When you hear the term “Prohibition,” what comes to mind? Mobsters? G-men with axes smashing barrels of bootlegged liquor? Hip flasks and speakeasies? Stern, misguided temperance workers? Jubilant men toasting its repeal in crowded bars?
Prohibition—the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, forbidding the sale, manufacture, and transport of liquor—lasted only from 1920 to 1933, but it has lived on in the popular imagination. That may be because of the outsize personalities of its protagonists, or because it has been mined so well and so long for its entertainment value.
In the minds of scholars, however, Prohibition’s afterlife was a short one. Sandwiched between the Progressive Era and World War I on one end, and the Depression and the New Deal on the other, the history of the United States’ remarkably bold attempt to legislate alcohol consumption has attracted little academic interest perhaps because it seemed there was little to learn from such a spectacular failure.
“Once we get to 1920, that’s kind of it,” says Lisa McGirr RI ’13, a professor of history at Harvard University. “There was a sense that this was a crazy endeavor and its consequences didn’t last beyond its years.”
McGirr disagrees with this understanding. In the book she was working on during her year at Radcliffe, Prohibition and the Making of Modern America, she argues that the “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition reshaped the country in fundamental ways: it laid the groundwork for the growth of the federal state, the rise of modern liberalism, and the birth of the religious Right, among other things.
Take, for example, the Williamson County liquor wars. Located in southern Illinois coal country, Williamson County was in many ways a microcosm for the forces unleashed by Prohibition. It had a mix of native Protestants and predominantly Catholic immigrants. Law enforcement was lax and liquor readily available. By 1924, everything boiled over into open warfare.
The Ku Klux Klan, which nationally had grown from a start-up fringe organization to a multimillion-member force in less than five years, won the enthusiastic support of local preachers with its pledge to get tough on illegal liquor. It asked for—and received—support from the federal government’s top Prohibition official. Hundreds of men, many of them members of the Klan, were deputized. They raided speakeasies and arrested scores of suspected bootleggers. Then, buoyed by their success, they started raiding private homes, many of them belonging to Italian immigrants. Their tactics turned off many of those who had historically supported temperance and Prohibition and galvanized the immigrants.
In that forgotten story, which McGirr has revived through painstaking research, are many of the threads of modern America.
The grievances of white ethnics with the ban on liquor and with the way they were targeted in its enforcement increasingly pushed them into the arms of the Democratic Party and helped create a national sense of working-class identity. White ethnic voters’ support for Al Smith, the notoriously “wet” Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, would eventually help Franklin Delano Roosevelt win the White House in four consecutive elections.
Also, violence and lawlessness like that in Williamson County persuaded many supporters of Prohibition that the idea of linking moral reform and economic reform—a cornerstone of the earlier Progressive movement—was perhaps untenable and intolerable in practice. This led to a liberalism that was still willing to pursue regulation but without a moral edge.
The growth of the Ku Klux Klan was testimony to the deep frustration many Protestant Americans felt about the crime surrounding liquor and the burgeoning diversity and modernity around them. This “army of dry enforcers,” McGirr writes, “were galvanized into a vibrant mobilization to shore up their vision of a dry and righteous Protestant nation,” and were the first generation of what would become known as the religious Right.
McGirr, who held an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt fellowship at Radcliffe, is the author of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2001). In that book, she looked at the rise of the modern Right in the suburban tracts of Orange County, California, where a mix of anti-Communists, evangelicals, and Libertarians created a political vanguard that would eventually help elect Ronald Reagan to the White House.
In Suburban Warriors, McGirr blended social history with political history—trying to understand how ordinary experiences intersect with institutional politics. In Prohibition, she followed her interest in religiosity and politics to an earlier intersection but maintained her focus on the lives of ordinary men and women.
“In studying Prohibition, there’s a cast of characters that are known to everybody,” McGirr says, referring to such figures as Wayne Wheeler, the chief lobbyist of the Anti-Saloon League, and Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the assistant US attorney general, who was known as “First Lady of the Law” for her role in enforcing Prohibition. But McGirr’s work tries “to shift the lens away from those usual suspects and really understand a different group and a different set of figures and therefore add a newer and richer perspective.”
Her research unearthed stories—in newspapers, court records, archives, and elsewhere—from Oregon to Virginia. McGirr says she would not have been able to do it without the undergraduate Radcliffe Research Partners made available during her fellowship at the Institute.
ROBERT O'NEILL is the editor of the Harvard Kennedy School Magazine.