just enought Yankee defectors to tip the balance. There was, in short, an ongoing contest over the meaning of Americanism and over the right of members of various groups to claim the title American. The contest seemed likely to go on indefinitely with all parties able to point to particular victories and defeats.
In Worcester, in sum, Lockean principles held. Everyone professed allegiance to basic notions of equality under the law, limited government, religious liberty, and free speech. Citizens voted, paid taxes, obeyed the laws. They had few, if any, of the bonds Tocqueville argued were necessary to form a society. In this America was Worcester writ large.
The War Years as a Turning Point in the National Debate over the Meaning of Americanism
As O'Leary demonstrates, World War I strained this Lockean arrangement and, in particular, its insistence upon the limited nature of American national identity, to the breaking point. The Wilson administration commandeered the foreign-language press, created its own ethnic organizations, organized patriotic festivities, sent out speakers with canned speeches all across the country, proscribed newspapers and other publications it deemed seditious, arrested critics of the draft, and did all it could to bring patriotism to "a white hot" level, as George Creel, the Director of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) described his agency's mission. O'Leary summarizes the outcome:
During World War I, Anglo-Protestants asserted that they were the only group capable of self-government. An official patriotic culture -- defined by the ascendance of national power, shaped by the language of masculinity, infused with a martial spirit, and narrowed by the imposition of racialized and anti-radical criteria defined by Anglo superiority and political intolerance -- eclipsed competing interpretations.
In creating this "official" definition of patriotism the Wilson administration called upon hundred of thousands of volunteers -- organized as "Four Minute Men" in the case of speakers delivering CPI-crafted speeches, as members of state Councils of Defense which organized Americanization programs and Liberty Loan drives, as volunteers with the Committee on Protective Work for Girls which policed encounters between soldiers and young women lest either yield to the passion of the moment, as "agents" for the National Security League which received Justice Department sanction to hunt out disloyalty wherever it might be lurking.
All of this meant that the new officially sanctioned Americanism arose concurrently and in tandem with officially sanctioned vigilante campaigns. These targetted immigrants who often had to make specified contributions to Liberty Loan campaigns under duress; they targetted school teachers and ministers whose views tended towards pacificism or who expressed any criticism of the perfervid patriotism of the day. They also targetted "red light" districts and gambling dens. The administration's handling of the war on the Home Front, in sum, created an unprecedented opportunity for private citizens to take local matters of concern and contention into their own hands. Both the Klan and its opponents would build upon these foundations.
As with the Know Nothings, advocates of "100% Americanism" repudiated the nation's republican heritage even as they called for a heightened national loyalty. They advocated a government which censored and manipulated what the public had a "right" to know, which jailed its critics and suppressed dissent, which policed sexual morality. At first, the justification was the war, then the postwar turmoil at home and abroad.
Officially imposed Americanism occured simultaneously with several other profound social shifts. One was the "Great Migration" of African Americans to northern cities. A second was the outbreak of labor militancy in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice. A third was the triumph of Prohibition and women's suffrage.
Race and Class Warfare
World War I created a labor shortage even as it cut off the usual sources of unskilled labor from Europe. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of African Americans streamed North where they found jobs in Chicago's stockyards, Detroit's assembly lines, Pittsburgh's steel mills, and New York's garment factories. The war also brought an abrupt end to housing construction. Black migrants sought living quarters where they could find them, often in neighborhoods formerly the preserve of working-class whites. White resentment at having to share housing and public space and jobs with African Americans flared into riots in East St. Louis (1917), Washington, D.C. (1919), Chicago (1919), and other cities.
In a grotesque way, these riots paralleled Wilson administration policies. Self-appointed upholders of community values used vigilante tactics to intimidate, coerce, and stigmatize those they felt threatened their "way of life." Racial violence reached a climax of sorts in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
As with the Washington, D.C. riot, the triggering event was the accusation by a white woman that a black man had attempted to sexually assault her. Tulsa police arrested the man. A white crowd, a lynch mob in the estimation of Tulsa's large black community, gathered outside the jail. Several months before a similar crowd had lynched a white suspect. What chance, blacks wondered, would a young black man have? To stave off a lynching a group of armed blacks drove to the jail and volunteered to help guard it. The authorities refused their offer. The blacks returned to their section of the city. Shortly afterward, a rumor of an impending attack on the jail impelled them to return. Again the police refused their help. But some whites in the crowd demanded that they disarm. They refused. One white moved to take a black man's rifle by force. There was a shot; a white man fell dead. Blacks beat a hasty retreat to their cars. Whites milled about. They they ran home to get weapons and, in largely uncoordinated bands, headed off to "Run the Negro Out of Tulsa."
