top of page

Thoughts on “Prohibition”

Updated: Aug 30

Editor’s Note: Points readers will recognize the name of today’s guest blogger, Mark Schrad; he was the second person (and the first academic author) to submit to the blistering interrogation that is The Points Interview.  The author of The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave, Schrad is an assistant professor of Political Science at Villanova University.  In conjunction with his current research project on contemporary Russian temperance, he runs the website Here he ruminates on anti-alcohol politics closer to home, specifically as they were depicted in Ken Burns’s Prohibition.

So—it has been a week since the premiere of the much-anticipated Prohibition documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: a few nights of sitting back with a bowl of popcorn and a favored libation to take in the series’ three installments on the rise, duration, and demise of American prohibition; followed by time to take in the insightful reviews by David Fahey on Episode One, “A Nation of Drunkards,” and Episode Two, “A Nation of Scofflaws,” additional insights of Frankie Bailey on Episode Two, and Jason Lantzer’s take on Episode Three, “A Nation of Hypocrites”—in addition to the thoughtful comments of the ADHS online community on each.

The Medium is the Message

Stepping back to appreciate the series in its entirety, the general reception (and one that I share) seems to be one of appreciation for the historical treatment, admiration for the artistic side of the documentarians’ craft—but a lamentation that in the time constraints of a 5-1/2 hour series, the colorful was often favored over the important. “The limitations of the program are largely the result of the nature of popular TV history that can present only a handful of stories and prefers the colorful to the complex,” David Fahey writes on “A Nation of Drunkards.” Surely, the nature of the medium and the audience dictates much of this.  Ken Burns himself admits as much: “I’m in the business of trying to tell stories,” Burns recently told the Telegraph. “A good story is hard to do—particularly complicated stories. ‘Story’ in our media culture often means simplification.”

That’s fine. But since Prohibition reaches such a wide audience, these are hardly idle “stories.” In great measure, they reflect the way we understand this era in our shared history, and shape the way future audiences will understand them as well. So I feel that we should not be quick to dismiss some of the professional criticisms offered here as idle “gee—wouldn’t it have been great if they’d (have had time to) discuss interesting person/topic [x].” We highlight those omissions not because they are necessarily enthralling, but because they are important to an unbiased understanding of the questions at issue here. To my mind, Joe Spillane has it just about right in criticizing (in his comments on Episode Three) “the sense of inevitability that underlies the film’s treatment of both prohibition and repeal.” 

The Unstoppable Force...

Indeed, as with other large political events (like, say, the collapse of communism), things that with hindsight seem inevitable were anything but at the time. If I can summarize Burns’ admittedly-simplified narrative, it’d look something like this: given the astronomical rates of alcohol consumption, prohibition was the necessary result of the incremental increase of American temperance sentiment—driven by rural, native-born evangelicals and women against the pressures of modernization, urbanization and immigration.  Essentially his story is equal parts Hofstadter’s Age of Reform and Gusfield’s Symbolic Crusade. Repeal was a necessary consequence of the corruption and costs of attempting to enforce and unenforceable law, and was spearheaded by

...and the Immovable Object

recently-emancipated (culturally, socially and politically) women who learned that it was okay to oppose prohibition. Like any good storyteller, Burns highlights information that supports this narrative, and discounts or eliminates that which opposes it. How does this play out in Prohibition? Let’s start with the question of consumption. The week before the premiere, Burns was a guest on the satirical Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Host Stephen Colbert’s very first question: before prohibition, “how drunk was America?”

So drunk,” was Burns’ reply. “We drank three times the quantity that we drink [today]. That was the reason for the impulse” for prohibition, he argued. Burns then explained that back then, Americans drank some 90 bottles of booze per year per capita. But since women didn’t drink, that’d be more like 180 bottles—or a half-bottle of booze every day—for the average make drinker. Sure enough, early on in Episode One, the narrator puts forth the only consumption statistics in the documentary: in 1830, the per-capita consumption of alcohol was equivalent to 88 bottles of whiskey—creating great worries that the United States was becoming “a nation of drunkards.”

Certainly, this figure is cherry-picked to support the narrative. First of all, no one who was drinking that much in 1830 would be alive to see prohibition enacted 90 years later in 1920. More importantly, liquor consumption diminished drastically over the span of four generations, due in large part to the early temperance efforts Burns and Novick cover in their documentary. Yet when the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874, or the Anti-Saloon League was founded in 1893 (the two temperance organizations that rightly occupy most of Burns’ time), per-capita consumption was actually less than today—and had been steadily declining—rather than being three times higher than present rates. So in light of the actual statistics, the logic behind Burns’ touted “impulse” for prohibition seems nonsensical: we should outlaw alcohol today in the 1910s-1920s because our long-dead great-grandparents were drunks?

The Data are Inconclusive

This, unfortunately, is not the only place where complex information is selectively framed to support the “inevitability” of prohibition. Borrowing a tactic from the Anti-Saloon League, Burns and Novick color-in maps of “dry” states. After describing Neal Dow and the 1851 “Maine Law,” and dry Kansas as the backdrop for the hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation, maps from 1913 show how Maine and Kansas had been joined by five other prohibition states. Then a map from 1916 shows another 10 or so “dry” states, which when added to the patchwork of counties and communities that had voted themselves dry through local option, mean that fully half of the United States was under prohibition.

