Thursday, July 12, 2012

PROHIBITION by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

The three-part film directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick tells the story of the rise, rule and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. Watch PROHIBITION unfold on WSBE Rhode Island PBS on Thursdays at 9 P.M. starting July 12Episodes repeat on Saturdays at 1:30 A.M. and noon.

(Excerpts from an essay written by historian Michael Lerner)

By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year – three times as much as we drink today – and alcohol abuse (primarily by men) was wreaking havoc on the lives of many, particularly in an age when women had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on their husbands for sustenance and support.

The Temperance Movement 

The country’s first serious anti-alcohol movement grew out of a fervor for reform that swept the nation in the 1830s and 1840s. Many abolitionists fighting to rid the country of slavery came to see drink as an equally great evil to be eradicated – if America were ever to be fully cleansed of sin. The temperance movement, rooted in America’s Protestant churches, first urged moderation, then encouraged drinkers to help each other to resist temptation, and ultimately demanded that local, state, and national governments prohibit alcohol outright. 

By the late 19th century the Women’s Christian Temperance Union could claim some significant successes – it had lobbied for local laws restricting alcohol and created an anti-alcohol educational campaign that reached into nearly every schoolroom in the nation. But the WCTU’s ultimate goal, a prohibition amendment to the constitution, still seemed impossibly out of reach. 

The Anti-Saloon League became the most successful single issue lobbying organization in American history, willing to form alliances with any and all constituencies that would advance its sole goal: a constitutional amendment that would ban the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol. They united with Democrats and Republicans, Progressives, Populists, and suffragists, the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP, the International Workers of the World, and many of America’s most powerful industrialists including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Andrew Carnegie – all of whom supported ASL’s increasingly effective campaign. 

With ratification of the income tax amendment in 1913, and the federal government no longer dependent on liquor taxes to fund its operations, the ASL moved into high gear. As anti-German fervor rose to a near frenzy with the American entry into the First World War, ASL propaganda effectively connected beer brewers with Germans and treason in the public mind. Most politicians dared not defy the ASL and in 1917 the 18th amendment sailed through both houses of Congress; it was ratified by the states in just 13 months. 

Unintended Consequences 

At 12:01 A.M. on January 17, 1920, the amendment went into effect and Prohibitionists rejoiced that, at long last, America had become officially and irrevocably dry. 

But just a few minutes later, six masked bandits with pistols emptied two freight cars full of whiskey from a rail yard in Chicago, another gang stole four casks of grain alcohol from a government bonded warehouse, and still another hijacked a truck carrying whiskey. 

Americans were about to discover that making Prohibition the law of the land had been one thing; enforcing it would be another...