Thursday, April 29, 2010

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad

When you write a book, you have to anticipate that not everyone is going to like what you have to say, whether in whole or in part.  I've been very fortunate to get some good reviews, from students, friends, and professional colleagues.  But in the past week, Prohibition has also come, if not exactly under attack, at least under critique.

The first came from David Kyvig in The Catholic Historical Review (  Let me say what an honor it was to have Prof. Kyvig write a review.  When it comes to experts on the repeal of Prohibition, he is at the top of the list (quite literally having written the book).  And he offered up a balanced, in the main, review of the book.  However, if I was to critique his critique, it would be that I didn't write the book he wanted me to write.  Indeed, his largest issue (and he did make some valid points that I hope to one day be able to redress in a second edition) was that I didn't present a "balanced" view of Prohibition in Indiana.  Of course, I wasn't exactly seeking to write such a book.  Rather, I was writing the biography of a man (and a movement) who thought Prohibition was a good idea.  It wasn't going to be balanced in that sense!  I could quibble on some other things, but if that is the worst thing he can say about the book, then so be it.  All authors have to take critiques after all (and Kyvig's book once got a similar critique from Jack Blocker).  It comes with the territory.

The second critique was a bit more interesting, on a technological level at least.  While doing a quick search (yes, I Google the book often, just to try and get a feel for things), I stumbled upon a reader blog, in which someone had made mention of Prohibition.  Obviously, I had to see what was said!  The post was from 4 days ago and "Nuthatch" from "NW Indiana" was complaining about "slogging" through the book.  Indeed, Nuthatch admitted that it was full of information they found of use, but complained the writing was "uninspired."  Who knows, maybe Nuthatch will come around the further they get into the book.  Perhaps not.  I know you can't please everyone all the time.  Of course maybe it also had something to do with Nuthatch saying that they were also bored by reading their camera's instruction manual, I don't know!

Here's to hoping that May will bring more good news.  It already looks like I'll be speaking to the Marion County Historical Society in August, and who knows, maybe some better reviews are forthcoming!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Upcoming Book Events

As the semester at Butler winds down (though online, it never ends...and for that, I'm thankful), planning continues on the Summer/Fall-leg of the Prohibition book tour (such as it is).  Here is what is for sure, with some other things still in the works:

Thursday, May 27th, Munster Historical Society -- 8pm EST (7pm local)

Saturday, July 10th, Johnson County Historical Society -- time to be announced

Thursday, October 14th, Elkhart County Historical Society -- time to be announced

It also looks quite possible that I'll be speaking to the Marion County Historical Society and Hamilton County Historical Society at some point this summer as well.  And who knows, some other historical societies or libraries or bookstores, might come along as well!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Fleming

During Easter, I was given an op/ed from the Wall Street Journal from back in January (you can read it for yourself here:  It was about Prohibition and its author was Thomas Fleming.  Now, at the outset, let me say how much respect I have for Mr. Fleming.  His books on the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers are top-notch, well written, and well researched.    And while I appreciate that he doesn't just "limit" himself to one period (he's written about World War I) -- which is something I wish more historians did, or even one genre (he's done some *gasp* historical fiction), but with this op/ed he missed the mark.  In 15 well written paragraphs he committed or repeated 15 fictions about Prohibition.

Now, I realize that people can disagree about Prohibition (just see my last post where I discussed the article by the Cato Institute), and I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is when people, including historians, refuse to engage in a discussion based in the facts, but rather repeat old canards, perhaps even ones they were raised on, that rewrite history.  So, to set the record straight, even if it is after the passage of 3 months, and while understanding Fleming's own space limitations since he was writing for the Journal, here's what I have to say about Fleming's op/ed:

1.  Fleming acknowledges that sin and morality were a driving force for drys, however he seemingly attempts to separate the two.  That is he says one group of drys saw drinking as a sin, and another group of drys were moral reformers trying to be just like the abolitionists of old.  That they were, in the main, one in the same (as the life of Shumaker shows) he does not seem to want to admit.  Why he tries to make this distinction, I don't know.  But it implies a lack of understanding of the Protestant reformer tradition in America.

2.  Fleming introduces readers to one of the top American drys and economists of the early 20th century, Irving Fisher, who asserted that introducing Prohibition was going to increase American industrial productivity and help America's workers.  Fleming seems to dismiss Fisher's claims and work, but doesn't counter them.  Here in lies the problem, he can't.  Fisher was writing at a time when large numbers of workers came to the job hungover and possibly even drunk.  Fleming does not.   The world pre-Prohibition was both similar to the one we live in today and very very different.  What the drys did with their reform helped create the modern American we have today.

3.  Fleming introduces readers to eugenics (the science of the "well born"), which like many other reformers (both dry and not) of the Progressive Era, Fisher subscribed to.  And indeed, perhaps many drys were both narrowly and even broadly eugenicists.  But what does that prove?  If Fleming is trying to use subtext to link dry eugenicists to the Nazis, he is on dangerous ground indeed.  If he is trying to imply that some reformers saw alcohol as inhibiting "race betterment" (to use the language of the time), or even that alcohol might have promoted crime etc, does that discredit those ideas just because eugenicists held them?  Eugenicists were also among the first and leading advocates of genes and heredity, and I assume that Fleming isn't discounting those scientific facts just because eugenicists subscribed to them.

4.  Fleming talks about how drys (including the Anti Saloon League) used democracy at the local level (via local option laws) to enact Prohibition.  I'm confident he isn't implying that political activism is a bad thing.  Why shouldn't concerned citizens get involved?  But what I find more interesting is the lack of mention as to WHY those drys were organizing.  Fleming fails to mention wet/brewer corruption of local politics, nor does he talk about the violence and vice that were part of saloon life.  Even beyond drinking for the sake of drink, drys had good reason to want to deal with alcohol and the industry behind its production.

