"Hicks and Slicks: The Urban-Rural Confrontation of the Twenties"

Introduction: Torn Between Old and New

In the fifty years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I, the United States had undergone a startling transformation. A country dominated by agriculture had become the worldís leading industrial manufacturer. A land dominated by rural elements had given way to a nation of city dwellers as a result of incredibly rapid urbanization. The people of the United States also witnessed cultural diversification as tens of millions of eastern and southern Europeans flooded into what to that point had always been an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon culture in fifty years of unprecedented immigration.

This transformation not only produced numerous new and vexing problems, it challenged the supremacy of groups that had traditionally dominated America as well as their values and lifestyles. "Their" America was on the verge of extinction. Thus rural Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage launched a concerted effort after World War I to restrain the trends they found threatening and reimpose traditional American values. Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, nativism, immigration restrictions, Protestant Fundamentalism, and laws forbidding the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools were all part of this campaign.

The Long Dry: Prohibition, 1920-1933

Groups of Americans had long been concerned about the influence of alcohol in the United States. They had begun pressuring for a ban on the production, sale, and consumption of intoxicating beverages as early as the 1830s and achieved success in a number of states before the turn of the century. For instance, Texans had already voted on the question of prohibition four times and had permitted each county in the state to decide the question for itself. By World War I various groups were ready to make such a ban nationwide.

Many progressive reformers and social workers saw such a ban as the key to eliminating a variety of social ills among the poor and immigrant groups. Businessmen, as industry was swept by Frederick Winslow Taylorís ideas of scientific management and the cult of productivity, saw prohibition as a means of reducing worker absenteeism and improving worker productivity. As the nation went to war, more and more Americans felt the use of grain to produce alcohol was a wasteful allocation of national resources. How could we feed our own people, our armed forces, and our European allies if we wasted grain on the distillation of unnecessary liquor?

The strongest supporters of nationwide prohibition, however, were the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants of rural America. They saw prohibition as a way of at least partially purging the nation of the evilness of city life. If the "new immigrants" could not voluntarily stay sober because they came from backwards cultures and practiced "alien" religious beliefs, abstinence would have to be imposed upon them by law. Only then could they be made into respectable "Americans."

Opponents of prohibition - urban dwellers, immigrants, Catholics and Jews, the lower class, civil libertarians - argued three primary points. First, they maintained that a nationwide ban on alcohol was unenforceable short of the creation of a police state. Second, critics rejected this attempt to legislate morality as something that exceeded the proper role of government in a democratic society. Third, opponents argued that prohibition would be the worst kind of class legislation - an unjust attack against the lower classes motivated by racial and religious prejudice.

Such protests were insufficient to stem the rising tide of nativism and the rural counterattack. Prohibition became reality in January, 1920 as a result of the ratification of the eighteenth amendment and congressional passage of the Volstead Act. Enforcing prohibition, however, proved largely impossible despite the best efforts of the government. While rural areas by and large complied, the cities were hotbeds of disobedience. Drinking went underground but it persisted and even increased in some cases. Prohibition proved unenforceable once millions of Americans made the decision to violate what they saw as an unjust law. The nation finally abandoned prohibition as a failed experiment in 1933 though many rural areas remain "dry" to this day under local option laws.

Extremist Illiberalism: The Second Ku Klux Klan

Rising nativism and illiberality also found expression after World War I in the reemergence and phenomenal growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Unlike the original Reconstruction-era Klan which was purely a southern phenomenon intent on holding the freed slave in a position of inferiority, the modern Klan formed active chapters in every region of the country and temporarily gained both respectability and political power.

The time was ripe for a secret and seemingly all-powerful organization committed to reasserting traditional American values by force and intimidation if necessary. Such was the effect of World War I and the paranoia of the Red Scare. To millions of Americans in the postwar era, the country seemed beset with problems and on the verge of ruin. "The white, native-born Protestant American, as a member of the religious and racial majority, was usually incapable of doubting his native institutions. The blame for the maladies of his world must rest elsewhere. And so he looked to ëaliení influences - Roman Catholics who supposedly challenged Protestant hegemony and the separation of church and state, ëunassimilableí Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish immigrants crowding onto American shores, Negroes seeking more equitable treatment, American Jews who kept living costs up while wages went down, and numerous other elements of frustration before which he felt helpless. Then the Klan entered his community and offered him a way to fight back." Now was the time to fight back, to reassert traditional values, or lose forever those qualities which had made America great.

