Prohibition

History Lessons Are Turning My Kid Into a Scofflaw (and I Couldn't Be Happier)

Looking at the past tests and develops the values you bring to your life-including a healthy contempt for authority.

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"If I'd lived then, I'd have still gone to saloons," Anthony, my 11-year-old son, said as we watched the Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. "But I'd have carried a gun in case I had to deal with police or militia."

He commented after a scene in which Portland, Maine's Mayor Neal Dow—nicknamed "the sublime fanatic"—ordered troops in 1855 to fire on an angry crowd outside City Hall. They had gathered to protest the statewide ban on alcoholic beverages that Dow pushed through in his zeal to make the world a better place as he conceived such a thing. Like most fanatics, sublime or otherwise, the mayor didn't have a lot of patience for disagreement. One man was killed and seven wounded that day by the forces of mandatory sobriety.

Interesting, well-produced, and drawing on multiple sources and experts, Prohibition lends itself beautifully to our homeschooling efforts. It does a thorough job of exploring the religious, reformist, and nativist roots of first the Temperance movement and then the push for full-on Prohibition. We've recently studied the Progressive Era and the fight for women's suffrage, and the documentary pulls in those histories, showing how social movements influence one another and often come together to achieve common goals—sometimes good, and other times leading to disastrous exercises in self-righteous presumption like Prohibition.

The Prohibition website includes excellent additional material, too, including an activity asking students to decide between two conceptions of the role of government:

  1. In a democracy, people should have the freedom to make their own choices and be responsible for their actions. If they want to indulge in destructive personal behavior, that's their business, not the governments.
  2. A democratic government is made up of its citizens and a major responsibility of government is to guarantee equal opportunity for all. The government has a duty to alleviate social ills and guarantee that no one is in need.

Those competing views of the state play an ongoing role through many of our lessons. Anthony knows my own opinions, and is no doubt influenced by them, but I always make sure to present him with competing viewpoints. Personally, I think the past speaks for itself as to which of those roles works better in practice, but I also see my job as raising my son to be a rational adult, not a clone of me.

So when we studied the Progressive Era we worked with a series of Great Courses lectures by a college professor sympathetic to the progressives, online lectures from Hillsdale College that have a broadly conservative tone, readings from Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States, and excerpts from Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard. Anthony got an earful of would-be reformers decrying poverty and abuses in the world around them, but also disparaging individuals as "plastic lumps of human dough." He read pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson dismissing individual rights as "nonsense," and perused objections that adherence to respect for natural individual rights "prevent us from determining what social or individual tendencies we shall favor, what we shall depress; It will in general prevent us from imposing a social ideal, and compel us to leave a social anarchy."

Anthony considered the Great Courses presenter too respectful of self-appointed shepherds who he found to be condescending and bossy, and the Hillsdale lectures overly deferential to religious authority—off-putting, to him, in its own way. To him, the pseudoscientific racism of the era, culminating in calls for eugenics controls and even elimination of whole populations, thoroughly tainted the confidence of the period's reformers that they were uniquely qualified to mold those lumps human of dough they saw all around them.

The sort of molding that evangelical Protestants and progressives attempted during Prohibition, for instance. Or that their heirs attempted during the war on drugs. And with—Well, it goes on and on through examples that my son himself offered up as dangerous intrusions into other people's lives by people absolutely convinced of their own wisdom.

Properly taught—which is to say, not the choppy and sleep-inducing way I experienced it in New York's public schools—history is pretty damned interesting. Few things occur in isolation without affecting other events. Movements split, merge, and create alliances. Individuals make decisions based on their values.

So a couple of weeks after Anthony learned about Woodrow Wilson criticizing the idea of the Constitution restraining government power, he read about war-time President Wilson muzzling critics of his administration, seizing sectors of the American economy, and conscripting men into the military.

Huh. Didn't see that coming.

Well, my kid sort of did. He long ago realized that history lessons aren't just snapshots of the past. They're also case studies of how people responded in certain situations—and insights into how their descendants might behave when faced with crises and opportunities.

And not just other people. Because, as you read through history, exploring the outcomes of movements, individual activists, crusades, and dissenters, you test your own values. What would you have done in certain situations in the past, and if faced with similar scenarios in the future?

Anthony would have been a bootlegger during Prohibition, he tells me. He may grow up to do something similar to undermine other restrictive laws, he boasts.

We all have chances for an education. Maybe, if your teachers have done well by you, one lesson you take away is that control freaks full of confidence in their plans for your life and contempt for your own preferences should be met with active defiance—whether in 1855 Portland, or during Prohibition, or in some situation to come.

