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Aug. 16, 2021

Prohibition in the 1850s

Popular depictions of prohibition in the United States usually show the speakeasies, bootleggers, flappers, and bathtub gin of the Roaring Twenties, but earlier attempts at prohibition stretch back far into the 19th century.

In 1851, Maine passed the first statewide prohibition law, and 12 other states quickly followed as temperance societies preached the evils of alcohol. Anti-prohibitionists, especially liquor dealers and hotel owners, decried the “tyranny of the majority” and fought back with their own PR campaigns and legal challenges.

Many of the methods that the anti-prohibitionists used and that were used by other moral minorities of the day (such as those fighting against Sunday Laws and those working toward racial equality) were precursors to the methods used in the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century.

In this episode, Kelly briefly tells the story of the 1850s Maine Laws and interviews Kyle Volk,  Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of HIstory at the University of Montana, and author of Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy, which discusses these early attempts at prohibition.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image: “The drunkard's children. A sequel to The bottle” by George Cruikshank, 1848, Wellcome Collection.

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Kelly 0:00

This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.


Today's episode is about prohibition. When you think of prohibition in the United States, you probably think of the time between when the 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920, and its repeal by the 21st amendment on December 5, 1933. But prohibition has a much longer history in the US. The temperance movement stretches back at least to 1784 when Benjamin Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, in which he stated, "thus we see poverty and misery, crimes and infamy, diseases and death are all the natural and usual consequences of the intemperate use of ardent spirits." Temperance societies and journals popped up around the country. And by the late 1830s, many of the organizations were calling for full prohibition of alcohol. Temperance activist Neil Dow was born into a Quaker family in Portland, Maine in 1804. And he always believed that alcohol was problematic. He said of the liquor trade: "it makes ruthless war upon the people, it blasts and destroys their homes as with pestilence and fire, it kills savagely cruelly more than 100,000 of them every year, robbing them first and driving wives and children to ruin and despair." In 1850, Dow was elected the president of the Maine Temperance Union, and a year later, he was elected to be mayor of Portland. Dow pushed the Maine state legislature to enact prohibition, and on June 2, 1851, he got his way when Maine became the first state to outlaw alcohol with a law that stated that the sale of all alcoholic beverages except for, "medicinal mechanical or manufacturing purposes" was prohibited. Other states quickly followed, and by 1855, 12 other states had enacted similar laws. The New York state legislature passed a prohibition statute after a similar bill had been vetoed by the previous governor. The law was set to go into effect on July 4, 1855, usually the wettest day of the year. A coalition of anti-prohibitionists, including liquor dealers, brewers and bar owners joined together to condemn prohibition, and to campaign for its repeal. The PR campaign worked, at least in some places, and July 4, 1855, was as wet as usual in Manhattan and elsewhere. In the places in New York state where prohibition was enforced, such as in Brooklyn and in Buffalo, the anti-prohibitionists sold liquor anyway, hoping to be arrested, peacefully, so they could bring a case to court. The New York Court of Appeals heard two such cases and declared the prohibition statute unconstitutional. Judge George F. Comstock, who curiously was a member of the prohibitionist Know Nothing Party said that alcohol was a type of property. And since the state constitution says that, "no persons shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law," the state legislature couldn't reduce the value of liquor by making it illegal. The Indiana prohibition law was similarly struck down by a state Supreme Court ruling, although another prohibition law was passed a couple of years later.


Even in Maine, where the Maine Laws started, prohibition was unpopular among some groups of people, including the working class and immigrants. On June 2, 1855, things turned violent in Portland. Anti-prohibitionists stormed the Portland City Hall in search of a rumored liquor stash in the basement. According to reports, Mayor Dow ordered the crowd to be fired upon, and one person was killed. Seven more were wounded. The incident, which became known as the Portland Rum Riot, led to the repeal of the Maine Law in 1856. Prohibitionist kept trying in Maine, and eventually in 1885 prohibition was written into the state constitution, where it stayed in effect until the repeal of national prohibition in 1933.


Although the 21st Amendment repealed the nationwide prohibition, the second part of the amendment read: "the transportation, or importation, into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited." A statewide law such as Maine's could still be enacted. The last dry state was Mississippi, which finally legalized alcohol in 1966. There are still many dry towns and counties throughout the country.


