Closer Readings Commentary

How Teachers can make the most of Prohibition


The old adage “history repeats itself” has little basis in fact, for as we know past events cannot be replicated. And yet, there are many times when events and issues from different periods look and feel similar. As teachers, we draw historical parallels among different periods to help students understand how events of the past are relevant today. Teachers who cover the “Roaring '20s” will cite the economic and industrial boom and point out similarities to the 1890s and the 1990s. Along with the economic prosperity of these three periods came social and political transformation that reflected Americans’ outlook on the world and themselves.

The NEH-funded PBS documentary Prohibition, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, presents a compelling saga of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment and the era that encompassed it.

Part of the transformational change of the 1920s surrounded the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating liquors. Prohibition’s goal was to improve the lives of Americans from the devastating effects of alcohol. It was the longest-lasting and most intrusive intervention by the government into the private lives of Americans. The irony is that this was an intervention they authorized themselves. Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption in the United States but also unleashed a flurry of unintended consequences that turned law-abiding citizens into criminals and prompted neighborhood gangs and street thugs to form national crime syndicates. Its weak enforcement encouraged corruption and disrespect for the justice system and permitted government officials to bend and sometimes break the law. The mix of consequences and the lack of general support by most of the population eventually led to its repeal. But what remained were indelible social and political changes that reverberate today.

The NEH-funded PBS documentary Prohibition, produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, presents a compelling saga of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment and the era that encompassed it. “Episode 1, A Nation of Drunkards” explores the early influence of alcohol during America’s early years and the temperance activism that soon followed. As the 20th century emerged, the temperance movement evolved into a strident campaign of anti-saloon, anti-immigrant, and anti-anyone who didn’t follow a faith-driven moral code of abstinence. Extreme politics trumped civil debate and the 18th Amendment was ratified.

Episode 2, A Nation of Scofflaws” examines the problems of enforcement, as millions of law-abiding Americans become lawbreakers overnight. The enforcement mechanism of the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act, proved to be laden with loopholes and lacked support by local law enforcement. Many grew discontent with the results, but few politicians dared speak out against the law for fear of political retribution. Governor of New York Al Smith finds out the hard way as his 1924 bid for the nomination for president is lost amongst the polarized factions of “wets” and “drys” in the Democratic Party.  

In “Episode 3, A Nation of Hypocrites” support for the law diminished as the playfulness of sneaking around for a drink gave way to disenchantment.  Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign became the victim of the Anti-Saloon League’s high-powered political machine that decimated his campaign. But as the Great Depression sets in, Americans began to reexamine their priorities and asked if Prohibition was worth the cost. Soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Congress passed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment and the states quickly ratified it. The thirteen-year experiment in regulating social behavior was dead.  

The series goes beyond the familiar tale of gangsters, flappers, and speakeasies to reveal a complicated and divided nation experiencing transformational change. It explores deeply embedded issues of the American experience—how do you protect people who are unable to protect themselves? In doing so, how do you preserve their individual rights and sense of responsibility? What is the proper role of government? In an age of religious fundamentalism and high-stakes politics, how far will people go to win a political battle? How does a nation, experiencing high rates of immigration, define who is and who is not a real American? The essence of Prohibition is not simply a tale about government’s failed attempt to ban alcohol, but an exploration into the epic battle of competing interests and contradictory visions of what America should be.


Educational Resources


I was asked by PBS station WETA to develop educational materials for the series. I teamed up with classroom teacher Michael Hutchinson, who has also written lessons for several Ken Burns’ projects. Together, we identified several enduring themes running through the series and are present through American history and are relevant today:

