People in the 1920s could have a feeling of liberty because they were coming out of an era in which civil rights and personal self-determination had been restricted. As historian R.J. Unstead writes,
For many Americans, theirs was a society based on freedom and equality of opportunity.
From 1913 to 1920, President Wilson had introduced segregation into various offices within the federal government - offices which had previously been desegregated and integrated. The 1920s saw advances in civil rights for African-Americans.
Woodrow Wilson had also been enthusiastic in his support of the KKK. It is shocking to realize that a president of the United States would openly support the Ku Klux Klan. He promoted the film The Birth of a Nation and called the Klan a “glorious” organization.
Wilson also mocked President Theodore Roosevelt, who had invited leading Black citizens to the White House and appointed Blacks to major federal offices. Wilson reversed the gains which African-Americans had made prior to 1913.
In 1920, Americans elected a new president, Warren G. Harding, who took office in March 1921. Harding undid many of Wilson’s racist actions.
President Harding died suddenly in August 1923, but his successor, President Calvin Coolidge, continued working with Blacks on various civil rights issues.
When the KKK pressured Coolidge for support, he rejected such bullying, and openly mocked the Klan in his campaign slogans. He further irritated the Klan by becoming the first U.S. president to give a commencement address at a historically Black university.
Aside from racial questions, the 1920s saw other benefits for ordinary citizens. American benefitted from a balanced middle course between isolationism and an overly-ambitious internationalism, as R.J. Unstead reports:
They had rejected Woodrow Wilson’s dream that they should take on world leadership and sort out the troubles of a ruined Europe. What America wanted was a return to “normalcy”, to the task of building a free and prosperous society. “The business of the United States is business,” declared President Coolidge.
During the 1920s, the United States would work with Europe as a partner, not a boss. “By 1921, Americans had turned their backs” on Wilson’s hope that America would manage Europe.
If America had attempted to organize and direct Europe, it would have received the anger and contempt of other nations, it would have spent huge sums of money, it would have been dragged into regional wars, and it would have had to convince both Americans and Europeans that America had a moral right to supervise the rest of the world.
Wilson’s dreams had been too ambitious.
Coolidge, by contrast, worked with the Europeans on initiatives like the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Dawes Plan, both of which averted the looming possibility of war.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact created diplomatic opportunities for nations to resolve disagreements without war, and the Dawes Plan healed economic problems which would have led to war. 1920s enjoyed not only civil rights and peace, but also prosperity.
Business boomed in the twenties. Income per head increased by a quarter; prices came down and wages went up, so that luxuries like cars, refrigerators and radios became necessities.
Economic innovations like purchases made on the “installment plan,” called “hire-purchase” in England, fueled growth. The Harding and Coolidge administrations lowered taxes, reduced the federal government’s spending, and reduced the national debt.
Lower tax rates left workers with more money to enjoy consumer goods. Working-class families could afford the new technologies of the era: telephones, radios, electric lights, and phonographs.
The twenties were prosperous years in the United States, output increased at a tremendous rate and wages were the highest in the world.
Blue-collar industrial workers were not poor: there was not a large income difference between the working class and the middle class. The upper end of the working class was, in fact, part of the middle class.
Reduced regulations created more jobs and better-paying jobs. “This was the era,” Unstead explains,
when skyscrapers changed the skyline of American cities, when films, jazz, sensational papers and the drama of Prohibition added to the excitement of life.
Prohibition was a leftover from the ‘Progressive’ movement of earlier years. Approved in 1919 and taking effect in 1920, it was clearly a policy failure within a year or two. One political task during the 1920s was to end Prohibition. The anti-Prohibition movement grew during the the decade, and Prohibition ended in 1933.