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