Ken Burns Classroom

The Roots of Prohibition: A Classroom Deliberation: Should the Nation Prohibit Alcohol?

Description: In this lesson, students will have an opportunity to “replay” the history of Prohibition. Students will conduct a deliberation, rather than a debate, to find a comprehensive solution to the problem of alcohol in the United States. Policymakers often use this process to address important issues. Students will role-play advocates of different interest groups who have strong opinions and serious interest in the Prohibition issue.

Lesson Objectives: (Students will…)

  • Practice active listening.
  • Prepare for and conduct a deliberation on an issue.
  • Argue the different sides of the Prohibition movement by role-playing an advocacy group.
  • Analyze the motives and actions of different groups involved in the prohibition of alcohol in 19th and early 20th century America
  • Write an agreement concerning the regulation of alcohol in the United States.


Explain to students that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the forces of the temperance movement gained strength and political influence. By appealing to Progressives’ ongoing efforts to improve society and employing an aggressive political strategy, the Anti-Saloon League achieved its goal of a constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol. But the process was contentious. In the end, the amendment never enjoyed strong support from government or the American public. The result was a 12-year experiment that ultimately failed.

Throughout U.S. history, many controversial issues have been discussed and debated. The players, advocating their various positions, have held strong opinions. However, they also had a common need for solutions. In some instances, deliberation was successful in bringing the differing parties to compromise and solution, as demonstrated during the debates over representation at the Constitution Convention in 1787. At other times, deliberation was abandoned and the sides entrenched themselves, as during the period just before the Civil War. Rhetoric and political posturing became so strong that reason and compromise lost out, and the result was a failure of democracy, the worst conflict in American history.

Part 1. Active Listening Activity (Optional):

  • To help students conduct effective deliberation conversations, you might consider having them review some simple steps in active listening. Point out to students that throughout U.S. history, decisions have been made through debate and deliberation. Debate usually establishes the different views on any subject and promotes a course of action.
  • Explain that deliberation is more of a discussion, where the various viewpoints of an issue are discussed and heard by all sides, allowing decisions to be made that synthesize these different viewpoints.
  • Distribute the handout “Tips on Active Listening” to all students, or have a copy on the LCD projector or interactive whiteboard. Review these tips with the class.
  • Divide the group into groups of three. Each group member will take turns being the Speaker, the Listener, and the Observer. They will have six minutes total for this activity.


  • The Speaker will share his/her thoughts and opinions on the assigned topic for two minutes (see below).
  • While the Speaker is talking, the Listener will practice active listening skills by being attentive, inquiring for more explanation, and indicating to the Speaker his/her level of understanding. When the Speaker is finished, the Listener will paraphrase what the speaker has said (two minutes).
  • The Observer will take notes on the Listener and Speaker and provide feedback when they have finished (two minutes). Observers can write their notes on an interactive whiteboard, tablet, or chart paper.

Suggested topics for discussion:

  • Should students be allowed to use their cell phones in class?
  • How should schools deal with online bullying?
  • Should the United States reestablish the military draft?

When all groups have completed the activity, debrief with the following questions:

  • How was this activity?
  • What was challenging?
  • What did you learn?
  • What can you take away from this exercise and apply to your discussions with others?

Part 2: Deliberation Activity

  1. Divide students into groups of five. Distribute the handout “Advocates for and Against Prohibition.” (This can also be assigned as homework the night before.) Assign each group one of the following roles and provide time for them to meet and discuss their positions. If time allows, you can have students conduct deeper research on these positions.
  2. Point out to students that not all the roles take extreme positions and that some are more focused on solving social and economic problems, and not necessarily for or against the use of alcohol. Tell students to listen to what the other groups are saying and promoting and look for areas of similar interest. They may choose to support or reject alcohol’s prohibition if doing one or the other will support their overall goals.
    • The List of Advocates
      1. Women’s Christian Temperance Union
      2. Civil libertarians
      3. Progressive reformers
      4. Industrialists and union organizers
      5. Anti-Saloon League
      6. United States Brewers’ Association
  3. Distribute theDeliberations Procedures handout to students and review the procedures and graphic organizer Negotiation Records. Answer any questions students may have.
  4. Provide time for each group to develop their opening statements.
  5. You may play the role of the facilitator or have a student assume that role. Instructions for the facilitator are within the Deliberations Procedures. Work through the activity and have the class develop its agreement. If time permits, have each group present its options to the entire class.
  6. Then have students individually complete the agreement form.


Students can be assessed on their participation in class discussions, thoughtful participation in group work, and the detail and thoroughness of their video viewing graphic organizers and individual completion of the agreement form.


Have students research a contemporary controversial issue, such as school prayer or flag desecration, and apply the deliberation method.

