Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?

American History and Independence

In 1920, America was still a relatively new country – the United States declared independence from the British Empire in 1776. Before Europeans ‘discovered’ the continent, which they called the ‘New World’, America had been inhabited by groups of Native Americas. When traders and settlers from Europe (predominantly Britain, Spain, and France) arrived in the 1600s, these Native Americans were pushed back. Many of them died from illnesses brought over by the Europeans, and others tried (unsuccessfully) to resist European settling of the continent. It was the British colonies on the East Coast which rebelled and formed the United States in 1776, and from that time the United States spread across from these first ‘13 Colonies’ to cover 48 States by 1920, covering land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Whilst America started off with a fairly acrimonious relationship with Europe, and indeed several wars against the European powers trying to retain control of the continent, by __1920 __America had forged a fairly strong friendship with the European powers. America had even (belatedly) entered the First World War on the side of Britain and France.

Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?, figure 1

Religious Influences on American Society

Whilst America has always been officially ‘secular’ (politics and religion are separated), Americans in 1920 were highly influenced by religion – Christianity, in particular. There were some strong Catholic populations, especially in immigrant groups from Italy, Spain, and Ireland, but the dominant religious influence was from strict Protestants from Northern Europe, and these were the Protestants who were part of the WASP group. Furthermore, these religions played quite strongly into the two main political parties which had emerged by 1920 – the Democrats and the Republicans.

I would like to quote a very prejudicial doctrine that was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1823. It said that the Indian (Native American) Nations do not have title to their lands because they weren’t Christians.

This quotation from Floyd Westerman, of the Lakota First Nation (a Native American ‘Nation’) reveals how religion prejudiced American society, even becoming an excuse to take over Native American land.

The U.S. Government

The U.S. was governed through two interlocking systems: the Federal Government which was in charge of the entire country, and State Governments which were in charge of their own States (of which there were 48). There had been a history of tension between the two systems, and ever since the first months of the country in 1776 people had argued over what powers each system should have. In 1920, States had a lot more power than the central government: they could set their own laws and punishments for crimes, set their own tax levels, and each State had an independent police force (only the FBI could go between States, but these were not well-trusted).

There were also two dominant political parties – the Democrats and the Republicans. In the 1920s, the Democrats were most popular in the South and countryside areas, and the Republicans were most popular in the big cities and industrial North (this is almost the complete opposite today!). Furthermore, the Republicans largely argued for ‘States’ Rights’ – that individual States should have more power over themselves, whereas the Democrats believed that the Federal Government should control more for the whole country. In general, the Democrats were seen as liberal and happy to make changes, whereas the Republicans were seen as conservative and preferred to leave things (and people) alone.

Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?, figure 1

This chart shows how the Federal Government itself was divided. For your course, you don’t need to know any more than the top level - that the Constitution divided the Government into three branches (this is called the Separation of Powers): Legislative (made laws), Executive (ran the country), and Judicial (enforced and protected laws). These three were divided in order that they would keep an eye on each other - to stop anyone getting too powerful.

The American ‘Melting Pot’

The initial 13 Colonies were all started by immigrant populations, and indeed the Native Americans have historically been subjugated and oppressed. Rather, America has been built upon waves of European immigration since the first settlers in the 1600s. Beyond the main British (in the East), Spanish (in the South), and French (in the North) settlers, there were Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, and so many more – and they only kept coming after the War of Independence. By 1920, there were over one hundred nationalities making up the American population of 110 million. This was called the ‘melting pot’, where all people came to a new continent for a new life, and became ‘Americans’. From the 1850s more diverse groups of immigrants began to arrive, including more from Asia and South America, and American society (aka previous immigrants) did not react with as much welcome as before.

Not all of these people came voluntarily – there was a significant population of ‘African Americans’, many of whom had been brought over as slaves in the 17th-19th Centuries. Whilst slavery was abolished in 1865, prejudice remained entrenched in American society, and whilst the United States remained a highly diverse population, politics and society were dominated by the ‘WASP’ group – ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’. Furthermore, whilst these WASP people were all immigrants themselves, once settled they considered themselves ‘American’, and began to object to further immigration. Despite being around 10% of the country’s population, this group owned nearly 90% of the wealth.

Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?, figure 1

This cartoon, which was originally the programme illustration for a 1908 play - The Melting Pot, by Israel Zangwill - shows the idea of all kinds of people becoming one identity inside the United States. You can see stereotyped images of Orthodox Jews, African-Americans, and European immigrants, all passing the Statue of Liberty which looked over the immigrations centres in New York.

The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights

The Constitution (and attached Bill of Rights) were held incredibly dear by all Americans, and formed the cornerstone of both American politics and identity. Written right at the start of being an independent country – although slightly changed (amended) along the way – the American Constitution set out the rights of all Americans to pursue ‘life, liberty, and happiness’. Furthermore, the Bill of Rights guaranteed all Americans the rights to: free speech, freedom of religion, defend themselves (including carrying a gun), equality before the law, and freedom of information. The American people knew the Constitution back-to-front, and knew that the Supreme Court was there to protect the Constitution if the Government tried act beyond its powers.

Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?, figure 1

The United States Constitution was founded on the principle of ‘Popular Sovereignty’ (that a people rule themselves, democratically), which is expressed as the Constitution is a declaration from ‘We the People’.

American Geography

By 1920, America was huge. It covered a significant part of a very large continent, and each of its 48 States were as large as any European country. As a result of this, there was enormous potential in the geography and resources of the new United States. The country was still hugely underpopulated in comparison to Europe, and boasted large mineral and resource wealth which had remained untapped throughout previous centuries. As such, whilst many countries were becoming increasingly dependent upon trade for the resources they needed, America had not only enough resources to be entirely self-sustaining, they had enough left over to sell to Europe!

Who Were 'Americans' in 1920?, figure 1

In this map you can see the original ‘13 Colonies’ in purple, who declared independence in 1776. Compare this to the size of the United States in 1920, which is all of the grey States (excluding Hawaii and Alaska, shown in the boxes bottom right, which were added later).

Describe two features of American government in 1920?
Your answer should include: government / federal / states / separation / powers
Explanation: Here you can get four marks for two features. This means you need to say two things about American society, and then give a detail to back each one up.