All through the night and into the morning thousands of white Tulsans invaded the black section of the city as smaller bands of blacks, some of them WWI veterans, fought to defend houses, businesses, and churches. By the time the governor ordered in the National Guard, the shooting was over. The entire black community was a smoldering ruin. Hundreds were dead, most of them black. Thousands had fled the city, all of them blacks. The Guard took hundreds into "protective custody," all of them black as well. No white was arrested. [The Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is available online. The commission was created seventy-five years after the riot. A collection of upwards of one hundred photographs of the riot is available at a University of Tulsa site.]
As they had with other race riots, newspapers across the country condemned the violence and lawlessness. The failure of city and state authorities to mount any sort of an investigation, much less bring criminal charges against anyone, conveyed a different message.
Unsurprisingly, Tulsa was a major center of Klan influence in the 1920s. There is, however, no evidence of direct KKK involvement in the riot. No one in the crowd outside the jail wore its regalia. Further, once the shooting started, no one did either. The riot was a spontaneous expression of hate. Instead of inciting or organizing the violence, the Klan simply benefitted in its aftermath as untold numbers of white participants subsequently joined and supported the "Invisible Empire."
Labor militancy in the immediate postwar years supplied another source of social unrest and upheaval. During the war the Wilson administration had imposed peace, via arbitration. American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers sat on the Council of National Defense. Union membership grew. Wages, however, did not keep pace with inflation. This left workers determined to seek substantial hikes, once wartime restrictions lifted. It left unions determined to hang on to their gains in membership and influence. It left many employers determined to return to the status quo ante bellum.
The speed with which the Wilson administration dismantled wartime controls and institutions made this contentious situation far worse. First, the administration cut war orders. This threw many out of work. Next, it rapidly demobilized the Expeditionary Force. This threw millions into the job market. Then it ended government arbitration. This left labor and management to their own resources in a series of showdowns.
One of the first was in Seattle. There shipyard workers struck for higher wages. Management had no choice but to refuse since the representative of the Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board, Charles Piez, threatened that he would cut off their supply of steel if they offered amounts above previously established wage levels. His interference infuriated both the 35,000 Metal Workers who were on strike and most of the rest of organized labor in the region. The Metal Workers asked members of the Seattle Central Labor Federation to stage a "sympathy" strike. The Federation agreed. On February 6, 1919 at 10:00 in the morning local time, 60,000 workers went on strike.
This was the first "general strike" in American history, and it fed fears of a "Bolshevik" uprising across the country. The Seattle strikers shut down the entire city. They permitted electrical workers to provide power to hospitals and other critical facilities; they granted similar "exemptions" to sanitation workers to protect the public health. But, for several days, nothing moved in or out of Seattle without the approval of an ad hoc strike committee. Anna Louise Strong, a member of the committee and principle author of its history of the strike, dismissed the idea that the strike was revolutionary in intent. But, good radical that she was, she also pointed to its revolutionary potential:
And yet, while no revolution occurred and none was intended, the workers of Seattle feel themselves, because of their experience, in the position of men who know the steps by which an industrial revolution occurs.
An editorial in the Union Record, two weeks after the strike, discusses the workers' government just arising in Belfast, and draws comparison with the Seattle general strike.
"They are singularly alike in nature. Quiet mass action, the tying up of industry, the granting of exemptions, until gradually the main activities of the city are being handled by the strike committee.
"Apparently in all cases there is the same singular lack of violence which we noticed here. The violence comes, not with the shifting of power, but when the 'counter-revolutionaries' try to regain the power which inevitably and almost without their knowing it passed from their grasp. Violence would have come in Seattle, if it had come, not from the workers, but from attempts by armed opponents of the strike to break down the authority of the strike committee over its own members.
"We had no violence in Seattle and no revolution. That fact should prove that neither the strike committee nor the rank and file of the workers ever intended revolution.
"But our experience, meantime, will help us understand the way in which events are occurring in other communities all over the world, where a general strike, not being called off, slips gradually into the direction of more and more affairs by the strike committee, until the business group, feeling their old prestige slipping, turns suddenly to violence, and there comes the test of force."
Strong and her union comrades refused to accept the popular verdict that the strike failed. No such doubt remained for the leaders of the great Steel Strike of 1919. It failed completely and unequivocally. So did the Boston Police Strike and the vast majority of other tests of strength.