To learn more about the Maine liquor law, and the anti-prohibitionists' reaction to early attempts at prohibition, I'm speaking now with Kyle Volk, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Montana, and the author of Moral Minorities and the Making of American democracy, which discusses these early attempts.


So hi, Kyle, it's great to talk to you again. It's been a long time since since we've seen each other.


Kyle Volk 6:41

It's great to see you. Thanks. Thanks for having me on. Appreciate it. Yeah.


Kelly 6:45

So I want to jump into this talk about moral minorities, and then talk about sort of the the 1840s and 50s. But I wonder if we could start with kind of a definition, what you mean by moral minorities and you know, sort of minority rights has this really, has an implication in the modern world that that isn't exactly what we're talking about here?


Kyle Volk 7:09

Yeah, no, not not, not always. Right. And so I mean, when I started the project, I was really asking a question about when did ordinary groups of people start to think of themselves as minorities or minority groups. And in the late 18th century, and kind of throughout political theory, the minorities that were always worried about the tyranny of the majority, were the elites, the wealthy people, the rich. And in the US case that eventually became the slaveholders who were very rich and very powerful. But I was interested, based on some research I'd done and again, looking at what ordinary people started to think of themselves as minorities. So I guess my definition is somewhat historical, because I'm a historian. So I was looking for people at the time in the mid 19th century, who were self conceiving as minorities, and I call them moral minorities in the book, that's something they wouldn't have said, that's something I said something I came up with, as a way to group different groups of people who are claiming minority status and found themselves in particular in minority status because they were up against a moral kind of issue that was framed in majoritarian terms. So with the alcohol issue, by the 1840s, temperance reformers started arguing that the majority of Americans were opposed to the sale of alcohol. And because we're in a democracy and majority rules, therefore, alcohol should be severely restricted or banned or what have you. And groups of people like liquor dealers, German immigrants and whatnot started to see themselves as a minority. And I call them a moral minority because they were on the losing side of a major moral question of the day.


Kelly Therese Pollock 8:54

Yeah, I love that you put liquor dealers as sort of the the moral minority in this. It's such an interesting juxtaposition. So I, you know, I sat down with my kids at dinner one night, and I said, in a democracy, should the majority always rule? And they said, Yeah, and I said, Okay, so what about the rights of slaves? And they said, Oh, no, no, okay. Yeah, minorities should have rights. But it pushes it so much further, when you think Do we have the right to sell alcohol? Do we, you know, that this is it's very different, at least in our you know, sort of modern conception than thinking about do ethnic and religious and national minorities have rights. So I'm glad that you put the the liquor question in. Was it an actual majority that was against alcohol, or is this just sort of a rhetoric device that they were using the that it was the majority that oppose this?


Kyle Volk 9:53

So it's definitely a rhetorical device. I mean, this is a weaponized language that temperance reformers and prohibitionists were using. However, what's interesting is that by the 1840s, different states started passing laws to initiate local prohibition by referendum. And, you know, in lots of towns, I think over 70% of towns in New York, the State of New York, in 1846, voted themselves dry, meaning majorities of people went to the polls and voted themselves dry. Now we're talking about only male voters, in most states, white voters, lots of people are disenfranchised at this time. But if you had added, you know, the women to the vote at the time, it would have been even stronger majorities, likely. So I mean, there's evidence that majorities of people in certain locales, and then in certain states did support, not necessarily the ban on alcohol, but the ban on the retail sale of alcohol.


Kelly 10:58

So to put this in context for people, they were drinking a lot back then. So Americans were, this isn't just like, people were having a beer, every once in a while, there was a lot of alcohol flowing. Can you can you sort of tell us a little bit about what that looks like at the time,


Kyle Volk 11:15

I teach a course on the history of alcohol, here at the University of Montana. And, you know, one of the segments of the courses is built on this famous book by Bill Rorabaugh, who is a historian at University of Washington, and he called the book the Alcoholic Republic. And point was that in the early republic, from say, the revolution to the 1840s, Americans were drinking, like fish, right? They were drinking like crazy, twice as much as we drink per capita today. So if we drank two gallons of pure alcohol per person, you know, each year, Americans in 1825, the peak of the whiskey kind of explosion in the United States, Americans were drinking at least per for, on average, four gallons per person. So I mean, the temperance reformers, were, you know, religiously inspired, no doubt, the Second Great Awakening was going on at the time, but they were reacting to what was, I think, a very real social problem, which is Americans were drinking high octane alcohol, whiskey most prominently, in great amounts.


