Editors’ Note: Our first response to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition comes courtesy of noted alcohol and temperance historian David Fahey. We’re grateful to him for sharing his thoughts on the “Nation of Drunkards” episode, and welcome your thoughts on the same.
“A Nation of Drunkards” is an impressive beginning to the new Burns and Novick series, Prohibition. It adroitly weaves short statements by scholars (notably, Daniel Okrent), voice overlays of quotations from famous writers (Mark Twain, Jack London, H.L. Mencken), and visuals. It presents its main arguments persuasively:
- The concern of temperance reformers toward drinkers was partly compassionate but increasingly grew out of fear; fear that urban immigrants would undermine the American way of life (and fear by white Southerners about drink turning blacks into dangerous neighbors).
- Anger and sorrow that drink destroyed families (by which temperance reformers meant the mistreatment of wives and children).
- Drinking was both a badge of masculinity and often the ruin of the core requirement of masculinity, supporting one’s family.
- National Prohibition was a fluke brought about by a combination of the political skill of the Anti-Saloon League, the adoption of an amendment to the federal constitution that created an income tax (making drink taxes irrelevant), and American entry into the First World War which allowed the demonizing of German-American brewers.
- The assumption that National Prohibition would be self-enforcing.
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.
A few points.