The story of the American activist struggle against the influence of alcohol, climaxing in the failed early 20th century nationwide era when it was banned.

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Won 1 Primetime Emmy. Another 3 nominations. See more awards »


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Series cast summary:
Peter Coyote ...  Himself - Narrator 3 episodes, 2011
Pete Hamill Pete Hamill ...  Himself - Writer 3 episodes, 2011
Catherine Gilbert Murdock Catherine Gilbert Murdock ...  Herself - Historian 3 episodes, 2011
Michael Lerner Michael Lerner ...  Himself - Historian 3 episodes, 2011
Daniel Okrent ...  Himself - Writer 3 episodes, 2011
Noah Feldman Noah Feldman ...  Himself - Legal Scholar 3 episodes, 2011
Jack Roche Jack Roche ...  Himself - Resident of Chicago 3 episodes, 2011
William Leuchtenburg William Leuchtenburg ...  Himself - Historian 3 episodes, 2011
Patricia Clarkson ...  Reader / ... 3 episodes, 2011
John Lithgow ...  Reader / ... 3 episodes, 2011
Campbell Scott ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2011
Sam Waterston ...  Reader 3 episodes, 2011
John Paul Stevens John Paul Stevens ...  Himself - Resident of Chicago 2 episodes, 2011
Jonathan Eig Jonathan Eig ...  Himself - Writer 2 episodes, 2011
Margot Loines Wilkie Margot Loines Wilkie ...  Herself - Resident of Massachusetts 2 episodes, 2011
Martin Marty Martin Marty ...  Himself - Theologian 2 episodes, 2011
Jack Clarke Jack Clarke ...  Himself - Resident of Chicago 2 episodes, 2011
Ruth Proskauer Smith Ruth Proskauer Smith ...  Herself - Resident of New York 2 episodes, 2011
Edwin T. Hunt Jr. Edwin T. Hunt Jr. ...  Himself - Resident of Seattle / ... 2 episodes, 2011
Joshua Zeitz Joshua Zeitz ...  Himself - Historian 2 episodes, 2011
Philip Bosco ...  Reader 2 episodes, 2011
Kevin Conway Kevin Conway ...  Reader 2 episodes, 2011
Tom Hanks ...  Reader 2 episodes, 2011
Josh Lucas ...  Reader 2 episodes, 2011


Throughout American history, heavy alcohol consumption has been a pervasive part of its national social character. However in the 1800s, a growing Temperance movement arose determined to oppose the destructive habit by any means necessary. This series tells the story of this crusade until it achieved its ultimate goal of passing the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution which imposed prohibition. After that victory, the series covers this social reform's disastrous unintended consequences that encouraged clandestine drinking and organized crime while undermining civil liberties and society's respect for the law in ways that still reverberate today. Written by Kenneth Chisholm (

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How did a nation founded on rights ever go so wrong?


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Release Date:

2 October 2011 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Prohibition See more »

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Aspect Ratio:

16:9 HD
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Featured in CBS 11 News: Episode dated 17 August 2011 (2011) See more »

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User Reviews

Greatest Legal Miscalculation of 20th Century America Documented in Outstanding Burns/Novick Film
8 October 2011 | by classicalsteveSee all my reviews

My favorite comment in this documentary is offered by Pete Hamill, American journalist, novelist and essayist, who said basically if you want people to brush their teeth, pass a law banning toothpaste. And then people will do everything they can to acquire toothpaste illegally, and they'll brush their teeth just to spite the law. The unforeseen consequence of Prohibition is that once you take away a person's right to do something that people have always done, people will feel the desire to want it much more intensely, in the same way if you deny a child all sweets, the kid will be sneaking chocolate inside his jacket sleeves. Hamill later says he doesn't drink, but he would probably take a swig in front of a government building if the law ever forbade him from doing it. Encouraging moderation is not the same as banning something completely.

The other comment worth noting concerns repeal crusader Pauline Sabin who had been entrenched in republican politics prior to 1928. Republican congressmen would vote to adhere to the strictest of prohibition laws as laid out by the Volstead Act and then go to one of Sabin's parties demanding a drink. She concluded that the United States had become "a Nation of Hypocrites", which is the title of the third installment of Burn's documentary. Sabin becomes an unlikely hero who would sway the country against Prohibition and the eventual repeal of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, the only amendment so dignified. Ironically, Daniel Okrent points out that today alcohol is somewhat harder to come by than during Prohibition because of liquor laws, underage drinking laws, etc. When alcohol was strictly forbidden, there was nothing in place to regulate it, except for raids on speakeasies and private distilleries.

Based in part on Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition", Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "Prohibition" is a thoroughly entertaining, simultaneously humorous and "sobering" look at one of the strangest episodes in American legal history. The documentary is in three parts, the first chronicling the birth of the temperance movement which began in the 1820's almost a century before the ratification of the 18th Amendment. No question that alcohol was a problem for some people, mostly among the rural poor, but the temperance movement decided alcohol itself was the problem and vowed its eradication by the late 19th century. The first part ends with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting not only the sale but importation of alcohol. Part two concerns the passage of the Volstead Act designed to enforce the amendment, and the immediate consequences of trying to stop people from drinking, and the antithetical results, such as lawlessness and bribery. The third and most sobering of the episodes chronicles many of the unintended consequences, such as the violence erupting in Chicago and the night club craze. The documentary ends with the movement for the repeal of the 18th Amendment.

The unforeseen catastrophes of the 18th Amendment which were designed to heighten American morality and assuage drunkenness turned America into one of the most alcoholic-driven nations among the industrialized world. Americans drank more booze, partied more, got more drunk, and flaunted the law more often during Prohibition than at any other time in the nation's history since after the Civil War, even as compared to the present time. Possibly only the 1960's are somewhat comparable to the mayhem of the 1920's.

The irony of ironies that the decade begun by the Temperance Movement's victory with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919 would be nicknamed the Roarding Twenties and the Jazz Age. This was not a decade known for drinking milk. This was a decade characterized by cocktail glasses in the hands of flappers dancing on tables to the evocative music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Men would be raising giant mugs of frothy beer in underground establishments called speakeasies. Only Prohibition allowed the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to become wealthy gangsters, almost movie stars by today's standards. The leaders of the Temperance Movement, particularly the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, were appalled when their daughters ran off to speakeasies and night clubs to partake of the forbidden fruit. Strangely, Prohibition helped usher in the Night Club culture of America which has continued unabated ever since. All the great night clubs famous for their booze, music, and dancing such as the Cotton Club and the Stork Club, were incepted when alcohol was supposed to be illegal.

For some reason, I didn't think Prohibition permeated into so many aspects of American life during its enforcement from 1920 through 1932. People could open small businesses in their basements and make a fortune through bootlegging, and then be hauled away under the Volstead Act. The rise of the Chicago Gang syndicate became a prototype for similar syndicates across the country, all vying for their bootlegging territory. At one point, citizens were legally compelled to snitch on neighbors suspected of bootlegging. The story as presented by Burns/Novick is as compelling as any action thriller being produced today. A great movie of American history, with all the elements that make a great story. Essentially it's a legal thriller with sex, violence, and lots of booze. Lots of it.

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