Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Survey: Prohibition

Is Prohibition worth teaching? Though granted little more than passing mention in Presser and Hall, I've found at least three reasons to include the topic in lecture. One, Prohibition helps tie together a variety of threads central to the legal history of the early twentieth century, including Progressive reform, female suffrage, evangelical Protestantism, anti-Catholicism, and the rise of organized crime (for a book that ties these strands together nicely, see Michael Lerner's Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City). Two, prohibition can be viewed through an even longer lens, going back to the Early Republic. For example, Joyce Appleby uses temperance as a lens through which to recover the "darker side of American freedom," noting how "the fight against intemperance and indolence" characterized the early lives of many Americans in the Jeffersonian era, making the cultivation of moral discipline critical for individual success. (See Joyce Appleby, "The Personal Roots of the First American Temperance Movement"). Introducing Appleby's thesis into lecture provides a nice way of bringing the nineteenth century back in, reassessing the role of individual agency in history, and perhaps interrogating the possibility of something that might be considered a uniquely American "character." On this last note, discussions of Prohibition provide a nice link to current debates over the regulation of vice, including the President's decision not to prosecute medical marijuana in California. For a critical assessment of this move, see Robert Mikos's new piece "A Critical Appraisal of the Department of Justice's New Approach to Medical Marijuana." Mikos argues that the President's non-enforcement policy is limited at best, and that only true repeal will guarantee the safety of dispensaries. Comparing the President's move to Roosevelt's calls for repeal during the Great Depression provides one jumping off point for class discussion, as does the framing of marijuana in explicitly medical terms, not something that worked with alcohol.


Photo credit: Harvard University Press

4 comments:

The People's Business said...

I don't thing anyone needs to be defensive regarding teaching prohibition, one of the greatest failures of government policy in US history. It's still the prime example of how laws completely out of harmony with human nature are not only bound to fail, but create collateral catastrophe. My own example of the prohibition mentality at work today would be our immigration policies.

Karen Tani said...

Robert Post published an excellent article on Prohibition in the William and Mary Law Review in 2006. I like it because of its attentiveness to changes over time in the "theory and practice of American federalism" (Post argues that Prohibition "caused a major crisis" in this regard) and its description of the problematic enforcement efforts (an administrative capacity point). KT

sara said...

I have proposed to teach an undergrad history "sources & methods" seminar on Prohibition next year at Stanford... so this post, and the comments, are very timely for me as I'm refining my proposed syllabus!

Dan Ernst said...

The New York World on the Wickersham Commission's report, quoted from David Kyvig, REPEALING NATIONAL PROHIBITION 114 (Kent State University Press 2000) in a seminar paper of one of my students this semester, Bradley Sarnell (GULC 2011): "It's left a trail of graft and slime/it don't prohibit worth a dime/it's filled our land with vice and crime/Nevertheless, we're for it."