Kelly 12:21

And what what sorts of things was that leading to, I mean, it wasn't just that they were drinking a lot, but but sometimes that drink was causing real problems for people.


Kyle Volk 12:29

Oh, sure. I mean, this is this is a time of vast change in American society. People are moving constantly, cities are growing. I think the rates of urbanization in the early 19th century were higher than any other point in American history. Workers are starting to kind of work as wage workers. They're living apart from families. So all kinds of shenanigans ensued. Crime was on the rise in various places. Murder was on the rise, you know, kind of significant crime and temperance reformers linked all of the kind of social ills that were going on in society to drink, whether rightfully or wrongfully, you know, is a real question. But nonetheless, they saw social ills, poverty, crime, vice, whatever, prostitution, you name it, these things were attributed to drinking too much.


Kelly 13:22

And there's also a sort of nationality and immigration kind of aspect to this too, right? Like, who were the people who are producing and selling the alcohol in large part.


Kyle Volk 13:36

Yeah, yeah, that's, that's a real part of the story. And it changes over time, but by the 1840s, and 1850s, when the prohibitionists' kind of perspective really starts to take hold in the temperance movement, they're definitely reacting to the influx of Irish and German immigrants. Irish, who are well known for drinking whiskey and Germans who are bringing, bringing a different culture of beer drinking, but nonetheless seen as as a hard drinking people. It's no accident that prohibition laws first go into effect when Irish and German immigration is exploding in the US.


Kelly 14:10

I think what you do so well in the book is look at, not just sort of who are these groups of moral minorities, but what are the tactics that they're using? What are the tactics that they develop throughout the 19th century, that really is going to be important later in the fights in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century? So what are some of those tactics? What are the ways that they are figuring out that they can push back against the will of the quote unquote, majority in putting these laws into place to restrict them?


Kyle Volk 14:43

Yeah, I'm glad you asked. Because I think that's that's a fun part for me of what I was doing. I call this kind of the origins of minority rights politics, which is to say kind of sets of political actions and behaviors that so called minority groups, kind of develop and embrace in order to lobby their cause. So they're doing all sorts of things and stuff that seems really modern, at least to me a very familiar types of behavior. They're petitioning legislatures. Most importantly, they're intentionally breaking the law in acts of civil disobedience. They go to court, they challenge regulations, the legality of them, the constitutionality of them. They form associations, which is to say, you know, in the case of the alcohol question, German and Irish immigrants who aren't necessarily the best friends outside of the bar, you know, get together in groups, and they form liquor dealer associations, and those groups kind of spearhead resistance, and they raise money to fund their legal fights in courts. These are the types of things that you know, look very much like what civil liberties and civil rights activists would embrace in the late 19th, and throughout the 20th century.


Kelly 15:53

Yeah, I think one of the things that was most striking to me was this idea of these organizations raising funds for the legal defense. So that's certainly something you see in the 20th century in the civil rights movement, with the NAACP Legal Fund, you know, but can you talk to them about what that looks like in the 19th century. And of course, it's not exactly the same. So when you're talking about Black people in New York fighting segregation, in public transportation, they've got a lot less money, but they're still trying to raise the money, versus what that looks like for these liquor dealers and the associations that they formed. But it's a similar kind of tactic.


Kyle Volk 16:35

It is, it is. And that's why I've, you know, tried to juxtapose that these did very, very different groups who are fighting, very different sources of perceived to them perceived oppression. But I'll just focus on the liquor dealers, I mean, they form these organizations, liquor dealer, organizations, societies, they charge dues. So if you want to be a member of the society, you have to pay to become a member. At some point, some of the liquor dealer associations, when they're really up against prohibition laws, like in New York in 1855, the first New York State prohibition law goes into effect, all of a sudden, the liquor dealer associations that were kind of quasi popular, are flooded with interests, people, alcohol industry, all of a sudden want to join, they pay their money. And some of these groups institute kind of tax, if you will, on beer sold for for every kind of keg of beer that was sold in a brewery or at a place where they're they're serving drink, these liquor dealer groups would collect a certain amount of money, and then everyone had kind of vested interest in the association. And everyone got behind people who were arrested and supported them through what other ever legal suits might might ensue.