The problem with this “creeping inevitability of prohibition” theory is prohibition’s fortunes fluctuated wildly: in the sixty years after passage of the Maine Law, numerous states experimented with absolute prohibition, found that it didn’t work particularly well, and repealed it—only to begin the cycle anew. By my count, there were nine prohibition states as early as 1855, but then from 1868 through 1874, the only place prohibition hadn’t been repealed was Michigan, of all places.

Zigging and Zagging in Iowa

My native Iowa, for instance, voted itself dry in 1856. Following repeal two years later, they voted dry again in 1882. And then again in 1885. But that one was repealed in 1893. The point is that even before “prohibition era,” prohibition had already been tried, failed, been repealed and in some cases reinstated multiple times: reflective of a very fluid, uncertain and contingent environment that stands in stark opposition to the creeping inevitability of the “if temperance, then prohibition” narrative of the Prohibition documentary.

This was not lost foreign audiences. In 1908, an exhaustive two-year study of American prohibition by the Swede H.J. Boström was quick to point out that while seventeen different states had experimented with prohibition, it had met repeal everywhere except Maine, Kansas, and North Dakota—with the former two having only been reinstated following earlier repeals.

Of course, as both David Fahey and Jason Lantzer point out, to the extent that the international dimension is mentioned at all in the documentary, it is to highlight the role of immigrants in general (and Germans in particular) as the source of nativist scorn, rather than to address the transnational temperance movement in any meaningful way. Indeed, considering that ten different countries in addition to the U.S. all attempted alcohol prohibition around the same time not only calls into question the overdetermined “if temperance, then prohibition” logic, but also undercuts Burns’ primal causal factors: prohibition countries like Norway and Finland did not have immigrant pressures, while others like Turkey and imperial Russia did not have many Midwestern evangelical Protestants to speak of.

Other individuals, organizations and stories could have been described to highlight the fact that national prohibition was hardly a foregone conclusion. The consideration of well-known and widely-debated alternatives to prohibition, such as local option, high-license, and the Gothenburg system of local dispensary (which we find in many states even today in the form of state liquor stores) would have been instructive, but would likewise have undercut the predetermination narrative. Likewise, attention to the Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Drink Traffic would have provided a nice counterpoint to the so-called Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction—and would have had the benefit of showing how objective researchers understood prohibition’s all-too-obvious shortcomings even before it was tried nationally.

Indeed, it was this widespread understanding of the unfeasibility of prohibition—supported by the experiences of dry states over the preceding half-century—that informed President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to veto the Volstead Act, the legislation that would provide enforcement framework for the Eighteenth Amendment. That his veto was overridden the same day ultimately tells us more about the institutional structure of American government than it does about the purported inevitability of prohibition. But surely conflating the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment as Burns and Novick do, makes it easier to paper-over such inconvenient details.

Dear Mark: No Thanks. Love, Ken.

In many ways, it pains me to write this, as I generally really enjoy Ken Burns and his documentaries. He truly is a gifted storyteller, and has done us a great service in bringing to life many of these great, but generally forgotten, historical figures. And—in the interests of full disclosure—I should add that when I first heard that Prohibition was in production back in 2005 or 2006, I did write to Florentine Films offering to share such broader perspectives. Some months later, I received a kind thank-you letter, politely informing me of their disinterest—which as a lowly grad student I found perfectly reasonable and understandable.

So it is not out of any personal animosity that these critiques seem rather harsh—far from it. If anything, I am interested in what it takes to be an acclaimed storyteller, as Ken Burns undoubtedly is. So I began to consider other well-known Burns documentaries, and I have found critiques broadly similar to those voiced here on Points: just as Lantzer points out the disproportionate focus on developments in New York and Chicago, one of the main critiques of Burns’ Baseball series is that it has a weighty bias towards the clubs of the northeast at the expense of developments in the rest of the country. Perhaps this is catering to the audience he hopes to reach. Others grumble that it focuses predominantly on the players at the expense of the owners, managers and business side. Another oft-heard critique is that despite spanning 18-1/2 hours, Baseball is often just as “rushed” as Prohibition.

Knowledgable critics of Burns’ Jazz series also lament his insistence of a single, quite conservative viewpoint of jazz. “In the end,” a friend far more knowledgable than myself wrote me, “Burns paints a picture of jazz being this genteel, pure thing delivered by Louis Armstrong, and any adulteration of it is criminal. Drugs, rock music, fusion—these are all bad things.” He explained that instead of harping on the drugs-are-bad message, they could have interviewed those who survived the narcotic-laden jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s. “But no. That wouldn’t follow Burns’ odd slant on things.”

Another One Note Song

So at the end of the day, we are left back at Burns’ own description of his craft. Surely Burns is a gifted storyteller; the “gift” may be the ability to craft a consistent and simplified narrative. So when the documentarians turn their attention to any topic, we can certainly enjoy their riveting tales, but we must remain ever cognizant that those stories are never intended to be whole.

#Alcohol #History #PopularCulture


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page