  • The Deep Influence of Alcohol on the American Character: Alcohol has been an American tradition since the nation’s inception. George Washington was a distiller, Thomas Jefferson collected fine wines, and John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider. Clergymen drank, as did craftsmen, farmers, and factory workers. By 1830, the average American consumed nearly seven gallons of alcohol a year. At the same time, alcohol abuse was wreaking havoc on many Americans’ lives, particularly women and children.
  • Public Good vs. Individual Freedom and Personal Responsibility: Americans take great pride in their individual freedoms. With these freedoms comes personal responsibility for one’s own actions. But Americans are also a compassionate people who see society’s ills produced and want to reform them. The result was a clash of ideals during the Progressive period as advocates of temperance pushed hard for more government regulation against those who abhorred government interference.
  • The Paradox of Immigration: While America is called a nation of immigrants, America’s legislative history is riddled with laws that target immigrants as undesirables. In tough economic times or periods on national insecurity, immigrants can become convenient scapegoats. As the forces of temperance revved up to push through a Constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol, they deftly used xenophobia as an effective tool for achieving their goals.
  • Women’s Evolving Role in Political Activism: Women played a key role in both enacting and repealing Prohibition. Women were the foot soldiers of the temperance movement at a time when few had legal rights and virtually no political power. Through much of the 19th and early 20th century, women took to the streets defying their husbands and social mores to reverse decades of alcohol’s destruction. Working in parallel with the suffrage movement, temperance women took their cause to all levels of society and government. Once the amendment was enacted, women played key roles in Prohibition’s enforcement… and its repeal.
  • Prohibition and the Constitution: The 18th Amendment has the unique distinction of being the only amendment that restricts Americans’ behavior. The Volstead Act, passed to enforce Prohibition, created an ill-conceived relationship between federal government and states with neither side willing to take full responsibility for its enforcement.  Constitutional questions emerged over whether regulating personal behavior was the job of government. Should government be allowed to infringe on some individual rights for the sake of morality?  Do states have an obligation to enforce an unfunded mandate by the federal government?
  • Political Extremism as a Means to an End: Prohibition was one of the most divisive wedge-issues in American history. As temperance moved from a religious, moral question to a political one, the rhetoric and extreme politicking increased to a fevered pitch. Supporters of Prohibition united with unlikely allies, Democrats and Republicans, Progressives and Populists, suffragists and labor unions, the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP. Political operatives of the Anti-Saloon League were able to fold these groups together into a tight fist to fight and destroy any opponent who got into their way.
  • Popular Media and Celebrity: One of the more entertaining aspects of temperance and Prohibition are the rich characters who emerged on to the public stage. Small time criminals became national celebrities. Respectable and dedicated law enforcement officers and government officials were arrested taking bribes and doling out special favors. Some went to jail, many did not. The expanding media of newspapers, magazines, and radio carried the stories of these individuals to all parts of the country giving them nation-wide recognition.

In addition to the main lessons on the website, there is also a series of smaller “snapshot” activities that explore the music, personalities, and culture of the era

As curriculum writers, Michael and I saw the educational potential of Prohibition to explore these themes in the context of American history, but also to more current political, social, and economic issues. We built classroom lessons that use the richness of the series’ episodes with embedded video clips and a multitude of skill building activities and critical thinking questions. The lessons provide great opportunities for cross-curriculum application and integrated studies and align well to 21st century skills as well as national and state standards. The following lessons are featured in the “For Educators” section

  • Whispering Wires”: Public Law vs. Individual Civil Liberties This lesson has students examine the Fourth and Fifth amendments through the cases of Olmstead vs. US (1928) and Katz vs. US (1967) as well as current trends in government surveillance of individuals and the right to privacy.
  • The Hyper-Partisan Politics of Prohibition: In this lesson, students examine the extreme politics of the 1924 Democratic Convention and the 1928 presidential election, analyzing the propaganda tactics of that time and applying that learning to the political climate of today.
  • The Roots of Prohibition: Examining the Effort to Prohibit Alcohol in America: In this lesson, students role-play interested advocacy groups deliberating issues and policy options on the question of Prohibition.
  • Immigration and Prohibition: Students view video clips from Prohibition that explain how the 19th century controversy over immigration merged with the anti-saloon sentiment of the temperance movement. They then work in interest groups examining several pieces of proposed legislation and decide whether to support or reject.

In addition to the main lessons on the website, there is also a series of smaller “snapshot” activities that explore the music, personalities, and culture of the era and provides students opportunities to investigate the influence of Prohibition in their local community.


Additional Resources on the Website


The website’s vast array of resources not only provides greater depth for student understanding, but a treasure trove of material for students to construct projects, reports, or exhibits on the period. These include:

Also found on the website is the complete video with full episodes and segments, and a social media section where viewers can read and share their stories about Prohibition.

UPDATE: September 21, 2011 – PBS announced today that the first episode of Prohibition will premiere on the free PBS for iPad and PBS Apps for the iPhone and iPod touch beginning Friday, September 23.

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