During the war and immediate postwar period the Wilson administration made an unprecedented effort to impose a narrow, intolerant, religiously-based, and racist notion of Americanism. It succeeded all too well. Even George Creel, chair of the Committee on Public Information, bemoaned "the mad rumors that swept the country," the "persecution" of the Nonpartisan League, and the actions of some State Councils of Defense "that would have been lawless in any other than a 'patriotic' body.'" Yet, Creel's, and Wilson's, goal had been "no mere surface unity, but a passionate belief in the United States [welded] into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination." This meant, as Creel was not willing to admit, appealing to hatred and fear. It meant, as he acknowledged but only as regrettable excesses, empowering local elites to dictate conditions in their communities.
Race riots provided a grotesque parallel. Labor militancy, on the other hand, challenged this sort of Americanism directly. The Steel Workers organized immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. William Z. Foster, soon to run for president as the candidate of the American Communist Party, led the strike. Seattle workers comforted themselves with the dream that, although they had not gained any material concessions from the General Strike, they now knew "the steps by which an industrial revolution occurs." It proved cold comfort.
Labor's losses, the Palmer Raids, the continued crackdown on both the state and national levels on left-wing political organizations, all spelled a triumph for "100% Americanism." So did the race riots of the war and postwar years. So did the ratification of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments: Writing Americanism into the Constitution
Like the activities of the volunteers of the Wartime Training Camp Commission, who chaperoned dances and patrolled the grounds outside and who successfully pressured local authorities to shut down "red light" districts, Prohibition was morality on the march. Alcohol was a prolific source of domestic violence, crime, and poverty. Drunkenness was a sin. And the liquor interests were the agents of the Devil. More specifically, saloons were the source of political corruption in the nation's cities. Tammany and other "machine" politicians held court in the "backrooms" of saloons. They traded drinks for votes, or so the Anti-Saloon League long maintained. Congress authorized a wartime prohibition in the name of conserving grain. This provided the Prohibiton activists with the final boost they needed to gain ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment.
Prohibition brought an abrupt end not only to saloons but to innumerable local contests over the sale of alcohol. As in Worcester, Massachusetts, voters in numerous communities routinely had decided whether or not to grant licenses for the sale of liquor. The contests were often very close. The sale of alcohol had been a matter of state and local politics in which "majority rule" had prevailed. In many cases, as in Worcester, the "license" question pitted Protestants against Catholics, native-born against immigrants, Republicans against Democrats. In the South, of course, the battles were within the Democratic Party. There the argument for Prohibition, in addition to religious appeals, pointed to the supposed menace of black males having access to alcohol with all the attendant dangers that would allegedly pose to the chasity of white women.
The amendment meant that the views of the "Drys" would prevail even in communities where the "Wets" constituted a majority. This would create a law enforcement nightmare, New York Governor Al Smith correctly predicted.
Women's suffrage, like Prohibition, rode to victory on the wave of wartime Americanism. The connections between the two reform movements were numerous and profound. Initially, in the 1850s, both supported anti-slavery and equal rights for blacks. [For a discussion of these links, see A Narrative Guide to the Origins of the Woman's Rights Movement.] Later, during the fight over the Fourteenth and Fifthteenth Amendments, the woman's rights movement split over constitutional guarantees of voting and other rights for black males. The connection with Temperance, however, remained firm. By the 1880s, the Women's Christian Temperance Union was an important part of the women's suffrage movement. Founder Frances Willard endorsed southern white justifications of lynching, making the point that the best way to protect white women from black rapists was to prohibit the sale of liquor. At the same time, the WCTU was one of the few white-led organizations which welcomed the participation of African-American women. [See the documents collected at the Women and Social Movements project at the State University of New York, Binghamton.] Ida B. Wells sought to force Willard to retract her claim that black men represented a threat to white southern women, but Willard would not. Further, even Susan B. Anthony, an abolitionist in the 1850s and a friend of Wells, refused to speak out against lynching. The division between the woman's rights movement and civil rights for African Americans which began in the postwar years widened even further through the 1890s and beyond. The ties between suffrage and prohibition strengthened.
By the 1890s too both Prohibition activists and women's suffrage proponents had discovered the "immigrant menace." Both painted the same picture: A corrupt "boss" with headquarters in a saloon manipulated immigrant voters. Put an end to the saloon by adopting Prohibition and reduce the relative power of the immigrant voter by enfranchising the "old stock" woman were allied solutions.