At least, I like to think so. My kid seems to agree.

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  1. Been a while since I watched Prohibition, but I seem to recall that around the 1880s through the 1910s, temperance propaganda was included as ‘scientific teaching’ in public schools. So by 1918, an entire generation had grown up being fed a steady diet of this garbage and so were well inclined to support prohibition.

    Having sat through DARE a couple times in school its a lot like history repeating itself.

    1. Three things happened in 1913, IIRC. The income tax amendment, the Fed, and something else. What makes it especially interesting is that the income tax provided alternate funding which enabled prohibition; before then, half of federal revenue came from booze taxes. And the Fed made it a lot easier for the feds to hide their trickery.

      Both also enabled entry into WW I; no matter how outraged the public was, no matter how much Woodrow Wilson could stoke the coals, it would have been financially impossible otherwise.

      1. 17th amendment…direct election of Senators

        1. Right, that’s it. I usually overlook it because both the 16th and 17th amendments happened so close together, and its affect on expansion of the federal government was less immediate.

  2. Damn, 2-chilli. Sounds awesome. I wish I could join your home classroom. Also, I am a huge fan of the Great Courses. The Capitalism course is pretty good and the professor is quite pro-free market, within the limits permitted in academia.

  3. I have become a full-fledged history freak, and while I understand why K-12 schools can teach only a cursory review of history, it still astounds me how they went out of their way to teach sugar-coated statist pablum. Even the discussions of slavery were as neutral as if they were discussing hat fashions or hog varieties in different regions.

    It’s not the missing details; they don’t have time for that. It’s the lack of controversy. Slavery, for instance, while obviously beyond the pale now, was legitimized for a lot of reasons back then, some of which even had “scientific” backing. None of that was presented. No discussion of any reasons for anything. Even Dragnet’s “just the facts” was more exciting and informative.

    One history teacher did try to bring some excitement into it. Had some old history book (Charles Dickens?) which discussed a fat old English king in France whose horse stumbled in a gopher hole and the king punctured his belly on something, died, and because he was so fat, it took longer to dig a proper grave, by which time the corpse had swelled up so much that the hole had to be expanded, they had to tear down a wall in the house to remove the corpse, and then it exploded while stuffing it into the still-too-small grave. At least the author made it interesting!

    1. Just a general reminder that slavery was an economic institution, not a racial one. Man had been enslaving others, of all nationalities, since before written records (assumption, but for a long, long time). Absent the bloodletting in north america, slavery still would have passed form the scene with the industrial revolution.

      1. I agree slavery would have passed on its own, and within a decade or two. But it was definitely a racial institution in the US south. I have the impression that back thousands of years ago, slavery was a more natural part of life involving war captives, and while slavery was no picnic, so many people had slaves that it was just ordinary. But as economies and societies evolved and created a middle class, slavery became a rich man’s game, while the middle turned to actual paid servants, who had rights and their own lives and could change employment even if they were paid like shit. Thus society began frowning on slavery as ignoble and dishonorable, and the remaining slaveholders turned to race as a justification, especially using science to back up their bullshit — phrenology, evolution, that kind of nonsense. Yes, those two hit their stride near the end of slavery, but that kind of proto-science was in the air long before Darwin and used to justify all kinds of racism. White man’s burden and all that. It was a very handy way to justify colonialism, conquest, and slavery, in ways that were unnecessary before.

        1. Looks like some people need to research the number of black slave owners, or how many whites were “indentured servants”.

        2. Slavery was a child of Massachusetts and Boston fortunes were made on the trade. As for any ‘virtue’ to be faked, check out the term ‘sold South’. After 1809, the LEGAL importation ended, but the Savannah slave market flourished with slaves from New England. The last ship of slaves from RI arrived in 1860, IIRC. Every slave was ‘black’ or ‘colored’ as white slaves had to be freed in that state. After the US invaded the CSA, NE slaves were sold in the Caribbean.

      2. slavery still exist in Africa between peoples of similar races

      3. The “two drop rule” was not an economic institution. It was racist and bigoted through and through.

      4. What a valuable public service.

      5. Slavery in the USA was absolutely a race issue. I don’t know how anyone can’t see that. People were taught that blacks and native Americans were far inferior to them and little more than cattle to be herded, used and slaughtered as they needed. There has been slavery of same races all through history, but in America it was absolutely justified by racism.

