In 1927, the New School for Social Research in New York City organized a series of lectures on the theme of Freedom in the Modem World. Founded eight years earlier as a place where “free thought and intellectual integrity” could flourish in the wake of wartime repression, the School’s distinguished faculty included the philosopher John Dewey and historian Charles Beard (who had resigned from Columbia University in 1917 to protest the dismissal of antiwar professors). The lectures painted a depressing portrait of American freedom on the eve of the Great Depression. “The idea of freedom,” declared economist Walton H. Hamilton, had become “an intellectual instrument for looking backward.... Liberty of contract has been made the be-all and end-all of personal freedom;... the domain of business has been defended against control from without in the name of freedom.” The free exchange of ideas, moreover, had not recovered from the crisis of World War I. The “sacred dogmas of patriotism and Big Business,” said the educator Horace Kallen, dominated teaching, the press, and public debate. A definition of freedom reigned supreme that celebrated the unimpeded reign of economic enterprise yet tolerated the surveillance of private life and individual conscience.

The prosperity of the 1920s had reinforced this definition of freedom. With the economic crash, compounded by the ineffectiveness of the Hoover administration’s response, it would be discredited. By 1932, the seeds had already been planted for a new conception of freedom that combined two different elements in a sometimes uneasy synthesis. One was the Progressive belief in a socially conscious state making what Dewey called “positive and constructive changes” in economic arrangements. The other, which arose in the 1920s, centered on respect for civil liberties and cultural pluralism and declared that realms of life like group identity, personal behavior, and the free expression of ideas lay outside legitimate state concern. These two principles would become the hallmarks of modern liberalism, which during the 1930s would redefine American freedom.


1. How did consumerism affect the meaning of American freedom in the 1920s?

2. Which groups did not share in the prosperity of the 1920s and why?

3. How did observers explain the decrease in democracy and popular participation in government during the decade?

4. How did government actions reflect conservative business interests in this period? Give examples.

5. Explain the justifications for immigration restriction laws, as well as the reasons for specific exemptions to these laws.

6. Did U.S. society in the 1920s reflect the concept of cultural pluralism as explained by Horace Kallen? Why or why not?

7. Identify the causes of the Great Depression.

8. What principles guided President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression, and how did this restrict his ability to help the American people?

9. To what degree was race a global issue in the 1920s?


1. How did business and government use the concept of personal liberty to attack unions and the freedoms of American labor?

2. How did the meanings of freedom change for American women in the 1920s?

3. Explain how debates over free speech and the First Amendment redefined freedom by the end of the 1920s.

4. Which groups and forces were the targets of fundamentalist opposition and why?

5. How did the actions of the Ku Klux Klan threaten American freedom in the 1920s?

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