Kelly 17:52

It was impossible for me as a person who looks at 21st century politics, not to draw connections to the National Rifle Association, and to say what these you know, it's a moral minority, but it's really much the industry that's that's supporting a lot of this financially. And that's the same thing, then we see with the NRA. I mean, do you see that through line is, would it be fair to compare those or, you know, what are what are the things that sort of make this situation different?


Kyle Volk 18:23

Well, I think I think it's fair to compare them. And I think there's some through lines that we need to be careful about drawing too many through lines in history. But, you know, the tactics that we were just focusing on, those have become stock in trade for groups across the political spectrum, it's what advocacy groups, minority groups, rights groups, that's what they do, to defend themselves and advocate for their their interests. And some of those are, you know, personal interests, some of them are cultural interests, economic interests. And a lot of times those different types of interests overlap. You know, I don't know how they overlap in the NRA case, I know they did. There's been great scholarship about kind of a culture of masculinity surrounding gun ownership, and that's tied to the the gun producers, the businesses who make guns, we could we could talk about that. But what I know more about is the alcohol case, where it's, it's absolutely you know, liquor dealers, people with vested economic interests, who are leading the charge against prohibition laws. There's no doubt about that. But I think behind them are 1000s of Americans, lots of them. immigrants, like German immigrants have deeply held cultural values about the place of beer, and the importance of beer halls, for example, as gathering spaces for not just men, but for women and children in place, a family would go on a Sunday afternoon, to have a drink, have some food, see some entertainment. This is life for them. This is the culture and to them. Prohibition was assault, an assault on that culture as much as it was an assault on the businesses and the kind of basic kind of right to drink, I think there's so much that was bound up into both of those things.


Kelly 20:05

So, similarly, you talk about Sabbath laws. And so these are these these Sunday laws where there's a whole lot that's prohibited on Sundays. And that's, you know, enforced more or less over various times. But that's such an interesting case, because of the religious minorities within America who celebrate the Sabbath on a different day, on Saturday instead of Sunday. But it seems that that has sort of really, the the similarity is there about the way that you celebrate, the way that you live your life, the the sorts of things we're protecting, if we're protecting minority rights, about differences of of worship, of life in the home of you know, what all that should look like. But for people who don't know a whole lot about Sunday laws, and what that look like, Can you can you talk a little bit about those cases and what that meant, and when they would come up?


Kyle Volk 21:07

I love this question, too, because this is where the project really got started. Back when I was an undergraduate, I researched the history of Sunday legislation, from the colonial time until, you know, the late 20th century. And it was just a kind of general kind of church and state kind of interest that I had, how is it that in this nation that you know, is devoted to the separation of church and state we have all these Sunday laws that are still active, you know, that stores are forced to close, especially alcohol stores, can't stay open in lots of places throughout the country. When I was an undergraduate, I went to school in Boston, and whenever we needed alcohol on Sunday, people would drive to New Hampshire to kind of get to get alcohol, bring it back, and you know whatnot. And that fascinated me, because I was like, wow, think about all the the social behavior that's being dictated by this one seemingly small regulation. Then I started thinking about why it's not small. This is 1/7 of our life, which is regulated by a specific area of law. And, you know, if you look at Sunday laws in the 20th century, they're enormous, right? They're long lists of kind of things that you can't do. And then a long list of exceptions and special licenses, permits that you have to get if you're a bowling alley, and you want to stay open on a Sunday. Anyway, I was I was thinking about this. In the early 1960s, there was a legal case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And it was a constitutional kind of First Amendment challenge to Sunday legislation. Jewish litigants. unsurprising they celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday, so on and so forth. And they go to the Supreme Court, they make that argument, you know that these laws are unconstitutional. And this is the time when the Supreme Court is invalidating prayer in school and posting the 10 commandments on the courthouse wall. Well, they they upheld the Sunday law, and wow, that's so weird. But what was also fascinating and what I came back later to in the in the dissertation, and then book project is that in the 1840s, and 1850s, Jewish Americans, Seventh Day Baptists, free thinkers, German immigrants, were making the pretty much the same arguments and taking the same type of action that those litigants took in the 1960s that we're doing in 1845. Wow, what's going on here, and they were using the language of majority tyranny, and minority rights. And this is what opened the door to me that there were groups of people who were starting to think of themselves as as minorities. In this case, it was very much a religious minority, a cultural minority. And then later on, it gets a little bit more complicated because alcohol takes a prominent role in the fight. And again, you have immigrants battling against Sunday legislation, but Sunday laws have just this long history in the United States. We still have them in Missoula, Montana, to some extent today.


