Review: “Prohibition”

Having now seen all three segments of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Prohibition”, which concluded last evening on PBS, I have the chance to share some of my thoughts about the film, with those among my readers who give some passing deference to my opinions on such matters (a fact which continues to astonish me no end.)  In the case of this particular film, Mr. Burns not only captured my interest in a subject which, like many Americans, I thought I already understood, but he also opened up new areas of inquiry for me to examine now that the film is over.  And because of this, I have to tip my hat to him and his team for producing a piece that was not only educational and entertaining, but which will have legs long after the memories of specific moments in it have faded away.

I suspect that most of my American readers, when it came time to study the Prohibition era in American history class in secondary school, focused more on some of the easier questions and answers about this period, and had more interest in its cultural aspects.  We looked at the Temperance movement and women’s suffrage, the miseries of crowded slums and rapid industrialization, and thought that we understood from a sociological perspective how Prohibition came to be.  We then topped off that very general knowledge with a smattering of information about characters such as Al Capone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Warren Harding, and Duke Ellington, and believed that we “got” that time period.

Prohibition turns out to have been a far more complicated story than what Sister led me to believe, pressed for time as she was with lesson plans which insisted she get us at least to the Vietnam era by the end of the academic year.  For example, from a purely practical perspective, Prohibition would not have been possible without the creation of an alternative dedicated revenue stream.  For many years prior to the passage of the Volstead Act, enshrined as the 18th Amendment, a gigantic amount of government revenue came from taxes levied on the production and sale of alcohol.  It was, in effect, a sort of cash cow of sin, which the government could milk whenever it needed, somewhat like state and local governments do with the tobacco industry today.

President Abraham Lincoln, who actually sold alcohol himself when he was a shopkeeper, turned to taxation on alcohol in 1862 and again in 1864 to help pay for the costs of the Civil War.  When we consider not only the enormous quantities of alcohol people drank in that era, from breakfast through dinner, due to the lack of a clean water supply, but also that in many cases alcohol was the only medicine available to use as a pain killer for huge numbers of men wounded in the fighting, this amounted to a very large sum, indeed.  This was also an era when distilleries, brewers, saloons, taverns, and so on were ubiquitous, in what from the film’s images and descriptions show to be infinitely greater numbers than exist today, when zoning regulations keep both the production and sale of alcohol under strict geographic control.

When the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, giving Congress the power to levy individual income tax across the country without using apportionment to “spread the pain”, as it were, the revenues collected from alcohol were no longer an issue.  Bureaucrats could no longer stress to temperance lobbyists the importance of that particular area of taxation as being the single largest funder of government programs: a kind of Sword of Damocles hanging over the Republic which must never be interfered with.  The combination of this change in the law along with other factors – World War I, direct election of U.S. Senators via the 17th Amendment, and so on – are all part of the mechanism that kept the temperance movement rolling like a juggernaut towards Prohibition.

Yet far deeper than the legal practicalities and policy factors which led to the implementation of Prohibition, the ugly truth behind the movement is that it was inextricably tied up with Anti-Catholicism, something of which I was only dimly aware before this film.  It surprises me that the nuns in my private school did not make me more aware of this fact when we studied the Prohibition era, but then perhaps they thought my classmates and I too young to understand a world in which we could be discriminated against for being a Catholic. Mr. Burns’ film has to tell many stories of course, and so he cannot focus exclusively on what we might call the “Catholic angle” of the story.  However, given that I am a proud practitioner of popery, allow me to point out that Prohibition would never have happened but for an enormous and vocal group of Protestant Evangelicals, who outright hated Catholics, as well as anyone who was not of Anglo-Saxon descent.

This is not a pleasant thing to say, of course, but then many truths in history are unpleasant. The documentary clearly shows how a real loathing and mistrust of Catholic immigrants, not only for their religious practices but also because their attitudes towards the use of alcohol, completely took hold of the white Protestant Low-Church wing of the National psyche. If you were a fervent Baptist in 1898 America and saw your new German or Italian neighbors celebrating the First Communion of their child in the front parlor, with a big family party full of strange music and plenty of beer and wine, you probably felt as though the world was coming to an end – or that at the very least that the arrival of the Antichrist was getting closer.

As time went on following the implementation of Prohibition, things did not improve. For example, the anti-Catholic, racist Protestant Evangelist Bob Jones, Sr., founder of the university which bears his name, told the Associated Press during the Presidential Campaign of 1928: “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House. I would rather see a n—— as president.” This was in response to the Presidential campaign of former New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and an outspoken challenger of Prohibition. A great irony of history, as Mr. Burns points out in the film, is that one of Governor Smith’s most vocal opponents, a prominent U.S. government prosecutor of Prohibition scofflaws who spoke at a convention of Protestant ministers and, as described in the film, appeared to be calling for religious warfare against Catholics, eventually became disillusioned with Prohibition and converted to Catholicism herself.

Such stories as these are woven throughout the film, enough so to make everyone in the audience feel a bit uncomfortable about what their ancestors did, regardless of their religion, politics, or ethnic background. It is an enthralling tale, well-told, which provides the viewer who has an interest in American history, law, and culture with an infinite number of avenues for subsequent exploration. Some of the stories told by Mr. Burns in the film have become lodged in my brain, and will lead me to read and explore more about the people and themes which he treated in this documentary. In the end, perhaps this is the best indicator of the value of his work, and why you should see it: you will come away wanting to know more.


“Speakeasy, New York City” by Margaret Bourke-White (1933)

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One thought on “Review: “Prohibition”

  1. I didn’t realize when I turned the first part of this on that it was Burns but I sure thought it might have been. I think I need to watch the whole of it. I was surprised by how frank they were in talking about the anti-Catholicism in it as well as the fact that the saloons weren’t just a bar but that they were social centers as well as places men went to get blackout drunk and pass out in the street. In some ways we seem to have gotten past some of that. Thank God.

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