    2. The challenge is that the discussion you describe would be seen as apologizing for slavery or legitimizing it. It would not be seen as a warning against the seductive power of government sanctioned evil.

    3. Well, here’s some things to add to your excitement. Slaves in the American South were paid for their labor (“Time on the Cross” by Fogle.). In some cases so well, if original records didn’t exist, you couldn’t believe it.

      In 1861 there were 276,000 free blacks in the South (“A History of the American People” by Paul Johnson). Many owned slaves (original archives on line) and one of the reasons was that it was a status symbol but also very much an economic issue.

      Slavery was not dying out, the land was exhausted so the idea was to extend slavery to new states and Cuba. On average, starting a plantation (vast majority were small to medium) you had a return on your investment within two years–phenomenal (Fogle).

      The Industrial Revolution did not “depend” on southern cotton to the extent some argue. When the South was blockaded during the war cotton was sought and gained else where. Arguing that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened without American cotton is a premise unproven as far as I can find.

      1. Hmm, I think you can find Fogle’s book on line to read.

  4. Yeah, bootleggers were totally the good guys during Prohibition. Sounds like you’re teaching your kid how to be a reflexively contrarian moron. On the bright side he probably won’t live long enough to pass on your genes.

    1. I don’t remember seeing anything in the piece about the virtues of bootlegging but we definitely know who is the bad guy in this comment thread.

      1. Hey, there are plenty of virtues of bootlegging, even if many bootleggers were not virtuous.

    2. It fascinates me that you felt the need to express a satisfaction that harm would befall a child. What are you? Where is this going? What do you to want?

    3. Or perhaps it is possible that both violent bootleggers and moral busybodies in government were bad?

      1. The violence associated with bootlegging was a wholly predictable effect of Prohibition. When you criminalize a business, that business naturally attracts criminals. Merchants in legal trades can rely on the police and courts to settle differences. With that option removed, dispute resolution tends to come down to raw force, and who’s most willing and able to us it.

        1. Obviously yes. I don’t think you will find much disagreement on that here and certainly not from me.

    4. hello.|5.23.17 @ 1:42AM|#

      Goodbye.

    5. Oh hey, good, this place could use a fresh dose of idiots. Our old idiots are getting hella stale.

      1. My first thought was that Hello is a rebrand of a current idiot who isn’t ready to have “child killer” attached to their primary agenda account.

        In any case it is anecdotal evidence that eugenics had not been abandoned by day-to-day progressives, but expanded to include as a “defect” the desire for freedom and questioning of authority.

    6. I hope it feels good to be convinced of your own superiority. There’s nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there?

      Go fuck yourself, shitstain.

    7. Lemme guess – – if you lived then, you would have been sipping a cranberry juice.

    8. Yeah, teetotalers and moral busybodies have always been the good guys. Sounds like you’re cherry picking the actions of a notorious person to smear anyone who possibly agrees with some other aspect of their life. On the bright side, you already know how to be a reflexively submissive moron.

  5. Great information about education and keep up the good work.

    History is also a bunch of linear lines of people’s lives. Politics tends to be such a small group, especially back in the early 20th Century that many of these people knew each other, so their lives influenced each other. As you say, people tend to take snapshots of history for use but there is much that influenced those historical events.

    Woodrow Wilson’s grandparents emigrated from Northern Ireland. Wilson’s grandmother was the daughter of a reverend. Wilson’s grandfather wrote an anti-slavery and pro-tariff newspaper. Wilson’s father was a reverend and owned slaves after moving to the Augusta, Georgia area. Wilson’s father set up a Sunday school for slaves. These were some of the family members that influenced Wilson.

    Wilson went to the religious Davidson College and then transferred to Princeton. He was a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. By all accounts, Wilson was an elite and liked being one.

    Limited by space here at Reason, one can find complete history of Wilson’s life and thoughts on politics, American institutions and the Progressive Movement of the late 19th Century. One major note is that Wilson found the checks and balances of the Constitution troublesome to the government “helping people” and looked to the English Parliamentary system as a better model.

    1. I’m pretty sure Woodrow didn’t come up with the 14 points of light at the Phi Psi house, but maybe the frat was different back then.

      1. Wilson evidently had the general diplomatic points but Walter Lippmann and cohorts wrote the 14 points speech.

        Lippmann was a newspaper man accessing highly classified secret protocols between nations. Lippmann also got out of being drafted into WWI as a grunt by using his connections with the Secretary of War’s assistant to become a staff member at the American Expeditionary Force HQ.

        Lippmann was also a member of the New York Socialist Party.

