Ken Burns Classroom

The Roots of Prohibition: Examining the Effort to Prohibit Alcohol in America

Lesson Overview: The question of Prohibition had gained strong momentum by the first decade of the 20th century. The issue was one of the most controversial in the history of the United States, rivaled only by slavery the century before. However, the level of Americans’ dedication to its enactment and the degree to which alcohol should be prohibited varied greatly among the population. In this lesson, students will role-play advocacy groups deliberating issues and policy options on the question of Prohibition.

Lesson Objectives: (Students will…)

  • Describe the history of alcohol in the United States and trace the connection between Prohibition and temperance movements and the change in strategy from advocating moderation to government regulation.
  • Identify the significance of the local saloon to immigrants and the working poor and analyze how the Anti-Saloon League’s temperance movement politicized the prohibition of alcohol.

Lesson: Video Viewing Activity

In this activity, students will view video segments from the PBS television series Prohibition that explore the culture of alcohol in 19th century America and how the efforts of the temperance organizations were able to move the public toward supporting a constitutional amendment banning alcohol.

  1. Show students the text of Section 1 of the 18th Amendment:
    1. “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”
  2. Ask students to think back on the proposed laws regulating personal behavior. Ask them if they think banning alcohol would fall into this category. What would be the positives and negatives on personal freedom and the public good? Should there be any exceptions to prohibition alcohol (and if so, what should they be) or should it be an absolute law totally prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and consumption of any alcohol, and why?
  3. Divide the class into groups of four to five students, so that you have at least five groups.
  4. Distribute the handoutRoots of Prohibition Video Viewing Guideto all students. Review the directions with the class.
  5. Assign one of the segments to each group and ask them to review the segment, taking notes on the video viewing guide, and be prepared to share their information with the class.
  6. After all groups have completed viewing their assigned segments, divide the class again into jigsaw groups with at least one member of the original group in each new group.
  7. Have the jigsaw groups review all video segments in their new group.
  8. After all groups have finished, debrief the class with the following questions. Suggested answers are in parentheses.
    • How would you describe America’s tradition of drinking alcohol? (Answers will vary, but the main point is that alcohol was deeply ingrained in American customs and traditions.) What were some of the costs of this tradition? (Sickness, spousal and child abuse, loss of jobs, loss of income.)
    • How did the infusion of religious reform change the nature of temperance from individual choice to government mandate? (Temperance moved from promoting moderation and individual temperance to an outright ban on alcohol.) Do you think this was a good change? Why or why not? (Answers will vary.)
    • Besides providing alcoholic beverages, what other functions did the saloon serve for many Americans living in crowded cities? (The saloon served as a lower-income social club, providing comradeship, financial services, and political networking. It gave th e working class a place to unwind and socialize and became a focal point of many neighborhoods.) What were some problems associated with saloons in American cities? (Gambling, prostitution, political corruption, violent crime.)
    • What was the main goal of the Anti-Saloon League? (Get rid of alcohol.) How did it use propaganda, religion, and political coercion to promote its goals? (It associated alcohol and its use with anything evil, anti-American, and detrimental to the family. The ASL used its financial and personnel resources to oppose any politician who didn’t unequivocally support its cause.)
    • Why did the supporters of temperance eventually believe that only a constitutional amendment would rid the country of alcohol? (A constitutional amendment banning alcohol could be enforced in all levels of society. All forms of government—federal, state, and local—would have to abide by its rules. An amendment would be harder to repeal than a law.)

Debriefing Questions:

  • What effect do you think America’s long tradition with alcohol had on controlling its consumption?
  • How was the local saloon more than just a place to buy a beer? How important was such an establishment to local residents, especially newcomers to America?
  • What factors led to the temperance movement’s change in strategy from advocating moderation to prohibition of alcohol?
  • What are your thoughts on the idea that the Anti-Saloon League represented a minority opinion and was imposing its will on the majority of Americans?


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.


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: Roots of Prohibition Video Viewing Guide

Directions: In your small group, review your assigned segment, discuss the corresponding questions, and take notes on the graphic organizers. These notes will be helpful in formulating your role-position for the deliberation. Use additional paper if necessary. Be prepared to share your information with the class.

Video Segment 1: A Nation of Drunkards

  • Carefully view the history of alcohol usage in the United States since its earliest beginnings, as presented in video segment. Then use the following phrases in sentences that sum up Americans’ culture of alcohol drinking.
    • “Founding Fathers” use of alcohol
    • Americans’ many reasons for having a drink
    • Drinking alcohol for medicinal purposes
    • Alcohol consumption in all sectors of society
    • Drinking throughout the day




  • Humans had been fermenting fruits and grains into mildly intoxicating beverages for thousands of years.
    • How did distilled spirits — with significantly higher alcohol content than beer or ale — alter the rituals of drinking for Americans?
    • What negative effects did this more potent drink have on the consumers?
    • What effect did overconsumption of alcohol have on the family?




