The Points Interview: Kyle G. Volk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is delighted to welcome Kyle G. Volk, an associate professor of History at the University of Montana. Volk’s book, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, July 2014) explores the fascinating interplay between minority rights and moral reform in the United States.

Moral Minorities Book CoverDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

In many ways, Moral Minorities began when I was bartending in Boston near Fenway Park. Sox fans would pour in for pregame libations, including on Sundays before 1 o’clock games. But the Sunday law prevented us from serving alcohol before noon, so thirsty patrons who arrived early would literally count the minutes until they could drink. Their anticipation was palpable. When the clock struck twelve, customers demanded their beverages, and many indulged in an hour of power-drinking before stumbling off to the ballpark. I was amazed at how powerfully a micro-regulation like the Sunday law could structure so much social behavior and also at how angry some patrons became when told they’d have to wait fifteen minutes for their Sam Adams or Magic Hat #9. So I started researching the history of Sunday laws. I found that as early as the 1840s some Americans—many of them immigrants with strong drinking traditions—organized to challenge Sunday restrictions. And I was surprised that these dissenters complained that Sunday laws violated their rights as minorities.

When I started Moral Minorities, I set out to discover how minority rights became the concern of everyday Americans and not just elites, intellectuals, and slaveholders. Sunday legislation, as it turns out, was one of three arenas in the nineteenth century where popular minority-rights activism first developed. My book argues that conflicts spurred by major moral questions of the mid-nineteenth century—Sabbath observance, alcohol, and racial equality—drove everyday Americans to battle, quite explicitly, for minority rights. As officials and advocates justified regulations of Sunday, alcohol consumption, and interracial contact with the language of majority rule, a motley but powerful array of Americans resisted and protested majority tyranny. Drinkers, liquor dealers, Seventh Day Baptists, Jews, German immigrants, black northerners, and abolitionists, I contend, reshaped American democracy by questioning the era’s faith in majority rule and by pioneering lasting practices to defend civil rights and civil liberties. In short, as these moral minorities challenged moral regulations that were purportedly supported by majorities, they gave birth to America’s lasting tradition of popular minority-rights politics. This tradition remains a major part of political life in the twenty-first century.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Almost half of my book is dedicated to exploring battles over alcohol regulations, including local option laws, the Maine Laws of the 1850s, and Sunday-closing laws. I think alcohol and drug historians will find it interesting that Moral Minorities places pro-alcohol and anti-prohibitionist movements at the foundation of modern minority-rights activism. I take the political thought and behavior of drinkers and businessmen in the alcohol industry seriously and show their impact not only on the politics of alcohol regulation but on the theory and practice of American democracy. Alcohol and battles over alcohol played a major role in how Americans have historically thought about and fought for minority rights and civil liberties.

 Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?Volk image

Most interesting?: I’d say the juxtaposition of drinkers and liquor dealers with radical abolitionists and racial egalitarians. While these very different groups didn’t, shall we say, drink together, they did have the common experience of finding themselves in the minority on major moral questions in the nineteenth century. Both groups recognized their perilous minority statuses and defended themselves with a range of political and legal tactics—from public opinion campaigns and civil disobedience to the formation of rights associations, legislative lobbying, and court action. I think Moral Minorities shows that the roots of modern American rights activism were established much earlier than we thought and also that those roots were actually quite diverse.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I was able to do quite a bit with the business of alcohol before the Civil War but focused heavily on the politics of entrepreneurs and the pro-alcohol constituency they represented. I still think we need to know more about the business of booze in the nineteenth century, and I’m eager for others to do more on this vital topic.

 BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

 Tough question. I’m going to go with Christopher Walken.