Itís not surprising that the Klanís strongest supporters were residents of the rural and isolated countryside and city dwellers who had just recently arrived from the farm who were shocked by the lifestyles they witnessed in the big city. The drastic changes of the preceding half century had largely passed them by and lessened their influence in the country they felt they had once dominated. Now resentment of city and city people and nativism came together in the form of the Ku Klux Klan.

Using violence, intimidation, and organized political activity, the Klan lashed out at those groups which seemingly were defiling America with strange customs, strange religions, and strange morals. The Klan supported the deportations crusade of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the height of the Red Scare. The Klan pressured Congress to limit immigration into the country. Such limitations would also stem the flow of Roman Catholics and Jews into what had always been primarily a Protestant country.

Perhaps their strongest efforts, at least in Texas and other southwestern states, was to impose middle-class Protestant morality on all members of society no matter where they lived. According to Charles C. Alexander in his study The Klan in the Southwest : "There was also in the Klan a definite strain of moral bigotry. Especially in the Southwest this zeal found expression in direct, often violent, attempts to force conformity. Hence the southwestern Klansmanís conception of reform encompassed efforts to preserve premarital chastity, marital fidelity, and respect for parental authority; to compel obedience to state and national prohibition laws; to fight the postwar crime wave; and to rid state and local governments of dishonest politicians." Individuals in Texas thus were threatened, beaten, or tarred-and-feathered for practicing the "new morality," cheating on their spouses, beating their spouses or children, looking at women in a lewd manner, imbibing alcohol, etc.

The Klan began to participate in politics in order to cleanse this arena of corruption and to legislate their idea of moral behavior. Because it attracted, at least in the beginning, "respectable" members of society, the Klan quickly gained significant political power at the state and local levels of government. In Texas for instance the Klan was able to elect a number of local officials in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Historians feel that members of the Klan probably constituted a majority of the Texas legislature between 1922 and 1924. The Texas Klan even had one of its own, Earl B. Mayfield of Austin, elected to the U. S. Senate at the height of its power. The Klan grew so powerful on the national scene by 1924 that opponents were unable to convince the Democratic partyís convention that year to censure the Klan for its intolerance and violent methods.

Yet just when the Klan seemed to wield such power and influence, it was actually on the verge of collapse. In the mid-twenties the Klan was beset by a series of internal struggles and scandals that resulted in political losses. The nativism of the postwar era peaked and began to recede with the passage of the National Origins Act and with it the appeal of the Klan lost its luster. Furthermore, the "respectable" members of the Klan, shocked by its violent tendencies, began to drop out and by the end of the decade the Klan was once again viewed by most Americans as part of the extremist lunatic fringe.

Slamming Shut The Doors: The National Origins Act

Traditional Americans, who had become increasingly concerned about the influx of millions upon millions of immigrants and the way they were changing the country, chose to slam shut the doors of the United States to the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to be free. Support for immigration restrictions, which began at the turn of the century and had built steadily for twenty years, led to congressional passage of the National Origins Act. This legislation severely restricted the total number of foreigners who would be allowed to enter the United States legally in any given year. It also instituted a quota system intentionally designed to hit Asia and eastern and southern Europe the hardest. The impact was to shut the doors of the country to Asians altogether and slow the flood of Italians, Poles, and Russians to a bare trickle of what it had been.

Immigration curtailment was unquestionably part of the rural counterattack of the 1920s. The countryside was the most Anglo-Saxon, the most Protestant, the most traditional area of the nation and the region that felt most threatened by continued immigration. The fact that rural residents were most supportive of immigration restrictions is clearly borne out by the fact that not a single congressman from south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Mississippi River voted against the National Origins Act. Only in the urban Northeast was there opposition. With the number of immigrants thus limited, perhaps America could be saved.

That Olí Time Religion: Protestant Fundamentalism and Anti-Evolution Laws

The rural counterattack also made itself felt in the field of religion. Protestants in the rural areas of the country felt that the cities were defiling traditional religious beliefs just as surely as Catholic and Jewish immigrants were watering down traditional American moral values. Conservative members of the major Protestant denominations, especially the Baptist and Methodist faiths, launched an attack on what they viewed as the insidious influences of urbanism, cultural pluralism, modernism, and atheistic science.

