Two key movements in American history overlap—and nobody wants to talk about it.
I’ve never met anyone who thinks the Eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919 (Prohibition) was a good idea.
I’ve never met anyone who thinks the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage) in 1920 was a bad one.
And I’ve never read an account that directly addresses the fact that these two amendments were pushed by many of the same people a century ago.
Not entirely, of course. Women had received the right to vote, mostly in western states like Utah (1870) and Idaho (1896), decades before they could do so in national elections (Wait: you mean Massachusetts wasn’t first? Or New York?). Similarly, the quest to ban the liquor trade was widely in place in many states in the nation’s heartland of the south and west before it too went national. But neither movement could have achieved its Constitutional objectives without the help of Progressive activists, who had the ear of President Woodrow Wilson in both cases and were among the savviest organizers American history had ever seen. Like efforts to ban pornography, Prohibition was an alliance of odd bedfellows: evangelicals and feminists. The latter movement hasn’t been successful (in part because of internal divisions within women’s ranks), but not for a lack of trying.
What are we to make of the fact that a set of people could be so right about one issue and so wrong about another at the same time? And what are we to make of the fact that this compelling phenomenon has been so studiously ignored in standard accounts of U.S. history?
This question came back into focus for me in my somewhat misleadingly named “Advanced Seminar in Historical Methods” at Greenwich Country Day School (what makes the class advanced is mostly more confidence that students actually do the assigned homework reading.) The first semester of that course is a series of case studies in biography—Anne Hutchinson, Phillis Wheatley, the Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln. The second is a study of decades—the 1920s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. (I think of the class as “Life and Times.”)
I began the semester in 2073, with my old geezer students returning for their fiftieth high school reunion. “What were the 2020s like?” I asked them. I heard answers about Covid and political polarization, which was reasonable enough. As I pointed out to my charges, what will stand out about the 2020s fifty years from now is unlikely to be only the things we’re thinking about now—or the way we think about them now. “Back then,” I said cheekily, “people were unwilling to face the monstrous social evil of abortion, just like they were unwilling to deal with slavery before the Civil War.” I then pivoted 180 degrees and said that as likely as not, the anti-abortion movement would be the last gasp of benighted reactionaries. And then I said, most likely of all, abortion would be an issue that would leave later generations puzzled over what the fuss was all about.
There is no better illustration of fading generational memory than Vachel Lindsay’s wonderful 1919 poem “Bryan Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” in which an old man remembers the thrill of seeing William Jennings Bryan (who the hell was he?) on the stump in 1896, when Lindsay was a sixteen-year-old boy. But you can’t find it at the Poetry Foundation’s website, the de facto repository of the nation’s canonical poetry. It’s well on the road to oblivion, like the once-thrilling presidential election it describes.
Anyway, I then proceeded to show the pilot episode of an exceptionally rich reconstruction of the Prohibition era: the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014). The show stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, based on Nucky Johnson, the crime boss who ran Atlantic City for decades in the first half of the 20th century. The series blends fictive characters with actual historical figures like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and President Warren Harding’s notoriously corrupt attorney general Harry Daughtery. None of my students had heard of the show; I’m disappointed it’s disappeared into obscurity so quickly. Which, of course, is part of the point here.
Early in this first episode, directed by Martin Scorsese, the Atlantic City chapter of the Women’s Temperance League holds a meeting to herald the dawn of a new era. “Liquor, thy name’s delirium,” intones the leader of the chapter from a poem she has written in honor of the occasion. Behind her a sign reads, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” She then introduces the featured speaker of the evening: the city’s treasurer, Thompson.
Nucky proceeds to relate a childhood anecdote from the infamous blizzard of 1888, when, because of his father’s drunkenness, he was forced to forage in a railroad yard for coal to heat his family’s home and killed rats for his family’s dinner. “Prohibition means progress,” Thompson tells the women. “Never again will families be robbed of their father, held hostage by alcohol.” He then goes in for the rhetorical kill, to resounding cheers: “How proud I am to live in a nation which, God willing, this year will give women the right to vote.” (This is one of the ways Prohibition was framed as a feminist issue: toxic masculinity leads men to abuse women.) When Nucky’s driver notes that the personal anecdote he has just narrated was false, he responds, “First rule of politics, kiddo. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” To which there’s a corollary: never let the truth get in the way of a story you’d rather forget.
The point here is a familiar one to readers of this publication: when it comes to believing you’re on the right side of history, a little modesty goes a long way. We will inevitably look foolish, even incomprehensible, in the eyes of many in later generations. (And who knows? We may even be a source of inspiration.) Which also suggests the value of a little charity toward those who came before us. Times change— not really for better or worse, they just change, with a shuffling array of winners and losers amid attempts to maintain our integrity and values. But people don’t really get any smarter or dumber over the course of generations. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, we should proceed “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” I’ll drink to that.