5. Drys soon moved their activism from the local to the state level, and then on to the national level.  In part, this had to do with the ease of transportation of alcohol from wet areas into dry ones (the advent of the automobile, not to mention the use of inter-urbans and trains).  Fleming decries this imposition on wets, making it into a monumental hardship.  Doesn't what drys did make sense?  And furthermore, what they were doing in seeking to put limits on interstate commerce was little more than what other reformers were doing (such as with prostitution via the Mann Act).

6.  There is no doubt that World War I (and the associated anti-German sentiment) aided drys in achieving Prohibition on the national level.  What Fleming fails to note for his readers is that the dry crusade was something of a cultural struggle wets and drys.  There was, in other words, plenty of animosity between many wet German-Americans and many native born American drys BEFORE the war.  That drys would use World War I to their advantage is really not surprising, nor is was it unexpected.

7.  By April of 1917, a majority of states were dry (including Shumaker's Indiana, which went dry that very month), and all of them had some legal limit to alcohol on the books.  Fleming, however, implies, that World War I made national Prohibition possible, when in fact all it did was speed up the dry timetable.  If they were guilty of anything it was being opportunistic.  But if you were a dry in 1917, could you be blamed for acting when everything seemed to be going your way?

8.  Fleming devotes an entire paragraph to attempts by drys to make the Army dry and to halting the use of grain to make alcohol, both as a war measure.  But he doesn't explain why this is troubling.  Nor does he mention that most of the other combatant nations either pondered or attempted similar actions.

9.  Anti-German sentiment was hardly the sole province of drys during the war, which is something Fleming seems to imply.  After all, the restriction on the German language was hardly a dry idea.

10.  Fleming does a disservice to the discussion of the ratification of the 18th Amendment.  At the time, it was the fastest ratified amendment in American History.  Fleming never mentions its ratification, instead implying that it all but bogged down.

11.  To say that Wilson's signing of full Wartime Prohibition cost him German and Irish voes (for the 1918 mid-term election), as Fleming does, seems to ignore that the nation was now at war against Germany and allied to Great Britain!  The Democrats, spearheaded by Wilson, had run in 1916 on the promise that they would keep the nation out of the Great War.  Indeed, Democrats attempted to paint Republicans from the top down as "war mongers" for talking about preparedness.  This was part of a re-election strategy to keep German and Irish voters in the Democratic fold.  Wilson waited roughly a month after being sworn in for his second term to ask for a declaration of war, which is probably something the Anglophile president had wanted to do since 1914.  German and Irish voters had a much larger reason to turn on the Democrats than wartime Prohibition.

12.  The Volstead Act was the enforcement law for the 18th Amendment, the Constitutional amendment that Fleming never acknowledges had passed.  Wilson's veto measure, which was quickly overridden, was penned after his famous stroke and in the midst of his "recovery."  We actually don't know what Wilson thought about Volstead at the time.  It is highly likely that his wife penned the veto measure, not the president himself.  But Fleming is content with discussion of Volstead, he goes on to assert that "tens of thousands" of people suddenly found themselves unemployed once the law went into effect in 1920.  That's not exactly true either.  Many brewers converted into other businesses, as did many saloons.  The net unemployment of Prohibition is almost zero, as American industry boomed during the 1920s.  Those who did lose their jobs quickly found new ones.

13.  Fleming virtually repeats the old line that during Prohibition "everybody" was drinking.  The evidence, simply put, does not support such wet propaganda.  Had Fleming consulted Norman Clark's work, he'd have seen that most studies indicate that drinking dropped nearly 90% and that most people never saw the inside of a bootleg saloon or engaged in home brew experimentation.  Furthermore, drinking levels AFTER repeal   don't return to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1960s.  In short, most people weren't drinking and most people didn't return to drinking after repeal.  Indeed, Fleming seems to miss the point of the 18th Amendment's ratification:  minorities don't pass Constitutional Amendments.  Wets may have blamed Prohibition for the Great Depression, but surely Fleming doesn't actually believe that (though he does imply it). After all, that would discount the international loan/monetary system, over production, banking abuse, and the stock market (not to mention problems with American agriculture and the rebound of European economies).

14.  Franklin Roosevelt NEEDED repeal, the 21st Amendment was proof that he and his New Deal were doing something.  Furthermore, he was just as opportunistic in 1932/1933 as drys had been in 1918, and could cite good reasons for bringing about the repeal of Prohibition.  But leaving no wet propaganda unrepeated, Fleming asserts that FDR's repeal was a blow to the Mafia, all but implying that the Mob and gangsters had been born because of Prohibition.  This shows a lack of understanding the history of organized crime in America, and is simply wrong when it comes to the Mob's finances and future.  For one, while the Mob did make millions from bootlegging, that was simply more money the Mob was making.  It was already making millions from gambling, prostitution, and the start of influence within unions.  Furthermore, the Mob didn't "die" because of repeal, it kept going quite strong right up to the 1970s and 1980s, when the Federal Government finally broke the back of the Italian Mafia (only to have to face off against the Russian and Chinese organized crime families).

15.  In his final paragraph, Fleming links Prohibition (as an attempt at economic restructuring) to events today (with the Federal Government increasingly active in automobile production, health care, and banking), and sees it as a warning to us today.  But he'd do better to go back and reread his first paragraph.  Prohibition's goal was not to restructure the economy, it was about sin and public morals.  Asserting otherwise is to not give drys their due, nor to say that they unintentionally attempted such a restructuring is a misreading of the historical record.

There is other news to spread, but I think I've written enough for now.  But if you want to read about how Prohibition actually happened in Indiana, then pick up: