[400 years ago this week, the first temperance law in American history was passed. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that 1623 law and four other milestone moments in temperance history!]
On three great scholarly books that can help us analyze an incredibly multi-faceted historical period and its many legacies.
1) Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015): Yesterday I argued that the Anti-Saloon League’s successful pressure politics were instrumental in finally achieving the movement’s longstanding goal of nationwide Prohibition. That was absolutely a factor, but it’s also far from a coincidence that the 18th Amendment passed Congress in 1917 (the same year as the Espionage Act) and was ratified in 1919 (the same year that the post-WWI Palmer Raids began). As McGirr argues convincingly, World War I specifically and many wartime contexts more broadly were crucial to turning Prohibition from a movement priority into a nationwide policy—and while that particular policy ended with the amendment’s repeal in 1933, many of those wartime contexts have endured in the 90 years since.
2) Stephen Moore’s Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-U.S. Borderland (2014): Another crucial legacy of the Prohibition era was the creation of—and yes, I mean that precisely; not just newfound attention to, but in many ways the creation of—the U.S.-Canadian border as a space for law enforcement concerns and activity. My paternal grandfather and his parents moved across that border and into New Hampshire in the mid-1910s with no hassle or legal attention of any kind; but just a few years later, that would have been impossible, and as Moore argues Prohibition enforcement was the reason why. While the U.S.-Mexico border was not as much of a Prohibition focal point, it’s no coincidence that it was likewise during the 1920s that that border became genuinely patrolled. The end of Prohibition was only the start of U.S. border patrols, of course.
3) Marni Davis’ Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (2012): I wrote a bit in yesterday’s post about the interconnections between white supremacy, race, and Prohibition, especially in the alliance between the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan. The 1920s Klan focused equally on anti-Black and anti-immigrant domestic terrorisms, of course; and as Davis’ book traces powerfully, so too was Prohibition driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic narratives. I’ve argued for many years in many different settings that the 1920s represented a nadir of American racism, xenophobia, and exclusion—and yes, I’m well aware that this is a very competitive contest; but the more I learn, the more convinced I am that this was indeed a stunning low point—and it’s crucially important that we include Prohibition in our understanding of those elements of 1920s America.
February Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think?