Both movements might well have succeeded without riding the wave of wartime "100% Americanism." But both did ride it. There was little reason not to. Militant Americanism complemented their standard arguments. And there were powerful reasons to attach their reforms to calls for Americanism. Women's suffrage suffered less in the long run from the association since first and second generation immigrant women gained the vote at the same time as "old stock" women. Not so Prohibition which was unequivocally a great victory for white Protestant evangelicals, celebrated by them as such and resented as such by others.
The Ironies of Normalcy
Warren G. Harding promised "normalcy, not nostrums." His election in 1920 meant an end to midnight raids and deportations. He pardoned Eugene V. Debs, who had run against him as the candidate of the Socialist Party while in prison for opposing the draft. Historians give Harding little credit for restoring traditional notions of limited government, a major injustice given the shambles the Wilson administration had made of republicanism. It was the Harding administration which moved back towards an explicitly Lockean understanding of national identity.
The new administration could afford moderation because the wartime and postwar battles were over. Labor had been reduced to licking its wounds. Union membership would decline over the course of the decade, despite the strong economy. Left-wing political parties had only fragmentary support and were locked in increasingly bitter battles among themselves. White supremacy had reasserted itself in blood in the nation's cities. Immigration restriction designed to favor "Nordic" groups was a foregone conclusion.
Why, we need to ask, was the taste of victory like that of ashes to so many "old stock" white Protestants? Given this string of successes from legislative halls to city streets, why did so many feel so endangered? Immigration restriction, Prohibition, the race riots, all reinforced the Wilson administration's attempts to settle once and for all the matter of who was entitled to claim to be a "real" American. So did the equation of political radicalism and "alien" anarchists and "Bolsheviks" during the Red Scare. So did the decisive defeat of organized labor in the strikes of 1919.
Why was this not enough? Why did millions respond to the Klan's call for "Nordic" Americans to reclaim their patrimony? Who had taken it? The blacks run out of Tulsa? Sacco and Vanzetti, convicted of murder in Massachusetts? The immigrant steel workers defeated in 1919?
To make some sense of this puzzle we need to take a two-pronged approach. One is to recognize the Pyrrhic nature of several of these victories. Labor militancy had been truly defeated. Almost a full generation would pass before it would revive. So too with left-wing politics. But Prohibition proved a hollow victory almost from the start. Nor did restriction satisfactorily reduce the role of Catholics, Jews, and first- and second-generation immigrants in American public life. The complementary approach is to recognize the deep satisfactions Klan membership afforded. "Nordics" joined the Klan not only to express their frustrations and fears. They also flocked into the "Invisible Empire" to enjoy the satisfactions of imposing their views upon their neighbors, of holding office in an "exalted" realm, of reveling in the fellowship of "Klannishness."
Let us turn first to the fears, frustrations, and resentments which Evans so successfully articulated. Prohibition belongs at or near the top of the list.
As the graph above shows, arrests under the Volstead Act reached an all-time high in 1928. The previous peak, 1924, had also been a presidential election year. But, as the number of arrests went up, the amount of illegal liquor seized continued to decline. How can we reconcile the data? Federal agents and state and local police arrested more people in 1928 than in 1927, 10, 321 more or 15.9%; yet they seized 413,896 fewer gallons of liquor (or 28.3% less) and 1,717,873 fewer gallons of beer (or 28.8% less). One possible explanation was that the government was winning its battle against liquor trafficking. If many of the large dealers had been shut down, and the government had turned its attention to mopping up the small producers, the data would make sense.
This, however, was not the case. Al Capone's empire in Chicago, detailed here by the Chicago Historical Society, was merely the most notorious of the large-scale criminal rings nationwide which defied Prohibition, often with the assistance of local police and prosecutors. Why then did arrests skyrocket in presidential election years? A cynical explanation might be that the Coolidge administration was seeking to show its ongoing commitment to Prohibition.
