We’ve been watching Prohibition, the Ken Burns documentary, and it’s pretty amazing. So many fun facts! So many pictures of alcohol being poured into glasses! So far, Carrie Nation has been the break-out star, if one can be a break-out star of a documentary released a hundred years after one’s death.
This woman literally took a hatchet to the saloons of Kansas (while singing and praying, as one does) in her quest to rid the country of the evils of alcohol. Bars started hanging signs that read “All Nations Welcome Except Carrie.”
I first heard of Carrie Nation because her biography was the launchpad for Rachel Maddow’s 2010 commencement speech at Smith College:
I watched the speech again, and I still love pieces of it:
“I would like to offer this hypothesis, on this beautiful graduation day, that personal triumphs are overrated…Be intellectually and morally rigorous in your own decision making, and expect that the important people in your life do the same, if they want to stay important to you. Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself, but for durable achievement to be proud of for life is the difference between winning things and leadership. It is the difference between nationalism and patriotism. It’s the difference between running for office and devoting yourself to public service.”
What I didn’t remember, however, was that in the arc of Maddow’s story, Carrie Nation is the villain. She’s the cautionary tale about pursuit of personal triumph at the expense of the public good. She’s the example of the dangers of achieving a goal without fully understanding the terrible implications of one’s achievement. In this speech, Carrie Nation is equated with Jack Abramoff, BP, and politicians who pursue bad policies looking for an immediate bump in the polls.
It makes me a little bit sad for Carrie Nation. At the time, was she really in pursuit of personal triumph? Or did she believe that the scourge she was hatcheting was in fact a great evil? Maybe both? In retrospect, the outcome of her battle was what Maddow calls a “stupid era in history,” one in which gasoline was added to rubbing alcohol, but could Nation have known that at the time?
Related Post: Another commencement speech I enjoyed.
Related Post: More fun history geeking out, this time about perfume!