Related Academic Subjects/Standards

This lesson fits the following academic standards set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and learning (McREL) (

Historical Understanding

Standard 2: Understands historical perspective

Level III: (Grades 7–8)

  • Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history
  • Analyzes the influence specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

  • Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history
  • Analyzes the influences specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history and specifies how events might have been different in the absence of those ideas and beliefs


Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801–1861)

Standard 12: Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period

Level III (Grades 7–8)

  • Understands the significant religious, philosophical, and social movements of the 19th century and their impacts on American society and social reform
  • Understands how women influenced reform movements and American society during the antebellum period

Level IV (9–12)

  • Understands the social impact of the Second Great Awakening
  • Understands the development of Utopian communities

Era 7 – The Emergence of Modern America (1890–1930)

Standard 20: Understands how Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands the spread of Progressive ideas and the successes of the Progressive movement
  • Understands the influence of events and individuals on the Progressive movement

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

  • Understands major social and political issues of the Progressive era
  • Understands how the Progressive movement influenced different groups in American society


Standard 4: Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve, and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government

Level III (Grade 6–8)

  • Knows how constitutions have been used to promote the interests of a particular group, class, religion, or political party

Standard 16: Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how government is financed through taxation

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands why taxation is necessary to pay for government, and knows which provisions of the United States Constitution give the national government the right to collect taxes

Standard 19: Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Knows how the public agenda is shaped by political leaders, interest groups, and state and federal courts; understands how individual citizens can help shape the public agenda

Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands how Americans can use the following means to monitor and influence politics and government at local, state, and national levels: joining political parties, interest groups, and other organizations that attempt to influence public policy and elections; voting; taking part in peaceful demonstrations; circulating and signing petitions

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Tips on Active Listening

Give the Process and the Speaker Your Undivided Attention

Leave other issues and distractions out of the conversation. Make eye contact with whoever is speaking. Your body language should show that you are interested in what the person is saying.

Set Aside Any Judgments or Prejudices

Try to put aside any early judgments or prejudices you might have toward the speaker or his/her ideas. Put yourself in the speaker’s shoes and try to understand the issue from the speaker’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you agree with the speaker, but that you understand what he/she is saying and why.

Work Hard to Understand the Situation Fully

Ask open-ended questions that call for more than a yes or no answer, beginning your questions with words like “Tell me more about…” or “What do you mean when you say…” or “Explain further what you mean….”


Use paraphrasing statements like those below to check for understanding and let the speaker know you are listening.

  • It sounds like…
  • It seems like…
  • What I’m hearing is…
  • What I understand is…
  • What I hear you say is…

Be Respectful and Careful of Each Other’s Feelings

Observe the facial expression, gestures, and body language of the other members in the deliberation. Try to take note of the person’s feelings and ask questions like “How did that make you feel?” or “Why is that important?” Give the other participants the same respect that you desire for yourself when talking to someone.


Handout: Advocates for and Against Prohibition

  • Woman’s Christian Temperance Union evolved from the traditional temperance movement, which originally believed only distilled spirits were the problem and advocated moderation and abstinence. In the past, the group focused its efforts locally with public demonstrations in front of saloons. One temperance advocate, Carry Nation, went so far as to take an ax to smash saloons in Kansas. Gradually, as the beer industry grew, the Union turned against all forms of alcohol and focused their efforts from local demonstrations to a national organization involved in many aspects of reform. They believe prohibiting alcohol in America will help women fight for their families, their homes, and their children. They accused the brewers’ associations of trying to keep women as second class citizens and deny them the right to vote. They believe that education and devotion to God will do better to rid the country of the tyranny of drinking than any law because people will just ignore the law.
  • Civil Libertarians warn of the dangers of trying to legislate morality and having too much government in people’s personal lives. They feel that a prohibition amendment would lead to a loss in liberty and make people more dependent on government. They don’t want tax-payer money going to enforce a law against people’s personal choice. They feel people are intelligent and strong enough to handle their own problems and don’t think it’s the government’s business what people drink or how much. They support efforts like the Washington Society with a voluntary system for addressing people’s problems with alcohol.
  • Progressive Reformers point to the fact that over half the population now live in the cities and the people living there are in trouble. Progressives point out that people in the cities don’t have the traditional support systems of extended family and religion that they once had in the rural areas. They feel many city-dwellers are defenseless against ravages of industrialized society and political corruption. They identify the saloon as the headquarters of these two corrosive forces. They feel alcohol is ruining the lives of the working class and the poor and that government must step in with laws to prohibit its manufacture and sale and programs to help people overcome its dangerous effects.
  • Industrialists and Union Organizers support some form of Prohibition but for different reasons. The richest industrialists in the country – including Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford — back Prohibition because they believed alcohol undercuts the output of their workers. They cite incidences where workers have come drunk to work, or miss work due to being too hung over. They point out that workers will spend all their paycheck at the saloon and then turn around and demand higher wages. Many union organizers also support prohibition. They see how excessive use of alcohol has made workers weak against the oppression of factory owners and industrialists. Some union groups, including the radical Industrial Workers of the World believe alcohol is part of a capitalist plot to weaken the workingman.
  • Anti-Saloon League is focused on the singular goal of getting rid of alcohol. They see America at war between the “rum shops” (the saloons) and the moral fiber of the nation and only one can win. They have taken this battle all the way to the halls of Congress, strongly supporting those who agree with their cause and working hard against those who don’t. The League condemns the growing influence of the saloon and criticizes the beer industry’s business model of fronting saloon businesses all across the country. This group believes local efforts to instill prohibition are ineffective because people will just go to the next town to get their alcohol. They believe that a national prohibition law is the best way to defeat the evil drink.
  • Brewers’ and Distillers’ Industry explained how alcohol is part of the American culture and that the problems with alcohol are more the result of an individual’s personal problems and not the fault of their products. They point out that the neighborhood saloon has served as an integral part of the community, providing entertainment, a place for socializing and making business connections, and for many of the working class, a home away from home. Members of the alcohol industry make the point that their business is just as legitimate as any other industry in America and deserves to exist. The alcohol industry employs thousands of workers all across the country and pays millions of dollars in taxes. To make it illegal would greatly affect the economic well being of many Americans