  6. History Lessons Are Turning My Kid Into a Scofflaw (and I Couldn’t Be Happier)

    The second I read that headline I thought “This has to a 2-Chili post.”

  7. If I’d lived then, I’d have still gone to saloons

    Good job parenting.

    But I’d have carried a gun in case I had to deal with police or militia

    Bad job parenting.

    1. You must be fun at family gatherings.

      1. I imagine those go something like this: “Now let me lecture you for a couple of hours on all the things you’re doing wrong in your life…”

      2. I’d assume he’s never invited to family gatherings.

    2. Why is it “bad” to teach your kids that it’s OK to kill cops? That’s what being an anarchist is all about, Charlie Brown.

      1. No, you are permitted to respond to the initiation of violence with a reasonable facsimile of that amount of violence. It doesn’t matter who is initiating the violence.

        Unless you are admitting that police are incredibly likely to initiate violence. If you admit that, then I’ll give you your point.

        1. Depends, of course, on your definition of “violence.”
          If you’re an anarchist, “violence” is the existence of a state.

          1. Are you confused about what “violence” is? It is certainly encompassed by someone pointing a gun at you and threatening to kill you, regardless of what clothes they wear or bobbles they have.

            No, its mere existence isn’t violence. It’s only when it uses its existence to send men-with-guns after you.

            But, if you’re a more forgiving type (and so far it seems all An-Caps are), then it’s only when they actually try to kill you when you’re otherwise minding your own business. Which seems to be shockingly often, if the stories on this site aren’t all made up.

      2. Because he’d’ve gotten himself killed.

    3. So you think teaching your child not to be prepared to defend one’s self is bad parenting?

      1. Shooting at cops is pretty stupid, but its his funeral.

      2. Trying to defend oneself from the cops rarely turns out well for the victim.

        1. I hate my taxes. Is it OK if I kill an IRS agent?
          Anarchists think so.

          1. It depends on if that agent (or anyone else) is attempting to kill you. If so, then the answer is “yes”. There is supposed to be equal protection and application of the law (not necessarily legislation, note the difference), regardless of what uniform you happen to wear.

        2. Maybe, but he has a right to do so.

        3. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. The worst shots I know are LEOs. Giving some of these clowns guns borders on criminal mischief. I consider myself a mediocre shot, yet I out shoot most of the local PD on the community range, and they shoot on targets 90% the range the rest of us shoot.

  8. I can usually tell the author of any post here just from the title. Tuccille’s, especially so.

  9. Control freaks are a lot like drunk abusive fathers. They’ll tell you how much they love you as they strangle you to death.

  10. I knew by the headline it was Tuccille. Just by the fuckin’ headline yo.

    1. Cause he’s talking about raising his kid?

  11. but I always make sure to present him with competing viewpoints.

    Always preface the competing viewpoint with, “Now these assholes over here…”

    1. YES! Excellent parenting – present the opposing view, but with humor and judgement sewn in. I’d like to think I would parent that way.

  12. So a couple of weeks after Anthony learned about Woodrow Wilson criticizing the idea of the Constitution restraining government power,

    You know who else criticizes the notion of the Constitution being a restraint on Government Power?

    1. Tony?

    2. Almost all of Congress and the “Deep State”?

  13. >> Anthony considered …the Hillsdale lectures overly deferential to religious authority.
    Me too. I signed up for their Constitution courses, gagged at the religiosity at the end of Lesson 1, and never continued. Anthony is a very perceptive 11-year old.

    >> Anthony would have been a bootlegger during Prohibition, he tells me. He may grow up to do something similar to undermine other restrictive laws, he boasts.
    Maybe running marijuana from the permissive states to the prohibitionist states?

  14. Pro-tip: I first started to see the cracks in the prog ideology during history class, but it was in AP Econ when my teacher showed us Milton Friedman videos that I really started to think critically about the specific ideas the left was espousing in the name of “equality and fairness”. Friedman just makes so much sense and he says everything in such a calm, precise, and rational manner

    I stayed with the left for a while after that because I was always anti-war first and foremost and they were supposed to be the anti-war party, but Obama’s presidency eventually cured me of that delusion

  15. If you are going to home school yourself into something other than a smaller version of yourself. You have to make him write propoganda papers support other view points than just the libertarian ones. He should be as well versed in Karl Marx as he is Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman. Just my point of view. Otherwise home schoolers risk just making a mini me version of themselves.

  16. Your kid knows we still have prohibition, right? So don’t be too quick to quash his dreams of being a bootlegger.

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