The campaign began in 1910 with the publication of a series of religious tracts collectively entitled The Fundamentals . These tracts asserted and defended traditional and fundamental beliefs which were the foundations of rural religious practice. These fundamentals included: the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible as the divine word of God Almighty, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ as the son of God, the blood atonement of Christ by crucifixion for the sins of mankind, the bodily resurrection of Christ in triumph over death, the Godhead Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost), and the impending return of Christ to grant eternal life in heaven to true believers and condemn nonbelievers to eternal damnation in hell. Those who questioned these tenets were subjected to derision and attack as heretics.

The rise of Protestant Fundamentalism produced not only a period of intense evangelical revivalism but had an impact on secular life as well. William Jennings Bryan, the old Democratic/Populist candidate for president, one-time Secretary of State, and now a leader of the fundamentalist movement, led a campaign to ban the teaching of the theory of evolution from public schools because it was clearly in conflict with a literal reading of the Genesis story of creation in the Bible. A number of states, including rural Tennessee, passed such legislation. This would result in one of the show trials of the 1920s - the Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

The prosecution of John T. Scopes, a young biology teacher who had deliberately violated the Tennessee anti-evolution law so that its constitutionality might be tested, commanded the attention of the nation. The trial pitted Bryan in the role of special guest prosecutor against Clarence Darrow, a prominent agnostic, serving as defense counsel. While Scopes was found guilty and assessed a minimal fine, the major impact of the trial was the discrediting of Protestant Fundamentalists in the eyes of many Americans. As Bryan tried to explain how the universe did not come flying apart when Joshua caused the sun to stand still in its path across the sky (Joshua 10:12-14), which clearly violated numerous scientific laws, most Americans came to view the fundamentalists as ignorant and reactionary. As a result, fundamentalism went into a period of decline.

 Democratic Dysfunction: The Presidential Election of 1928

The urban-rural confrontation of the 1920s seems neatly symbolized by the presidential election of 1928 and the defection of many traditional Democrats to the Republican candidate because of their shock at the nomination of Al Smith by their own party.

The Republican party was riding the crest of national popularity in 1928, basking in the glow of the economic boom which Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge had seemingly engineered. Herbert Hoover, its presidential nominee in 1928, would probably have won the election of that year on the strength of the economy alone. His election became inevitable, however, when many lifelong Democrats in the South and Southwest rejected their partyís nominee. Rural Democrats simply could not stomach Al Smith because he seemed to represent everything that threatened their America. He was a resident of the largest and that most evil of cities - New York City. He was a practicing Roman Catholic in a decade of virulent anti-Catholicism. He opposed national prohibition and openly flaunted the law during the election campaign. Furthermore, he was suspect because of his links to the worst of all urban political machines - Tammany Hall of New York City.

In contrast, Hoover, while a member of the Republican party which had long been discredited in the South and Southwest because of the Reconstruction experience, was a native of Iowa, one of the most rural states in the union. He was a Protestant who openly and forcefully supported Prohibition. Unlike Smith, he was untainted by any association with machine politics. Rather, his character and reputation seemed sterling. He had saved Europe from starvation in the aftermath of World War I by leading a volunteer relief campaign, he was a self-made millionaire, and as Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928 had helped produce the current economic boom. J. Frank Norris, a leading fundamentalist pastor in Texas, campaigned across the state on behalf of Hoover saying that the only real issue in the campaign was Smithís Catholicism. Norris and others painted dire pictures of the future should Smith be victorious. The Pope would actually be running the country and very quickly separation of church and state and freedom of religion would be relics of Americaís distant past.

The strength of the urban-rural confrontation in the election can be seen in the fact that Texas - rural, Protestant, and solidly Democratic in its historic party affiliation - ended up in the Republican party column for the first time in its history. Nor was she alone. Hoover also carried the old Confederate states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Such was the strength of rural disaffection with an increasingly urban, industrial, and culturally diverse America.


While rural Americans were unable to permanently halt the demise of their America, they temporarily slowed the trend during the 1920 by their attacks upon city dwellers and city life. Soon, however, all Americans were faced by another more menacing threat - the collapse of the economy and the beginning of the worst depression ever in American history.