Handout: Deliberations Procedures

Your group represents a large constituency concerned about issues directly or indirectly related to alcohol consumption in the United States. You will meet with members of your group first to understand the details of these concerns and then with the other groups that represent different points of view. Collectively, your goal is to recommend a public policy that addresses the concerns about alcohol consumption while protecting your constituents’ interests.

You will be working with other people who have strong opinions on the issue. Some will agree with you on some topics and disagree with you on others. Not all the groups take extreme positions on the issue of alcohol; some are more focused on solving social or economic problems. As in a debate, you will want to put your best argument forward, but you will also want to listen to others’ concerns and look for areas of common interest to find a workable solution. Though winning all your points is desirable, it is also risky, for you could lose all of them too. In the end, if the discussion makes people more divided than united, you might not be able to move your policy forward in the future for lack of support.

Use the following procedure to guide your efforts. The facilitator will guide you through the deliberation.

The group’s goal is to answer this question: What is the best policy to address the issue of alcohol in America?

Deliberation Steps

  1. Developing Opening Statements
    • Each group will make a one-minute opening statement addressing the question above. Your statement should answer the questions, What group do I represent? What policy would I like to see enacted?
    • Develop your opening statement from your notes on the video segments and the role description handout. As the other members describe their position, take notes on theStakeholders’ Points of View” chart.
  2. Statement of Premises
    • Think about each group’s opening statement. What are the common assumptions your group has with any of the others? The facilitator will guide the full group to list them at the top of the “Negotiations Records” chart. One assumption is already listed on the chart to get you started.
  3. Identifying Options
    • On theNegotiations Records” chart, the facilitator will lead the group to make a list of options under consideration for addressing America’s problem with alcohol. The facilitator asks the question, “Based on the information we’ve gathered, what are the options for addressing the alcohol?” Make a list of options in the left-hand “Costs and Benefits” column. Come up with four options. (You may find you have more, but it will be difficult to have enough time to explore more than four.)
  4. Evaluating Options
    • The facilitator leads the discussion, going through the costs and benefits of each option. List the costs and benefits of each in the appropriate columns.
  5. Deciding on the Best Option
    • As a group, study the chart. The facilitator asks, “Which options have the most benefits? Which have the fewest drawbacks?” The facilitator guides the group to compare and contrast the options to determine which is clearly superior to the others. Each group member should have a chance to state which option he or she favors and why. Does one option appear to be the best one? Can some options be combined?
  6. Completing the Agreement Form
    • Individually, complete the “ Agreement Form.” Use the deliberation handouts to complete the segments recommending the group’s best solution, recording any disagreements or reservations, and providing any possible alternative solutions.

Handout: Negotiation Records

Common Assumptions

  1. The United States is experiencing controversy over the sale, manufacture, and consumption of alcohol.

Costs and Benefits

Options Costs Benefits


Handout: Agreement Form

(To be completed individually)


Name ___________________________ Date ___________________


Write in the title of the advocate group and the names of the individuals in your group.


The topic of the deliberation is the issue of alcohol in the America. Here are some of the problems connected with this topic:




In the deliberation, the group reached the following basic understandings, the first being “The United States is experiencing controversy over the sale, manufacture, and consumption of alcohol.” Here is the list of the other four.




Possible Solutions

As a group, we discussed the following possible options.




Solution on Which All Parties Agree

We have evaluated the above solutions and agree on the following. (Explain why you believe it is the best solution.)




Disagreements or Reservations and Possible Alternative Solutions

Explain any disagreements or reservations you have with the agreed-upon solution and provide any alternatives you feel are appropriate.




Handout: Stakeholders’ Points of View

Who Pro or Anti Prohibition Point of View
Women’s Christian Temperance Union
Civil Libertarians
Progressive Reformers
Industrialists and Union Organizers
Anti-Saloon League
Brewers’ and Distillers’ Industry