A so-called "flapper" flouts the Volstead Act by carrying a whiskey flask in her garter, ca 1920s. / John Binder Collection
‘Prohibition’ airs on Oct. 2, 3 and 4 on PBS at 8 pm.
Flappers dancing on tables, gangsters solving problems with machine guns, rumrunners slipping down the coast on moonless nights — they’re all there in our new film series about Prohibition, co-directed with Lynn Novick. We could hardly tell the tale of this violent, sexy, profoundly instructive period of American history without such iconic images.
But there’s much more to the story than Jazz Age conventions can even begin to convey — hard lessons about freedom, politics and the very nature of democracy that resonate as deeply today as they did back in 1919, when the United States ratified the 18th Amendment to ban the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors.
Unlike virtually every other part of the Constitution, a document that fundamentally is about expanding and protecting personal freedoms, Prohibition took one away. The idea was to make America a stronger, better place. The reality? Not so much.
Among the law’s many unintended consequences, Prohibition turned millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans into criminals. It pitted neighbor against neighbor, cruelly compelling citizens to report “suspicious” behavior to the authorities. It caused the deaths of untold numbers of people at the hands of trigger-happy enforcement agents. We have organized crime in this country to this day because of Prohibition. We have alcoholism among women at a far higher rate than before booze was banned.
As we worked on the film, Lynn and I were amazed by the social and political circumstances that conspired to make such a bad law possible. Here are three conditions that existed during this most fractious period of American history — and that may be familiar to anyone troubled by the coarsening of our civic conversation today.
A loss of moderation
Liquor posed a serious problem in 19th-century America. Men drank on average perhaps six times more than we do today. In response to the predictable effects of rampant “drunkenness” (the word “alcoholism” had not yet been coined) — domestic abuse, child abandonment, poverty — social reformers began calling for temperance.
As the 19th century wore on, however, a new breed of activist grabbed hold of the temperance movement and steered it in an extreme direction. In place of moderation, strident groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League demanded nothing less than a total ban. They took a serious issue that affected maybe 10% of the population and sought to impose a solution on 100% of the people.
Led by a shrewd operative named Wayne B. Wheeler, the Anti-Saloon League became without a doubt the single most effective lobbying organization in the history of the United States. Ruthlessly exploiting social antagonisms — rural against urban, Protestant against Catholic, native against immigrant — Wheeler stitched together a powerful bloc of special interests united only in their support of Prohibition.
The rare politician who stood firm against the Drys often found himself targeted for removal from office. One example is Myron T. Herrick, a moderate Republican governor of Ohio. During his 1906 campaign, Herrick made the mistake of suggesting local communities ought to decide the alcohol question for themselves. The Anti-Saloon League went in and got him unelected. That was the power of that absolutism. You were either with the Anti-Saloon League or against it. All-or-nothing tactics turned moderation into a dirty word.
The scapegoating of immigrants
It was World War I of all things that put the movement over the top. Suddenly, the country found itself at war with Germany. And who ran America’s breweries? Men with names like Schlitz, Pabst and Busch: German-American immigrants. Amping up its rhetoric, the Anti-Saloon League equated beer with treason.
By now Prohibition had ceased to be about finding a reasonable solution to a real problem. In their zeal to overhaul society, its leaders had turned the movement into an exercise in demonization.
The war was only the final straw. The virulence of Dry rhetoric had in fact been mounting for years. For anyone whose ideal of America was small-town, Protestant and white, the era’s demographic changes must have been frightening. They saw cities populated by Catholics with their foreign pope, Jews with their strange customs, tenements where no one seemed to speak English.
What if these people voted?
What if they drank and voted?
Prohibition could control that!
Fearful of a perceived wolf at the door, we ended up voluntarily surrendering a freedom. The fear was understandable. When events — the end of slavery, a wave of immigration — challenge our view of the world, we naturally long for some way to impose order.
The Dry crusade teaches us to be careful of what we wish for. Rash solutions have a way of breeding whole new levels of chaos: Mere hours after Prohibition became law, the first liquor truck was hijacked. About 30,000 speakeasies soon were operating in New York City. And in the nation’s capital, Warren G. Harding, the nation’s first Prohibition president, ran his infamous Whisky Cabinet with hooch supplied by a Washington bootlegger.
We tried to legislate morality and ended up enshrining hypocrisy.
A breakdown in civility
Several years ago, while making a different film, I asked the historian Shelby Foote why the Civil War had happened. He said: “Americans like to think of ourselves as uncompromising people. But our real genius is for compromise, and when it broke down we murdered each other in great numbers.”
Prohibition is another moment in which the civil conversation broke down. We collectively decided to look for villains instead of solutions.
You start to realize that part of the business of America is messy. Democracy is messy. But it’s better than anything else. Sure, it might be nice if everything ran on time and there was no gum on the subways and no graffiti anywhere, but are we willing to accept the level of despotism it would take to achieve such control?
“Liberty is never being too sure that you’re right,” said Judge Learned Hand, a leading figure of the Prohibition-era judiciary. I think that when you have a sense of absolute certainty, you are in big trouble. And if you pass laws from a sense of absolute certainty, we are all in big trouble.
To us, that’s the real story of Prohibition. Flappers, revenue men and rumrunners — they’re simply the colorful characters who bring it to life.