  • According to historian Catherine Murdock, what was the paradoxical relationship between alcohol consumption and masculinity? How did males’ overindulgence in alcohol affect their relationships with their wives and children?




  • Explain your thoughts on this video segment’s title referring to the United States as a “nation of drunkards.”




Video Segment 2: The Absolute Shall

  • By 1840, many Americans had begun to worry about the negative effects of alcohol and tried to do something about it. One of these groups was the Washingtonian Societies.
    • Describe the method used by this group’s members to come to grips with drunkenness.
    • Why do you think the method was effective for some people with alcohol problems and not others?
    • How effective do you think this method was and why?
    • Why did some clergymen disapprove of the Washingtonian method of alcohol treatment?



  • The Protestant Great Awakening of the early 19th century called upon Christians to help cleanse the nation of every sort of sin, launching America’s first era of reform.
    • How did temperance of alcohol move from promoting moderation to an outright ban of alcohol?
    • How did the infusion of religion give the movement impact and meaning?
    • How did 19th century American women find a role in the temperance movements?
    • Why was this type of participation by women considered unique in America at this time?




  • By the mid-19th century, the temperance movement turned from advocating moderation and voluntary abstinence to pushing for government regulation of alcohol.
    • Why do you think this change in strategy occurred?
    • Do you think it was a sensible move?
    • Why might some people say one’s consumption of alcohol was one’s own business, not the government’s?
    • Why might some people say it is just the opposite, and that the government needed to be involved in regulating alcohol?





  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having government involved in regulating alcohol and imposing “the absolute shall” on this issue?





Video Segment 3: Terribly Wonderful

  • Beer and whiskey were not the saloon’s sole attraction. Describe the different functions the saloons served for most men living in cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Social function
Economic function
Political function


  • Describe the marketing plan developed by the beer breweries to franchise their product to local neighborhoods.



  • Most big cities had a designated “district” for the saloons, with such names as “Satan’s Circus,” “Storyville,” “the Barbary Coast,” and “Skid Road.” Chicago’s notorious “Levee District” was said to have 500 saloons, 500 whorehouses, numerous poolrooms, gambling halls, peep shows, and cocaine parlors where vice, prostitution, extortion, and political corruption were rampant and law enforcement slim. Discuss and record some of the problems such districts posed for cities in these important areas of American life:
Democratic government
Law enforcement
Economic prosperity
Safety and security

Video Segment 4: Retribution

  • Explain the strategy behind the Anti-Saloon League’s mission to get rid of alcohol in America.




  • Howard Russell, the Anti-Saloon League’s founder, proclaimed, “The Anti-Saloon League was formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.” Review the numerous anti-alcohol images (cartoons, slogans, signs) presented in this video segment and explain how the ASL combined propaganda, religion, and political coercion to make alcohol a “wedge issue” in elections.




  • Explain how Wayne Wheeler, the ASL’s main political operative, succeeded in getting local and state governments in Ohio to prohibit alcohol. What was the lesson other politicians understood about Wheeler’s methods?




  • Explain how Progressives saw their role in the debate over prohibition of alcohol.



Video Segment 5: The Time Is Now

By 1913, temperance organizations had helped pass laws in several states restricting alcohol, some with outright bans on manufacture, sale, and consumption. However, even with this success, it became apparent that to outlaw alcohol nationally, a national solution was needed and that it would have to come as an amendment to the Constitution.

  • Explain the Prohibitionists’ strategy for supporting a national income tax amendment to the Constitution and how the passage of the 16th Amendment (income tax law) was a boost for a prohibition on alcohol.




  • In December 1913, the streets of Washington, D.C., filled with a never-before-seen protest demanding a prohibition amendment to the Constitution.
Why did the protesters feel a constitutional amendment was more favorable than a law?
How would such an amendment enshrine the ideals and values of interest groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union?
How would such an amendment be unlike most previous amendments?
How would it be similar to the 13th Amendment?


  • Describe the steps needed to get an amendment passed in 1914.
Congressional requirement
State legislatures requirement
Why was getting the amendment passed before 1920 important?


  • By 1914, it appeared a Prohibition amendment was possible, as people from all political persuasions were expressing their support. Describe the reasons the following interest groups began to support a Prohibition amendment.
Labor unions
African American leaders
Southern whites