*On Paradigm Change and Morris Sheppard’s Hummingbird

I’ve been thinking about paradigm change – especially about what sort of paradigm change might be called for in order to reform the management of our national forests.  This question raises, in turn, the broader issue of how the plane of beliefs, ideas, and theoretical formulations is at play in our current failed forest management situation.  Relatedly, it has occurred to me that prevailing paradigms may have a way of seeming permanent and immutable during their reign.  During their reign it is not clear where change will come from and what kind of change it will be.  My intention in this post is to chip away a little at this permanence or immutability assumption — by recalling a counterexample drawn from another public arena in U.S. history.

In the forestry domain, the master paradigm broadly defined by the term “ecological forestry” might seem that it’s going to exert its hegemony for a long time — from now until forever more.  The implicit – though sometimes not so implicit – belief that timber harvests on national forests are never again going to return to their 1980s levels is a reflection of that kind of permanence assumption.  And that belief, in turn, may be said to underlie the (fatuous) advice offered to forested counties that they should “diversify their economies” and get used to having no forest-based economic activity.

But paradigms, even seemingly permanent ones, do change.  Sometimes they change with surprising rapidity.  The best example I know of this comes from my experience as a longtime student our American relationship to beverage alcohol.  National prohibition (1920-1933) was driven by something called the “temperance paradigm.”  What was that?  Viewed through the temperance paradigm’s lens, alcohol bore a striking likeness to how most Americans today view a commodity like, say, heroin.  Alcohol, in other words, was so seductive you shouldn’t risk even trying it once.  And once you did try it you would soon find yourself on a slippery slope headed for insanity, grave illness, and death.  It was called “The Drunkard’s Progress.”  Therefore, and much like our current policy toward heroin, through the temperance paradigm’s lens the best social policy toward alcohol was one that forbade it entirely – one imposing a strong cultural tabu and the prohibition of production, distribution, and sale.  The temperance paradigm gained ascendancy in the U.S. over the long course of the 19th century, culminating in the 18th Amendment’s passage in 1919.   


Prohibition was unpopular from the get-go in some quarters – particularly in the urban and coastal regions of the nation.  But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that this unpopularity began to exert significant political influence.  Even then, however, more than a few Drys believed that the 18th Amendment would never be repealed.  As late as September, 1930, a dedicated Dry and co-author of the prohibition amendment, Texas Senator Morris Sheppard, remarked:  “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail” (quoted in Kyvig, 1979, p. 2).  Sheppard had a point.  Repealing a constitutional amendment with a new amendment was, after all, an arduous process.  Two-thirds of both houses of Congress as well as three-quarters of the states had to approve the change.  Many Drys believed, moreover, that no matter how unpopular prohibition got, a mere 13 southern, bible-belt, or rural states could be rallied to the cause of blocking Repeal.  Moreover, in Sheppard’s time no constitutional amendment had ever been repealed before – and, incidentally, no other has been repealed since.  Hence, it wasn’t nearly so unreasonable as it might appear to us now that Sheppard and other dyed-in-the-wool Drys at the time felt confident national prohibition would remain securely in place.   

U.S. Sen. Morris Sheppard

U.S. Sen. Morris Sheppard

Yet, the passage and ratification of the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition, would take place less than 40 months after Sheppard’s oft-quoted hummingbird assertion, in December, 1933.  How could he have been so spectacularly wrong?  How did Wet forces manage to bring about Repeal despite all the daunting obstacles?  It will surprise no one that the story of Repeal’s passage is a fascinating and complex one.  Fortunately, there is an excellent book – David Kyvig’s Repealing National Prohibition (1979) – that recounts the story in considerable detail.  I’m not going to summarize that story here, but I would like to make a few brief points about the the push for Repeal – points I’ve “abstracted” from the story in the hope that they may be helpful in lighting our path out of our currently dominant forestry paradigm.

My brief points:

  • Obviously, more and more Americans began to feel that, whatever the merits of the temperance paradigm in its own right, the social cure it pushed on the nation was “worse than the disease.”  Lawlessness and the emergence of a vast illicit alcohol industry were chief among prohibition’s nefarious consequences.
  • Influential former advocates and supporters of the 18th Amendment in due course came out against it, now saying some other sort of mode of addressing alcohol, not prohibition, was preferable.  The best known example of this sort of reversal was embodied in John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who published an open letter switching sides in the New York Times on June 7, 1932.  The side-switching of a former believer may have particular weight in walking back an unwise social policy.
  • Rockefeller also threw his resources behind a comprehensive study of policy alternatives to prohibition in the post-Repeal era, thus providing possible scenarios for the regulation of a trade that had become the domain of gangsters and rumrunners.  The report of this study was published in a 1933 book by Raymond B. Fosdick and Albert L. Scott, titled Toward Liquor Control.  Blue-ribbon studies of new alternatives can, of course, help ease the process of paradigm change, supplying both cultural authority behind the notion of the need for change and charting alternative future policy scenarios.
  • The onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s greatly affected the push for Repeal.  In the straitened circumstances of the new economic environment, both the federal and state governments looked longingly at a number of advantages promised by the return of a legalized alcohol industry.  The expansion of legal employment and the potential flow of excise tax revenue from alcohol production and sales were particularly attractive prospects.Associated Press Domestic News New Jersey United States U.S. ALCOHOL PROHIBITION PROTEST
  • Public pressure for Repeal swelled in 1932 and 1933, so much so that Congress took the unlikely recourse of declaring, in April, 1933, that beer less than 3.2 percent ethanol by volume, did not fall under the 18th Amendment’s proscription on “intoxicating liquors.”  There was no new paradigm as yet for the alcohol public arena to embrace, and so Congress had to find whatever precious wiggle room it could in the existing regulatory situation for the provision of at least a partial liberalization.  The story of the deliberations surrounding the legalization of “three-two beer” is entertainingly told by the late Philip Pauly in a wonderful 1994 paper.
  • A new paradigm in the alcohol public arena – the alcoholism paradigm – did not begin to emerge until the end of the 1930s, a half-dozen years after Repeal.  This new paradigm placed the locus of the nation’s alcohol problems in the deviant drinker instead of in the bottle, as the temperance paradigm had.  As it happens, the new paradigm emerged via a crooked path involving a series of initiatives in the post-Repeal alcohol public area.  It’s a strange story – and one I became quite fascinated by in the course of writing my dissertation on it!

I’ve suggested six abstracted bullet points about how we as a nation got from the unhappy grip of the temperance paradigm and the 18th Amendment to the happier circumstance (everything considered) of the alcoholism paradigm and the 21st Amendment.  This is certainly not a model for how we might extricate ourselves from the currently hegemonic forestry paradigm and the paralysis it has imposed on our national forests.  But perhaps the example of Repeal offers at least two constructive helps in our search for a new future in the forestry social arena.  First, it shows how very wrong Morris Sheppard’s hummingbird assertion proved to be – and, by extension, how readily social change can happen even in entrenched circumstances that may appear unconducive to change.  The second help is that these half-dozen points offer, I think, some good food for thought on how change might be brought about in the forestry arena.

— Ron Roizen

P.S. A longer view of post-Repeal change in our American conception of our “alcohol problem” is offered my essay in Sarah Tracy and Caroline Acker’s (eds.), Altering the American Consciousness: Essays on the History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), available online here.

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One Response to *On Paradigm Change and Morris Sheppard’s Hummingbird

  1. Sharon says:

    Talk about paradigm change, how about Colorado and marijuana?

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