Worse than the inability of the state, local, and federal authorities to enforce Prohibition was the distain expressed by the young and the "Smart Set." "Wets" went from being the tools and/or dupes of the "liquor interests" -- as educated opinion held in the immediate prewar years -- to being sophisticates who frequented speakeasies and knew how to mix the latest cocktails. "Drys" went from being enlightened reformers to "Puritans," as H.L. Mencken notably called them. Mencken's American Mercury magazine published an essay in 1926 by Missouri Senator James A. Reed in which he excoriated Prohibition advocates as "fanatics." He expressed the scorn their reform had engendered by the mid-1920s:
The statutory reformer has a single and invariable method of procedure. He magnifies the wickedness and sufferings of mankind and attributes them all to the object of his special malediction. Witness the Prohibition propaganda. Its literature blazed with assertions that all vice, crime, poverty, and human agony were directly chargeable to the Rum Fiend. He was the devil incarnate who produced virginal incontinence, marital infelicity, theft, arson, rape, robbery and murder. His remorseless hands, holding the white throat of innocence in an iron grasp, were dragging myriads of unfortunates to untimely graves and condemning them to the fires of an endless perdition. He it was who filled the jails and penitentiaries with pitiable creatures who otherwise would have stood resplendent as pillars of the state and ornaments of society.
The reformer cried aloud: "Amend the Constitution, pass the Volstead statute and in the twinkling of an eye evil will vanish! Close the saloons and the jails will empty themselves; cries of poverty will be turned to songs of joy; childish wailings to melodious laughter; drunken blows to fond caresses; and hatred be transmuted into tenderest love. Highwaymen will give up their bludgeons and become ministers of justice. Thieves will no longer 'break through and steal'!" and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
The legal revolution occurred, but the moral miracle did not come off according to schedule. Men still go philandering, and sometimes maidens listen to their amorous wooings. The fashionable swain, bottle on hip, is received in polite society. He presses his flask to the lips of a girl whose pre-Volstead mother would have scorned a boy with liquor-tainted breath. The fires were put out in the furnaces of the distilleries and breweries, but were lighted under ten thousand illicit stills. Moonshining became a profitable trade, bootlegging a dignified profession, rum-running a romantic calling. An army recruited from elevator boys, taxi drivers, bell hops, soda fountain girls--every occupational class from hod-carriers to church sextons--is engaged in the retail traffic. Colored gentlemen drive Pierce Arrows and dusky maidens sport the furs of the arctics. Drug stores are liquor emporiums, ready supplied with prescriptions sold by physicians at the rate of $300 a book, containing one hundred blanks.
And who, pray, are the customers? The answer is, everybody who wants a drink and that "everybody" embraces hundreds of thousands of women in homes from which, prior to the Reformation, liquor was banned and barred. Other thousands are boys who, under the old regime, would have understood that their safety depended upon the exercise of self-restraint, but who now seem to rely upon the law for protection, and yet regard the breaking of the law as a pastime, and guzzling liquor from a hip flask as an enviable prank. A vast multitude of men who formerly reverenced the law now deliberately and avidly conspire for its breach. The leprosy of hypocrisy has become epidemic. Half-drunken legislators enact dry laws and celebrate the achievement in moonshine. Judges sometimes (let us hope rarely) impose merciless sentences and anaesthetize their human sensibilities in bootleg. Police officers, sheriffs, constables, and bailiffs, their breaths reeking with rot-gut, drag to jail an occasional victim selected as a sacrifice to public clamor. But not one out of a thousand violators is ever arrested or prosecuted.
Meanwhile the Prohibition force revels in blackmail, subornation, venal immunities, treachery, fraud and crime promotion, revolting practices inseparable from the spy system. Tyrannous acts are of hourly occurrence. In violation of the Constitution, the homes, the business houses, baggage, vehicles, and persons of citizens are indiscriminately seized and searched. In 1924, in a single judicial district, more than eight hundred out of one thousand searches were illegally made. But all the while the great tide of traffic proceeds.
Two years after Reed's jeremiad the American Bar Association added its voice. It passed a resolution calling for repeal on the grounds that Prohibition undermined respect for the rule of law.
The A.B.A. never passed a similar resolution calling for the repeal of the suffrage amendment. But Senator Reed included it among his list of statutory reforms advanced by "fanatics":
The amendment was passed. What then? What became of the promised "disappearance of crime, the regeneration of politics, the moral purification?" Strain your eyes as you may, you will be unable to observe even the faint auroral dawn of the prophesied millennium. Per contra, the dresses are a little shorter, the flapper is a little flappier, the hair-bobber becomes more opulent, and the cigarette vendor enjoys a boom. These fortuitous conditions may be the result of the new freedom, or mere coincidences. I venture not to say.
