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1920s protection of civil liberties, pt 1

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Interviewer: You write that the 1920s "saw the birth of a coherent concept of civil liberties and the beginnings of significant legal protection for freedom of speech against the government." How did this come about?

Eric Foner: The initial response of the courts to the suppression of free speech in World War I was to support it. The Supreme Court, during the war and immediately after, handed down decisions endorsing the arrest of people for handing out pamphlets; Eugene Debs's conviction for giving an antiwar speech was upheld by the Supreme Court. But, when the war is over, and tempers begin to diminish a little bit, certain members of the court—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandice—begin to pull back. They begin to say, wait a minute. Should the government really be outlawing kinds of speech, saying which political view can be expressed and can't be expressed? So as the 1920s go on, you begin to get Supreme Court decisions overturning convictions of people for just expressing their point of view.

It's during World War I that the American Civil Liberties Union is formed, in order to defend the right of dissent. During the war, they don't get anywhere. In fact, the post office bans the American Civil Liberties Union from sending its publications through the mail. You cannot send things in the mail defending freedom of speech. But when the war is over, they begin to grow, and they begin to mobilize sentiment in favor of a broader defense of civil liberties. It doesn't happen all at once, but this is really the beginning of a long process by which the courts will, more and more, begin to enforce the Bill of Rights, which they had rarely done beforehand.

1920s protection of civil liberties, pt 2

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Interviewer: How did the protection of civil liberties become a more important component of freedom in the 1920s?

Eric Foner: The tremendous repression of free speech, free press, and the right to dissent during World War I eventually led to a sharp reaction. At least some Americans began to elevate civil liberties to a central place in the definition of American freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union was founded during World War I. It began a campaign to try to overturn some of the most repressive practices and laws that had been put on the books. With the war over, a number of Progressive thinkers began to say, We need to fix it so that the government cannot simply put people in jail for criticizing it or suppress newspapers it doesn't like. So then what happens is the recognition of how a two-power government can be an enemy of liberty rather than an embodiment of liberty, and you have contradictory developments in the country. You have the Ku Klux Klan rising to prominence. You have bitter battles over laws such as those prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and things like that, but you also have the beginning of a civil liberties consciousness of people who say, No, the right of the lone individual to stand up against public opinion, against government, is essential to liberty in this country.

Immigration in the 1920s

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Interviewer: Discuss the immigration history of the 1920s and the emergence of cultural pluralism as a characteristic of American democracy.

Eric Foner: World War I led to a tremendous increase in efforts toward what was called Americanization—that is, by assimilating particularly the European immigrants into a kind of melting pot idea, or assimilating them into a sort of Anglo Saxon idea, they would give up their previous heritage and become "normal mainstream Americans." Along with that went a rising tide of demands for immigration restrictions, which were enacted in the law in 1921 temporarily and in 1924 permanently. In order to severely restrict immigration from eastern and southern Europe and to allow more immigration from northern and western Europe, where earlier immigration had come from, Asian immigration was barred altogether in 1924. So, in place of the nineteenth-century practice of very open immigration, now we had a very restricted definition of who was entitled to enter the United States as a worker and a potential citizen. There was this restricted idea, but at the same time immigrant groups who were here were putting forward the notion of "pluralism," that they should be able to maintain their own identity, their own values, their own religion and still be accepted as loyal Americans, and that being a loyal American did not mean giving up one's heritage. You could exist as part of a pluralistic society, be loyal to the country, and yet still maintain your own cultural traditional values.

Religious fundamentalism in American life

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Interviewer: Religious fundamentalism has been a force in American life at particular moments. Would you highlight its political importance with a couple of examples?

Eric Foner: Religious fundamentalism is certainly an important political factor today, particularly in the Republican Party. Religious fundamentalists are an important part of the base, as we call it, of the Republican Party. Fundamentalists, that is, people who believe in the literal truth of the bible and trying to ground public policy as closely as possible in biblical beliefs, have been around a long time. But their participation in politics seems to ebb and flow.

For example, in the 1920s, religious fundamentalists were very active in the movement against Darwinism, against the theory of evolution. Of course, a famous episode in that struggle was the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the 1920s, in which a teacher was convicted of violating a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. That trial sort of subjected fundamentalist teaching to ridicule in the mainstream cosmopolitan press and led to a retreat from politics.

This was coupled, of course, with prohibition, which was in effect in the 1920s and had been supported by many different groups. But religious fundamentalists were one of the groups that brought about prohibition. Although by the end of the 1920s prohibition was seen as a disaster and a failure and was repealed in the early 1930s.

And so, the combination of the Scopes trial and the fiasco of prohibition seemed to lead many religious fundamentalists to retreat from direct engagement in public life. They may have commented on public life but they didn’t organize politically again until really the 1970s when, once again worried about what the considered rampant immorality in American life—the feminist movement of the 1960s was a challenge to traditional gender roles and the traditional definition of women as housekeepers, homemakers, etc. Also a Supreme Court decision barring prayer in public schools, the rise of the Gay Movement, all of these things were, in the eyes of many a religious fundamentalist, signs of a kind of moral decay in the country. And led by people like the Reverend Jerry Falwell and others, fundamentalists mobilized to go back into politics to try to affect public life. They helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The problem facing these groups, and this continues all the way to the present, is that the social changes that are alarming to them seem to be irreversible. No matter what kinds of laws you pass, you are not going to have women go back to the traditional role of the 19th century where they’re in the separate sphere of the home and do not work anymore. You’re not going to go back to the patriarchal family where the man is the head of the family and women have very little voice. And the proliferation of the Internet and different modes of communication is sort of flooding the country with all kinds of images, many of which are seen as very offensive by deeply religious people. But it seems difficult to imagine how you’re somehow going to get rid of that. So, in a way they are fighting an uphill battle against the tides of modern life, many of which seem to be quite hostile to some of the moral standards of religious fundamentalism.