Kelly Therese Pollock 24:01

Yeah, I mean, I think I spent so much of my life not even realizing it was weird that there were Sunday lives. I went to college at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, and there are all sorts, all sorts of law still on the books in Evanston. Evanston was dry for, you know, decades in the 20th century. And yeah, the idea that we still you talk in the book about mail delivery on Sundays and and we still don't have mail delivery on Sundays, you know, just to some extent. That that these things still exist, that it's it's still sort of just accepted as well, we're a majority Christian country and and that, that we're not pushing back on those. I mean, of course, the difference now is that there are plenty of things you can do on Sundays, you can go to a movie on Sundays, you can go to shop at Target on Sundays, like those things are all accepted and they're just small bits that are, like alcohol that are still restricted.


Kyle Volk 24:57

Yeah. Yeah, totally. And it's fascinating how, not everyone, but lots of those exceptions became a battle. You know, could the German Beer Hall be open on Sunday? Could the, could the tavern? Could the museum, could the library? Can we hold the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, can that be open? Can the Columbian Exposition in 1893, can that be open on Sunday? Well, can we have baseball games on Sunday? Every one of these things was a fight, a struggle. And I think part of what I'm trying to say in my book is that these types of struggles, which are often framed in these majoritaian, minority rights kind of ways, that's democracy happening, right? These are the things Americans have battled, they battle over lots of things, no doubt, but these are some pretty powerful motors of our political system, have been for for over two centuries.


Kelly 25:54

Yeah. So I don't want to forget to talk about this case of Elizabeth Jennings and Sarah Adams in New York City. So this is not alcohol, this is not Sabbath laws. This is an attempt to integrate public transportation or semi public transportation in New York City. And this is, you know, 100 years before Rosa Parks. So we think of Rosa Parks, you know, sitting in a, you know, a section of the bus, she wasn't supposed to sit in as, you know, sort of the beginning of this. And of course, it's nowhere near the beginning at So can you talk about what, what's going on there. This is, of course, a very different kind of minority. These are is an actual statistical minority, free Blacks in the north, and you know, and a very small minority at that, but is looking at similar tactics is thinking about similar things and the way that they can fight back and will have, you know, will continue, of course, for 100, I mean, really still today, but, you know, certainly for the next 100 years after that, that they're continuing to fight these battles.