Just as many disgruntled with the inability of law enforcement officials to make Prohibition work turned to the Klan with its promise to make local communities dry, many women flocked to the Women of the Klu Klux klan as a way of exercising the sort of moral influence on public life promised by the vote. The Women of the KKK, that is, carried into the 1920s a particular strain of suffragist argument. It combined an assertion of woman's equality with an endorsement of woman's traditional roles. It justified women's participation in politics on the grounds that they would raise its moral tone. It appealed to women who had grown up in the Victorian Era or immediately thereafter and had defined themselves in terms of its ideals. However much such women might have bridled at Senator Reed's sarcasm, they would have accepted his verdict that the vote had not ushered in "the prophesied millennium." To such women the Klan made its appeal. Here is a portion of the "Creed" of Klanswomen [for the full text click on the "Creed"]:
Immigration restriction also proved less than satisfying. The same year Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act (1924) witnessed the Smith challenge to the McAdoo nomination. Smith was a second-generation immigrant, a Roman Catholic, a Wet, and a loyal member of Tammany Hall, the archetypical political "machine." Indeed, shortly after the convention, Smith became himself the de facto "Boss" of Tammany. Neither he nor McAdoo gained the nomination. Nor did the Smith-sponsored plank condemning the KKK by name win approval. It fell four votes short. But the epic struggle ended McAdoo's political career and gave an enormous boost to Smith's. In 1928 he did capture the nomination and, in the process, created in the Democratic Party a home for ethnics, Catholics, Jews, Wets, and others the Johnson-Reed Act stigmatized as unworthy of being Americans.
Even Anti-Catholicism, a core Klan "conviction," proved less than fully satisfying. It clearly carried the day in the election of 1928, even as Herbert Hoover conscientiously strove not to be its champion. Jews played highly visible and important roles both in Smith's gubernatorial administrations and in his campaign. Anti-Semites, as a result, could also take satisfaction in his defeat. But Smith's capture of the nomination proved a lasting victory. Catholics, Jews, white ethnics became key elements of the Roosevelt coalition which would dominate American politics through the middle third of the twentieth century. That coalition would repeal Prohibition as one of its first acts. Roosevelt would deliver on Smith's promise to give important government posts to Jews, Catholics, and women. Unlike Wilson, Roosevelt did not distain dealing with urban machine politicians. The anti-Catholicism victory of 1928, in short, proved short-lived; Smith's achievement in creating a political home for his core constituencies, on the other hand, transformed American politics.
Outside of electoral politics, the failure of "Nordic" Americanism was even more apparent, and occured even more quickly. Wartime campaigns against sin, compellingly detailed in Nancy K. Bristow's Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War (1996), sponsored by the Wilson administration through the Commission on Training Camp Activities and staffed by thousands of eager volunteers, did not usher in a more virtuous America any more than Prohibition or women's suffrage did.
In early January 1929, Duke Ellington recorded Flaming Youth, a musical salute to the "victims" of "the mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes," as Henry Ford fulminated against Jewish-controlled and inspired jazz music in The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Jazz's open appeal to sensuality and sexuality was a straw in the wind.
Even as the Klan enforced "traditional moral standards" in small communities, they continued to go "by the boards" in the nation, as Imperial Wizard Evans lamented. The "flapper" provides a striking case in point. She bobbed her hair, wore dresses that barely reached the knee, went to "petting parties," wore lipstick and rouge, danced the Charleston [here played by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra in a 1925 recording]. Gone were the days when young men called upon young women at home and couples sat in the parlor at the piano and sang duets while parents hovered in the background. Advertisers, as we will see, idealized the flapper's sense of adventure, her unwillingness to abide the "old-fashioned" restrictions and "repressions" of the 1890s, her gaiety. Movies celebrated her, even as some films professed concern over her "wildness," as in "Our Dancing Daughters."Dorothy Parker sounded a note of disapproval, but hardly of the sort the Klan might endorse:
The Playful flapper here we see,
The fairest of the fair.
She's not what Grandma used to be,
-- You might say, au contraire.
Her girlish ways may make a stir,
Her manners cause a scene,
But there is no more harm in her
Than in a submarine.
She nightly knocks for many a goal
The usual dancing men.
Her speed is great, but her control Is something else again.
All spotlights focus on her pranks.
All tongues her prowess herald.
For which she well may render thanks
To God and Scott Fitzgerald.
Her golden rule is plain enough -
Just get them young and treat them rough.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in the 1920s, famously captured the romantic, desparate side to "Flaming Youth":
MY CANDLE burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!
[For information about Millay as well as online collections of her poetry, click on the portrait which is of Millay as a Vassar undergraduate.]
