Prohibition and Its Consequences: A New DocsTeach Activity

Prohibition and its Consequences invites students to explore the consequences of the Eighteenth Amendment, that prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.”

The activity poses a dilemma for students. Prohibition was enacted in January 1919 to protect individuals and families from the “scourge of drunkenness.” However, it had unintended consequences, including: a rise in organized crime associated with the illegal production and sale of alcohol, an increase in smuggling, and a decline in tax revenue from the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Prohibition and its Consequences

Prohibition and its Consequences uses the activity tool “Weighing the Evidence” to engage students in historical thinking, as it requires students to interpret evidence in order to arrive at conclusions that they must support. Students place the available evidence — documents, photographs and images — on a scale according to the interpretation they best support. In so doing, they tip the scale in favor of one of two conclusions: Prohibition was a necessary move in order to protect individuals and families or Prohibition was an unwarranted overreach into citizens’ private lives by the U.S. Government.

Excerpt of letter from Mrs. Hillyer

Some of the primary source documents that students encounter show evidence of the illegal production and sale of liquor. For example, in the Letter from Mrs. Hillyer Concerning Her Husband’s Drinking Activities to the Bureau of Prohibition, Mrs. Hillyer reported that, in 1931, her husband bought a “quart of whisky every other day” from the local bootlegger. She described the financial loss to her family as she requested the authorities to “please have his place raided….If you make the raid at 9:30 any morning you will be sure to get the goods.”

Speaking of Superfluous Starlings Cartoon
Speaking of Superfluous Starlings by Clifford Berryman, 1/10/1930. From the Records of the U.S. Senate. National Archives Identifier: 6012008.

Clifford Berryman’s political cartoon Speaking of Superfluous Starlings depicts the Federal Law Enforcement Commission as helpless in stopping crime. The Prescription for Whiskey for I.F. Johnson is an example of a loophole that stymied the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment even further.

Prescription for Whiskey for I. F. Johnson
Prescription for Whiskey for I. F. Johnson, 1/3/1924. From the Records of the Internal Revenue Service. National Archives Identifier: 16647176

By the 1920s, calls for repeal became louder. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation Announcing the Repeal of Prohibition.

Teaching about Prohibition, which goes back more than 80 years, may seem like ancient history to today’s students. However, the discussion of the role of government in the private lives of citizens is relevant to today’s national debate on legalizing marijuana. Calls for legalization reference personal choice and privacy in their arguments to overturn laws that criminalize possession, trafficking and use of marijuana. They also cite black market trafficking, high rates of incarceration, and ways in which arrests and prosecution of “criminals” affect the future of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Others believe that marijuana has a negative impact on society and should not be legal to grow, possess, or distribute.

Raising the issue of the legalization of marijuana with students enables them to extend the debate on Prohibition to concepts in which they may have a vested interest. Further, students have the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills which are so necessary to the understanding of historical events such as Prohibition.

Today’s post came from National Archives volunteer Cynthia Peterman.

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