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Documentary Review - Ken Burns' Prohibition (Episode One)

By Edited Sep 20, 2015 0 1

              

Ken Burns
                                                                  Ken Burns - Wikimedia                                                             

 Once again, Ken Burns does a superb job of educating us on a topic which is of great interest to the American public.  Prohibition was in effect from 1920 to 1933 at which time it was deemed incapable of being enforced.  The documentary highlights the events of that era and the people who were most affected by its ruling as well as its repeal.

The question arises as to the proper role of government in the lives of its people.  What right does it have to tell people how to live their lives?  And can that society actually be regulated?  Every part of the Constitution is about expanding freedom, with the exception of Prohibition, where human freedom is being limited.

Unfortunately, Americans drink for any reason and at every occasion.  Alcohol is as American as apple pie.  The Mayflower was filled with barrels of beer.  George Washington made sure his soldiers had half a cup of rum every day.  John Adams drank hard cider every day of his life.  Abraham Lincoln sold whiskey by the barrel from his grocery store in Salem, Illinois.  Frederick Douglass claimed that whiskey made him feel like a President.

                                    

Frederick Douglass

                                                         Frederick Douglass - Wikimedia

Physicians recommend whiskey.  Clergymen drink, as well as craftsmen and canal diggers.  It has always been a part of ritual celebrations.  Americans drink at every meal, some at breakfast.

Around the year 1800, folks started to grow grain that could be distilled into whiskey.  Prior to that, the beer they drank was only 2% beer.  The new supply of whiskey introduced a more serious problem.  By 1830, Americans spent more on alcohol than the expenditures of the government.  The nation was becoming a nation of drunkards.  It was common practice that a bell would ring at “grog time” so that men could stop their work to have a drink.  A man’s wages went to the grog shops.  Their wives and children suffered.  There was no protection at that time from domestic violence.  Divorce did not exist; nor did marital rape.

In 1840, six hard-drinking friends in Baltimore established themselves as a society of reformed drunkards and vowed they would never take another drink.  They called themselves the Washington Society and signed the Washington Pledge. A half-million men added their names to the rolls.  At this time a reform movement formed called the Protestant Great Awakening, which advocated temperance.  Total abstinence was demanded from all forms of alcohol.  There were separate branches for African-Americans.  Frederick Douglass was one of those who took the oath of total temperance.

                         

Susan B. Anthony

                                                           Susan B. Anthony - Wikimedia

 Soon, women became organized into Auxiliaries.  They were at the center of the struggle against alcohol.  Susan B. Anthony is responsible for starting the Women’s Temperance Society, and assigning Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the first President of the organization.  Eventually, suffrage for women and temperance became linked.

It was soon evident, though, that reform had to come from within.  Alcohol became the scapegoat for all failures in society - job loss, abuse, prostitution, infidelity, etc. The only moral solution to this problem was to get rid of the drink.

Mayor Neal Dow of Portland, Maine was the first to demand a law to ban alcohol. The law was passed in Maine in 1851, forbidding the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages.  Irish immigrants objected.  Fishermen smuggled alcohol ashore in coffins and in barrels marked sugar and flour.  Illegal sellers hid bottles in their pant legs; they were called bootleggers.

With the onset of the Civil War, members in temperance societies dwindled.  In 1862, an alcohol tax was instituted in order to finance the war.  A $20 licensing fee was required as well as a tax at the selling point.

After the war, immigrants poured into the country.  Irish, German, and Bohemians had a different set of drinking habits.  It was part of their culture.  Immigrant Germans became experts in brewing beer.  Blatz, Anheuser, Stroh, Miller, and Schlitz became wealthy in this field.  They formed the U. S. Brewers Association and formed a strong brewers lobby with the government.

                                 

Adolphus Busch

                                                           Adolphus Busch - Wikimedia

The brewing of beer became the largest industry in the United States.  Adolphus Busch was the best-known and most powerful brewer.  He was a partner of Anheuser, his father-in-law.  Politicians and Presidents sought his support.  Busch and his allies fought back against anti-alcohol groups.  They were slow to understand that Americans had a revulsion for alcohol.

In 1873, anti-alcohol groups began to stir again.  Eliza Jane Thompson from Hillsboro, Ohio experienced alcoholism first-hand when her eldest son became addicted to alcohol through a doctor’s prescription.  She gathered 200 women and they paraded through the streets of Hillsboro, asking doctors and pharmacists not to fill prescriptions for alcohol.  Many of them signed.  The Women’s Crusades formed.

They took on bigger towns such as Dayton, where they encountered bigger challenges.  The women were mocked with loud blasphemy.  Fire companies sprayed the women with ice cold water.  Taverns welcomed them and then drenched them with buckets of beer.  The Crusade spread west to San Francisco.  Men hurled stones at the peaceful, praying women.  Undeterred, the women marched in 31 states and successfully closed down liquor sellers.

When the women got a taste of politics, they could never again pretend to be content to stay home sewing and cooking.  In many cases, they neglected their homes and families.