Anne Shaw Faulkner, head of the Music Department of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, expressed some of the initial outrage at the way the younger generation was carrying on in article in The Ladies' Home Journal of August 1921. It was called: "Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?" Her answer was an emphatic yes:
Jazz originally was the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarian to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been employed by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality. That it has a demoralizing effect upon the human brain has been demonstrated by many scientists.
On her website ToriAvey.com, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s recipes can inspire us in the kitchen today. Learn more about Tori and The History Kitchen.
F. Scott Fitzgerald circa 1920
Photo Source:Wikimedia Commons
The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and what F. Scott Fitzgerald would later describe as “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history” have all come to describe America under the influence of Prohibition. In Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, we are introduced to the opulent lives of wealthy east coasters during one of the rowdiest periods in American history. How accurate is this portrait of Prohibition America, and what influences led our country into an era of drunken excess?
In the early 1920’s World War I had just come to an end. A new generation flocked from small towns to big cities in search of excitement, opportunity, and a “modern” way of living. Electronics like radios became more common, particularly in metropolitan households. Flashy new car designs rolled down city streets. Women had finally earned the right to vote, and their hard-fought equality and independence was reflected in their fashion– shorter haircuts, higher hemlines, less curvy silhouettes. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were creating names for themselves on the big screen. It was an era of change—and that change was not welcomed by all. Alcohol flowed like water in homes across the country, and drunkards filled America’s prisons and poorhouses. A powerful group of activists made it their mission to eradicate liquor in an effort to help the country return to simpler times. The movement, known as Prohibition, may well go down as one of the biggest legislative backfires in American history.
Alcohol dependence was a growing problem in the U.S. for over a century before Prohibition came into law. In 1830, American boys and men aged 15 and older drank an average of 88 bottles of whiskey per year, 3 times what Americans drinks today. Drinking wasn’t a new thing; alcohol had been an important part of the American food culture since Colonial times. Americans routinely drank at every meal– breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the early 1700’s, the most common drinks were weak beer and cider, which were only mildly intoxicating (around 2% alcohol content, compared to today’s beers which average between 4-6%). By the 1800’s, as American farmers began cultivating more grains, increasingly potent forms of distilled liquor became available, including rum and whiskey. Americans replaced weaker ciders and beers with these more potent distilled liquors. Before long, alcohol dependence became a widespread epidemic. Men lost their jobs and neglected their families, under the spell of “demon liquor.” Societies dedicated to sober living formed in several major cities. A movement began, and the groundwork was put in place for outlawing alcohol at the national level. A constitutional amendment to ban alcohol sales and production became law in 1920.
A Hooch Hound, a dog trained to detect liquor, sniffs at a flask in the back pocket of man fishing on the Potomac River.
Photo Source:Library of Congress
While Prohibition was meant to eradicate the temptation of liquor, it had the unintended effect of turning many law-abiding citizens into criminals. By barring liquor from the masses, the government unwittingly made it more desirable, more fashionable, and something eager consumers had to get their hands on. Prohibition gave birth to bathtub gin, cocktails, finger food and the elusive speakeasy. If you were able to provide your guests with an endless stream of libations, your popularity was assured. Better yet, if you were brave enough to invest in the illegal bootlegging business, your fortune might very well be sealed… as long as you didn’t lose your life in the process.
As the demand for illegal liquor increased, so did the methods for masking its production and consumption. Cocktails gained popularity—heavily flavored concoctions assembled to disguise the taste of potent bathtub gin with juices, herbs, sweeteners and syrups. Finger food became fashionable, which helped to increase liquor tolerance by ensuring that party-goers weren’t drinking on an empty stomach. Bootleggers, forced to produce liquor in secret, used questionable methods to ferment gin and other types of alcohol in their homes. Often poisonous ingredients, such as methanol (wood alcohol), were used. A government report from 1927 stated that nearly all of the 480,000 gallons of liquor confiscated in New York that year contained some type of poison. Jamaica ginger extract, also known as Jake, was sold in pharmacies as a headache remedy. It didn’t taste great, but it did contain high amounts of alcohol. Over time, more toxic ingredients were added that could result in paralysis, a condition often referred to as Jake Leg.
Confiscated barrel and bottles of whiskey circa 1921.