Kyle Volk 27:01

So much to say, I think I think first, you know, that there was a free Black population, you know, that was politically active in the north before the Civil War, I think is one thing we should just put on the table, right, that some people just don't don't know about and don't realize, but there there indeed, was a very politically active Black politics, Black political movement, that were engaged in lots of different things before the Civil War. They were fighting against proposals for colonization, they were fighting for citizenship rights, they were fighting against slavery, they were, you know, at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, but they're also fighting for civil rights of Black Northerners. They use the that kind of language to make sense of what they were doing stuff. In one chapter, I talked about African Americans battling for school integration, and some of the earliest fights against school segregation happened in the north, in Massachusetts, particularly Nantucket, before the Civil War in the 1840s. But then there was this other thing, and that's, you know, tied to the explosion of as you suggest mass transit, right, the idea that there are railroads and streetcars, and big questions, you know, followed that new technology. And the questions, how are these public spaces the inside of street cars, the inside of rail, railroad cards, how are they going to be ordered, who's going to be able to come in and sit stand, who's going to have to sit on the outside, so on and so forth? So that became a major question in a very racially divided American north. Lots of people, I think, have this myth that the American North if there were Black people there were kind of free and equal, and it was the south where there was slavery and racial oppression? No, the American North was still teeming with with racial prejudice. And that dictated, ended up dictating a lot of how public transit was structured. So African Americans, you know, in stagecoaches, had to sit next to the driver. They weren't allowed in the stagecoach quite often. In railroad cars, there were separate cars that were second class at best accommodations where Black men and women were sent and in streetcars in New York City, the fight that you're alluding to, in your question about Elizabeth Jennings, there were cars that said colored allowed, right? Meaning all the other cars were for white people only. And then there were certain subset of cars that were allowed for Black folks. So yeah, this was this was a practice that was on the rise in the 1850s. And in New York City, what I focused on one of my chapters is a major struggle that happened over a series of years, almost a decade of time, where African Americans joined together, men and women, they formed an association, the Legal Rights Association, which was one of my favorite finds in my research. They they organized, they petition, they held balls to raise money. They did all sorts of things and eventually, you know, the heart of their, their movement was civil disobedience. They went, like Rosa Parks would later, they went into the spaces of travel, they went into the streetcars. And when conductor said, you got to get out, you're Black. They said, No, we're gonna stay. And eventually they got thrown out. And they'd be sometimes arrested. or they'd file civil suits for damages against the people who had thrown them out, the conductors or the streetcar companies. These were, as you suggested, public-private kind of ways of managing public transit at that time. So that became another type of legal strategy. And it put a lot of pressure on the companies, the streetcar companies in the realm of public opinion. And as I talk about, by the time of the Civil War, when African Americans are enlisted to fight for the Union, cause and dying for the Union and the end of slavery, and all of that, the last street car company in New York gives up racial segregation, because I suggest, of the continued pressure of the African Americans allied behind the Legal Rights Association.


Kelly 31:01

There's such an interesting class thing going on here, too, that that this lack of access to transportation, keeps people, lower class people, so Black lower class people, lower class, because they can't, in some ways move in society the same way that white people can, they can even necessarily get to jobs they need to get to, but the way that they can fight back, the civil disobedience is not the sort of lower classes, it's people like Elizabeth Jennings, who are more sort of middle class, have a little bit more access to resource and education. And you know, so. But you know, it's just such a fascinating thing to you know, I hadn't thought about that piece of not being able to move in society in the same way. But it's so crucial to what's going on.


Kyle Volk 31:52

It is crucial. And I think it's also crucial to the minority rights politics that I described, which is to say there was civil disobedience and lots of incidents that could have generated a court case, but quite often, the Legal Rights Association chose who they thought would be the best litigant. And that litigant was often the most respected African American person who had been involved in an altercation. So James Pennington, who I write about in the book, he was a religious leader, he actually earned his doctorate from a university in New York, he travelled abroad for the abolitionist cause, whatnot, he was a respected member of the community, and I think a middle class Black man, and it was no accident that the association chose him as the person to put up in a legal suit, you know, that would go to the New York Supreme Court


Kelly Therese Pollock 32:43

Well, and then bringing that back then to the the alcohol fights, it's a similar kind of thing, right? It's a don't put up a fight when they arrest you, you know, like, we're going to make sort of model model cases here for who should be, should be the people that we are pointing to, to say, you know, these are well respected and well behaved people. They're just trying to make a living.


Kyle Volk 33:08

Totally, yeah, we talk about the politics of respectability, and like middle class, bourgeois culture, and kind of all the time, it's become cliche in historical studies, but in these types of minority rights politics that I described, those things are intertwined, right. You got to look the part, you'd have to be respectable, you got to make your opponent, you know, look like the bad person. So the Irish conductor who was nasty and threw you off the train, he's the bad person, because you sat there nicely dressed, and you know, didn't put up a fight, just were dragged off.


Kelly 33:40

Yeah, yeah. It's fascinating and such clear, clear parallels to then the 20th century. And what happens? It's so I guess that's sort of my my final question is, you know, why, why is why is it that we don't know as much about the 19th century? And, you know, it seems like all these things, at least from a sort of popular perception that all these things sort of just start in 1950, 1960, that, you know, this was clearly a long, long movement that continues to evolve. But why is it that this sort of view of history is that, that we ignore a lot of what then happened in the 19th century?


