In contrast to the previous episode that covers a hundred years, “A Nation of Scofflaws” looks at only the early and mid-1920s. This short span of years allows Burns and Novick to develop stories. Since the time period is relatively recent, “Scofflaws” can provide brief comments by people who were children during Prohibition. They include sons and a daughter of bootleggers and a Supreme Court Justice who grew up in a teetotal family. “Scofflaws” emphasizes the widespread and increasing defiance of National Prohibition. It acknowledges that total alcohol consumption declined at least during the early 1920s. Although there is little or nothing about upper middle class “flappers” dancing and drinking at speakeasies, there is plenty about illegal drinking and legal drinking too. The Volstead Act that interpreted the Eighteenth Amendment’s ban on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drink was both severe and riddled with holes. Some people had expected that beer and light wines would remain legal, but the Volstead Act allowed only the weakest “near beer.” On the other hand, drinking was never illegal and there were all sorts of exceptions about access to alcoholic beverages.
Prior to the effective date for prohibition, the Yale Club stocked a fourteen-year supply of liquor that didn’t run out before Repeal. With the help of a rabbi’s certification, Jews could obtain alcohol for household religious observances. The membership of Jewish congregations grew ten-fold. “Scofflaws” documents the failures of enforcement, in part because most states failed to provide the federal government support. Federal agents were few and often corrupt. The energetic Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889-1963), assistant attorney general, stands out as the exception in federal law enforcement.