Photo Source:Library of Congress
Despite the reality of the situation, overall it seemed like Americans were having a lot of fun during Prohibition. No book captures this wild and carefree time period quite like Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The character of millionaire Jay Gatsby represents the extremes of 1920s wealth and decadence. Gatsby devotes his life to accumulating riches in order to attract the attention of his romantic obsession, the lovely but spoiled Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s fortune is evident in the raucous parties he throws from his mansion on Long Island’s north shore. These decadent bashes, free flowing with food and liquor, represent the indulgent excesses of the “flapper” period:
“At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from the other.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Gatsby character represents “new money;” he’s a seemingly overnight success with no known ties to family wealth. It is heavily inferred that Gatsby earned his fortune, at least in part, through bootlegging. How else could he afford his lavish parties with bottomless cocktails to spare? Daisy’s husband Tom gives voice to these suspicions during a heated argument, when he accuses Gatsby and his business partner Meyer Wolfsheim of illegally selling liquor through the drug stores they own. This fictional subplot is based in fact. For a small fee, doctors would prescribe their patients whiskey for just about any ailment, and sometimes no ailment at all. Crooked pharmacists would even sell forged prescriptions to their customers. As for Gatsby’s partner Meyer Wolfsheim, a character described as the man behind fixing the 1919 World Series, he was clearly influenced by a real gangster named Arnold Rothstein. The novel, at least in part, provides a reflection of the social issues and attitudes of the time period.
In honor of Gatsby, Fitzgerald and Prohibition, I decided to whip up a cocktail reminiscent of the time period. Gin is said to have been Fitzgerald’s drink of choice; he was under the impression that its scent could not be detected on his breath. This concoction was born during the years of Prohibition, when most liquor was low-quality bathtub gin that needed plenty of masking with other flavors. The cocktail is called “The Bee’s Knees,” a cute name and a popular phrase during the 1920s. To call something the “bee’s knees” is to say that it’s top notch and grand. The etymology of the phrase is unclear; it may be in reference to bees carrying pollen near the middle of their legs, or it could just be an idiom for “business,” since calling something “the business” was a similar compliment during that time period. Either way, the name represents this cocktail well, since it relies on the sweet flavor of honey to overpower the gin.
This recipe comes from a reprint of a 1934 book of cocktails called Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them. The original recipe calls for honey, which I’ve made into a syrup so that it will mix into the drink more efficiently. The Boothby’s recipe calls for 1 spoon of honey, but I’ve doubled the amount due to the fact that my honey simple syrup is diluted to half the sweetness of plain honey. Today’s gin is much smoother and tastier than bathtub gin, so feel free to cut the honey syrup in half—it will still be drinkable and the sweetness won’t be quite so overpowering.
As you sip this flapper cocktail, raise a glass to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, two American classics.
The Bee’s Knees Cocktail
Whip up a cocktail reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties. Tori Avey of The History Kitchen shares the origin of the drink and the history of Prohibition in a full post on her blog.
- Honey Simple Syrup
- ½ cup honey
- ½ cup water
- Bee's Knees Cocktail
- 1 oz (2 tbsp) honey simple syrup – method below
- ¾ ounce (1 ½ tbsp) gin
- ½ oz (1 tbsp) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ oz (1 tbsp) freshly squeezed orange juice
- To Make Honey Simple Syrup: Combine water and honey in a small saucepan. Heat over medium, whisking often, till the mixture reaches a slow simmer and the honey is liquid and smooth. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- To Make Cocktail: Combine 2 tbsp of the honey simple syrup, gin, lemon juice and orange juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a small chilled cocktail glass and serve.
- Reserve remaining honey simple syrup for more cocktails. If left to stand longer than a few hours, the syrup will need to be re-simmered and recombined, then cooled again.
Yield: 1 serving
Altman, Linda Jacobs (1997). The Decade that Roared: American During Prohibition. Twenty First Century Books, Brookfield, CT.
Blumenthal, Karen (2011). Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Roaring Book Press, New York, NY.
Bolton, Ross (2008). Boothby’s 1934 Reprint World Drinks And How To Mix Them. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, US.
Boothby, William T (1934). Boothby’s World Drinks And How To Mix Them. Recorder Print. & Publishing Company, San Francisco, CA.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1925). The Great Gatsby. Scribner, New York, NY.
Prohibition. Dir. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. PBS, 2011.
You can uncover more fascinating food history on Tori’s website: The History Kitchen.
Meet the Author
Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of ToriAvey.com. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.
Explore the Era with PBS
“Prohibition” from Ken Burns
PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. Continue
F. Scott Fitzgerald
American Masters profiles respected author F. Scott Fitzgerald including a career timeline and an excerpt from one of his essays. Continue