Kyle Volk 34:18

That's a good question. I'm not sure I'm capable of tackling it in total. But my mentor, when I was a graduate student used to say that all of the major important struggles in the modern era happened in the 19th century, and everything that happened in the 20th century was just kind of an echo and a continuation of major questions, oral, ethical and otherwise, that developed in the 19th century. So I obviously agree with that perspective. But I think that, you know, the research shows that, and that's not to say things didn't change in minority rights, politics or the African American freedom, struggle or prohibition politics from the 1850s to the 1920s and the 1960s. Certainly not. But I think there's a lot to be said about kind of just how modern democracy was already forming these important roots, you know, in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. Why we don't know about it? I'm not sure. I mean, I think, you know, I need to credit the the many scholars who came before me, I mean, who wrote pieces of this. Other scholars who noted that African Americans were battling for civil rights. They, you know. We have Leon Litwack's famous book, North of Slavery, you know, that was published in the early 1960s, put these kinds of struggles on the map. They weren't the focus of his research, so we didn't know as much as we needed to know. And he left me space to play. And that was, was great. You know, again, I think, for me, showing the the politics of alcohol, the politics of Sunday law, and religion, and race and racial prejudice, kind of putting them all together, was able to reveal something new. And that's not just one particular group fighting a fight, fighting for civil rights or civil liberties, but an entire culture, kind of working out what the place of minority rights would be within American democracy. And we haven't worked it out. I mean, that that's the other part of the story here. This is an ongoing struggle. You know, where the question you asked your kids at dinner? It's a question we're still all asking. And I think we will continue to ask, because it's fundamental to democracy.


Kelly 36:26

And we're asking right now, in the case of vaccine mandates and mask mandates, uh, you know, I mean, it's, it's certainly coming up, who's the majority? Who is the minority? What rights does the other side have? And, you know, yeah, it's, reading your book has really made me sort of think about those questions. You know, I, of course, I'm pro vaccine and pro mask and all of that, but it has made me really think about what are what are the rights of the minority? What are the rights of people who don't agree with me? And, you know, how do we balance those rights against my rights to health? And you know, all of those, I think it's, it's obviously super complicated, but it's still going on.


Kyle Volk 37:05

Yeah, yeah, I think so. And you're making me think of the other thing that I think is important about, you know, the struggles that I wrote about, which is, it's not that we're taking sides, that the majority should rule or the minority has rights. You know, it's it's the ongoing struggle, the tension, but it's also the idea that, for the minority groups that I wrote about their struggle was in court, it was in law, but it was ultimately in public opinion, right, to convince the masses that their rights as a minority deserved respect. And sometimes they won. Sometimes they lost sometimes that took decades, if not centuries, right. But that's, that's the struggle. And it's the same thing, I think, with, you know, anti vaxxers or anti maskers, they can raise the flag that they're an oppressed minority, but it's up to them to say, to convince the rest of us that they're there, right, and that they deserve to, you know, not be vaccinated, or whatever it is. And you know, sometimes that that case is harder to make than others.


Kelly 38:05

Yeah. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?


Kyle Volk 38:09

I feel good. This is really fun. It's been a couple of years since I talked to someone about my book. So I really appreciate the opportunity to do so. Thank you so much.


Kelly 38:19

Yeah. And how can people go get the book?


Kyle Volk 38:21

The book was published by Oxford University Press. You can find it on their page. It's available on and all the usual outlets. So have at it.


Kelly Therese Pollock 38:31

All right. Excellent. Well, Kyle, thank you so much for joining me. This was really fun. And I think a lot about ethics and things anyway, and it's certainly something we talk to our kids a lot about, but it was fun to have sort of this new spin on it to introduce to them.


Kyle Volk 38:45

Thank you so much.


Teddy 38:48

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Transcribed by

Kyle VolkProfile Photo

Kyle Volk

Professor Kyle Volk is chair of the UM History Department. His award-winning research and teaching focus on the history of the United States, with emphasis on political, intellectual, and legal history during the long nineteenth century (1776-1933). He is especially interested in the history of American democracy; the problem and politics of dissent and difference in American society; capitalism, law, and the American state; civil rights, civil liberties, and the changing meaning of freedom in American life.