Prohibition's legacy


The conventional wisdom is that Prohibition was a failed experiment. Here's the popular sentiment: "Thank the Lord we aren't so stupid as our forefathers almost 100 years ago when they adopted this backward attempt to legislate morality."

Ken Burns challenged some of that thinking in his recent PBS series, which looked back to the 19th-century crisis of drunkenness that sparked the temperance movement.

Historian Jason Lantzer also looked beyond the stereotypes and clichés about Prohibition in his strong biography of Indiana political activist Edward Shumaker. Shumaker, a Methodist minister, followed the example of other influential preacher/activists from Cotton Mather and John Witherspoon to Martin Luther King Jr. and Jerry Falwell.

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Shumaker wielded immense political influence in the 1920s, advocating enforcement of Prohibition and targeting elected officials in Indiana for primary challenges and other kinds of political retribution when they dissented from his Anti-Saloon League agenda.

In his book, Prohibition Is Here to Stay, Lantzer doesn't look down his nose at Shumaker or his allies. He portrays Shumaker, warts and all, in the context of his time, especially the public health problem associated with the saloon, which opened the door to drunkenness and crime. The temperance movement battled on to bring husbands and fathers back home, and also advanced women's right to vote and direct election of senators.

Lantzer also shows how the thinking behind Prohibition was never defeated in some respects. Instead, the temperance push has been redirected to a consensus that alcoholic beverages still pose a potential public health threat and require regulation.

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are just one example.

"The spirit pervading the meeting-one of accountability for one's actions, of devotion to a power higher than oneself, and of the need to stay away from temptations-certainly would be understood by Shumaker and other drys," he concludes. "Dry culture, still alive, is trying to save America one soul at a time."

Prohibition failed in many ways. But it's taken a couple of generations for historians to dig deep enough to see how the spirit of the temperance movement lives on almost 100 years later.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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