This article features a review of a PBS documentary recently aired, and as I've always been fascinated by Prohibition, I thought it was worth posting here. I find it amazing that our country went through this "large experiment" and even more amazing that some people still believe in it. In an earlier blog post I reviewed a book called When Rivers Ran Red, which is a directly reflection of the Prohibition's effects on Napa and Sonoma. Here is a small account of several factors that played into the "success" of the 18th Amendment and it's later downfall.
This article was originally posted by the SF Gate. It is pasted here for your convenience.
'Prohibition' review: When the country went dry
A New York City police official watches agents pour liquor into a sewer around 1921. The documentary "Prohibition" explores the era.
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Prohibition: Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Part I, "A Nation of Drunkards," 8 p.m. Sunday; Part II, "A Nation of Scofflaws," 8 p.m. Monday; Part III, "A Nation of Hypocrites," 8 p.m. Tuesday, PBS, check local listings.
Great historical documentaries not only enlighten us about the past, but tell us things about our own times as well, either directly or implicitly. "Prohibition," the latest project by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, states the implicit links between the passage of the 18th Amendment and contemporary politics so loudly, you'd have to be drunk on bathtub gin not to get the message.
If we think we know all about Prohibition, Novick, Burns and their writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, quickly convince us otherwise in the first of the documentary's three parts airing Sunday on PBS. Yes, they get around to Al Capone and mobsters' control of illegal booze during the nearly 14-year life span of the 18th Amendment. But "Prohibition" is really about American politics, absolutist causes, the sociological and political empowerment of women, and the larger discussion of whether government can or should legislate human behavior.
But before machine guns and hip flasks, there was the temperance movement, sparked by fiery sermons from 19th century preachers like the Rev. Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister (and father of author Harriet Beecher Stowe) who co-founded the American Temperance Society. As more and more women became involved in the issue, through groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Prohibition became the 19th century equivalent of "family values" in American politics.
Over time, it also became a powerfully divisive force in the country. The amendment and the subsequent enforcement law that went with it, the Volstead Act, came into existence with the help of rural and small-town America. As new waves of immigrants moved to the cities, Prohibition became an ethnic issue as well, advanced by anti-urban xenophobia. After the amendment was passed and Americans began to see its downside, efforts to amend or repeal it were thwarted because the "dry" forces still controlled state legislatures and were able to block reapportionment that would have given more political clout to the cities.
While Prohibition did reduce alcoholism to some extent, anyone who wanted booze could get it fairly easily. Of course, you couldn't always count on the quality of the liquor you were buying. Some of it was laced with wood grain alcohol and substances that could actually kill you. That fact may prompt us to think about other regulation debates in our culture over the years, including the debate on abortion. If the provisions of Roe vs. Wade were overturned and women were denied abortions, say supporters of that court decision, the nation would return to "back-alley" abortions, beyond the regulatory authority of the government.
Narrator Peter Coyote doesn't say this directly in "Prohibition," any more than interview subjects like columnist Pete Hamill, author Daniel Okrent and theologian Martin Marty specifically cite the Tea Party as perhaps exhibiting the kind of inflexibility demonstrated by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League in refusing to make any adjustments to the Volstead Act. That inflexibility became one of the nails in the amendment's coffin.
Another important factor in the eventual repeal of the amendment, ironically, was also one of the reasons it was passed in the first place, and that was the now-official involvement of women in American politics. Before the temperance movement in the 19th century, women were not only forbidden the right to vote, but had only the tiniest of voices in American political life. Banding together, whether through the temperance union or standing with hatchet-wielding firebrand Carrie Nation, women began to feel their own social and political muscle. Joining with other "dry" forces like the Anti-Saloon League, they saw that having the vote would only enhance their ability to effect change. It was obvious, of course, but the temperance movement drew women toward political activism who might never have considered it in the past.
Once Prohibition was law, one of its most resolute defenders was an assistant U.S. attorney named Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who more than anyone kicked federal enforcement of the Volstead Act into high gear. When the Democrats nominated New York Gov. Al Smith for the presidency, she engineered raids in New York to embarrass the candidate. When she was passed over for attorney general by President Herbert Hoover, she resigned and returned to private practice, where one of her first clients was a fruit juice company whose product, when combined with sugar and other available ingredients, could be turned into wine.
But a fascinating heroine of repeal turned out to be a singularly unlikely candidate for the job, a wealthy Long Island Republican matron who had ardently supported Hoover, Harding and Coolidge and, before it was enacted, the 18th Amendment. But over time, Pauline Sabin saw that the law was not only flawed but harmful to the nation. Founding the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, she broke with her own party and supported Franklin D. Roosevelt because of his support of amending the law.
As with so many things, money had a deciding impact on the fate of Prohibition. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the nation's descent toward the Depression, there were bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether people had an illegal highball or not. More to the point, there was money to be saved by the government in not having to enforce the law, as well as even more money to be made through liquor taxes. With millions of Americans losing their jobs, repeal created enormous employment opportunities not only in the liquor industry, but in supporting businesses such as barrel making.
It took less than a year for the 18th Amendment to become history. Happy days, more or less, were here again.
Burns and Novick have done a superb job taking a subject we think we know something about, showing us how it fits into the larger picture of our history and politics, and suggesting some lessons that Prohibition should have taught us. The real message of "Prohibition": Any nation ignores the lessons of history at its own peril.
E-mail David Wiegand at firstname.lastname@example.org
Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol
(Photo from Google Images)