                                  

Frances Willard

                                            Frances Willard - Founded WCTU - Wikimedia

 In 1879, a woman named Frances Willard formed an army of 250,000 participants who were against alcohol.  It was called the WCTU, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  She headed the group for 19 years and spoke in more than 1000 American towns.  She even took the WCTU abroad for a global ban on alcohol, forming the World WCTU.  She managed to forge the alliance between the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Frances Willard had a host of causes offering protection from the tyranny of drink.  She established homes for inebriate women, taking alcohol for ailments.  She aided fallen women, street children, and advocated equal pay for equal work.  Her most important contribution was the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction which she offered through the public school system by pressuring local school boards.  She even appealed to Congress to require anti-alcohol doctrine in the schools.  Twenty-two million children sat through temperance instruction three times a week, listening to the dangers spawned by the use of alcohol.  The course claimed that alcohol caused deafness, dropsy, and lunacy.  The children believed it all.  Soon they would be old enough to vote.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, more and more saloons were opening every day in America.  The total was as high as 300,000.  Saloons were a refuge for men from the responsibilities of work and family.  The brass rail was more than a footrest.  It was a symbol of masculinity.  The men worked so hard during the week that they thought Friday belonged to them and the boys.  It was essential for their survival, especially to immigrants.

It was their living room, their social club, translator, and bartender.  A man could cash his paycheck, play cards, pick up his mail, read the paper, and look for a job. 

Patrick Kennedy, the grandfather of a President, began his political machine thru sales of alcohol.  Taverns were the choice of meetings of unions, of veterans.  Ballots were cast there, wakes and christening parties were held there.  Contacts were made.  They were the private clubs of the working class.

In the 1890’s, most taverns belonged to the big brewing companies. such as Busch and Anheuser.  Free lunches were offered in saloons as a marketing device.

Women and children would cross the street rather than walk in front of a tavern.  There were drunks lying on the sidewalk and profanity coming from inside.  The only way to solve the problem of drunkenness was to get rid of the saloons.

                 

Carrie Nation

                                                              Carrie Nation - Wikimedia

In 1900, Carrie Nation prayed to God to help her in the anti-alcohol cause.  Kansas was a Prohibition State in all of its counties, and had banned alcohol but no one paid any attention to the law.  Carrie strode into three saloons with what she called smashers and threw them at the mirrors, destroying them.  She dared the sheriff to arrest her; he did not.

She was eventually jailed in another town.  When Carrie got out, her symbol was a hatchet.  Many men and women rallied to her defense, and together they attacked more than 100 saloons in 50 Kansas towns.  They called themselves The Home Defenders Army.

Like the Women’s Crusade, her cause died out, but she never stopped crusading.  She became a figure of fun, of ridicule.  Nevertheless, bartenders kept a leery eye out for her.

In 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, the Anti-Saloon League was formed to fight the evils of alcohol.  They called themselves “the church in action against the saloon.”  It was the most effective organization in its efforts to force America to go dry.  All Protestants signed on except Lutherans and Episcopalians.  It is actually modeled on the modern corporation and is one of the first political movements in the U.S.  Members believed that alcohol was a drug that was being pushed on the consumer.         

                                        

Glass of Beer
 

                                                                 Beer Mug - Wikimedia

1909.  Wayne Bidwell Wheeler is a name to remember.  He was an Ohio farm boy who became a skilled lawyer.  He was able to drive from office anyone who was not anti-alcohol.  It was a movement of rural Americans against the cities, and it reached into all 46 states at that time. 

At the turn of the century, the country’s population had increased ten times through immigration.  Progressive reform was instituted to stop child labor and to end sweat shops and crowded, squalid slums.  The country became an industrial powerhouse thru the work of immigrants.  However, alcoholism was a particular problem both for the working class and the immigrant worker.  It was part of the life of immigrants.  The U.S. was an Anglo-Saxon white country.  The Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews, were not like them.  The Anti-Saloon League concentrated highly on the immigrants.

                                     

William Jennings Bryan

                                                   William Jennings Bryan - Wikimedia

The German-American Alliance was turned into an Anti-Prohibition Alliance.  German populations would not vote themselves dry in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa.

It was clear that national regulation was needed.  It had to come from the Constitution.  

In 1913, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maine, Kansas, and Mississippi banned alcohol.  The brewers were being forced to close down.

That same year, the 16th Amendment, levying the Income Tax, was passed.  The government would no longer have to rely on alcohol tax to fund its operations.

The Anti-Saloon League wanted an amendment to the Federal Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale, and importation, exportation and transportation of intoxicating beverages.  The 18th Amendment, Prohibition, was introduced into the House in 1918.  Two-thirds of the House and Senate would have to approve it before it came before the Legislators of the States.  Thirty-six states would have to ratify it.  It had to be done before 1920 when the national census would show a difference in the population.  The cities, which were “wet” would then have more representation.  Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan, and Booker T. Washington backed Prohibition.

                                     

18th Amendment

                                      The 18th Amendment to the Constitution - Wikimedia

On Jan. 6, 1919, Nebraska was the 36th state to ratify the Amendment.  It would go into effect one year later.  On January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment came into effect. 

Enforcement of the Amendment would not be easy, as we will find out.

Ken Burns: Prohibition
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Comments

Sep 11, 2015 5:35pm
hishama
Great article!
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