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Maurice Timothy ReidyOctober 10, 2011

So what was all the fuss about? The question looms large over the decades-old fight over alcohol consumption that culminated with the 13-year era of Prohibition (1920-33). In the hazy light of historical memory, the anti-alcohol movement seems like nothing but a grand mistake, a period whose only redeeming quality is the culture it spawned. The Prohibition era, after all, gave us jazz, flappers and that wonderfully evocative term, “speakeasy.” Not to mention the aphorisms of H. L. Mencken.

As a political movement, though, Prohibition was impossibly naïve, a flimsy moral edifice built on hubris and a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Ban booze? Come on, who were they kidding? In the great arc of American history, it is tempting to view the anti-alcohol forces as a historical anomaly, a minor obstacle that interrupted the march from women’s suffrage to the New Deal.

Tempting, but wrong.

The inconvenient fact is that Prohibition was inextricably linked with the progressive movements of both the 19th and 20th centuries. The Christian abolitionists who fought slavery prayed to the same God to end the scourge of alcohol. The campaign for women’s suffrage would not have succeeded apart from the battle against “demon rum.” Give women the right to vote and they will help pass Prohibition. The federal income tax, too, was a child of the Prohibition movement. Since the tax on liquor was a significant source of government income, the only way to ban alcohol was to find another revenue stream.

The story of Prohibition is rife with irony, an episode from the past that is largely forgotten yet surprisingly relevant. In their new documentary, Prohibition, which began airing on PBS this month, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick explore the rich lessons offered by this fascinating detour in American history.

The incredible nature of Prohibition is best summed up by Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and a creative consultant on the PBS documentary: “How the hell did this happen?”

How indeed? Though the temperance movement was a strong moral force in American history, the complete ban of alcohol was far from inevitable. In 1826 Lyman Beecher founded the American Temperance Union, which grew quickly, especially in northern states where it found common cause with the abolitionist movement. Women were among the earliest promoters of temperance. They saw alcohol as a corrupting force that wrecked marriages and left children orphaned.

This argument was made again and again by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Founded by Frances Willard, the W.C.T.U. was, according to the church historian and theologian Martin Marty, the first “expressive” movement of women in America. Their fight against alcohol was in many ways a fight for their own survival. In the 19th century, there was no such thing as divorce. Police were not expected to protect women from domestic violence. Then there was the horrible reality of marital rape. These were the unspoken but very real factors that drove hundreds of thousands of women into political life.

In the beginning, the focus was on temperance, a virtue that has sadly fallen out of favor today. Over time, however, temperance leaders decided it was insufficient just to preach against excess; only the force of law would bring real change. Enter the Anti-Saloon League. Founded in Oberlin, Ohio, the league rose to power under the leadership of the indefatigable Wayne B. Wheeler. Unlike the W.C.T.U., which had a broad progressive platform, the Anti-Saloon League focused exclusively on banning alcohol. The group vowed to drive out any elected representative who did not toe the dry line, and it succeeded.

The wet forces had formidable allies of their own. The nation’s brewers mounted a large lobbying campaign promoting the healthy effects of beer. But they suffered a public relations blow when the United States entered World War I and companies with names like Busch, Pabst and Schaeffer were seen to be less than patriotic.

The nation’s immigrants, too, were on the side of the wets, but they lacked political power. The Irish may have held Tammany Hall, but rural Protestant voters still controlled the federal government. Consider this appalling fact: after the passage of the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of “intoxicating liquors,” Congress delayed constitutionally mandated reapportionment for a full eight years. It knew the cities would take a greater control of the government and be able to end Prohibition.

Catholics, too, were very much against the ban on alcohol. Though the law included an exception for sacramental wine, Catholics from Ireland and Italy saw Prohibition as an infringement on their cultural customs. Meanwhile the dry forces, which included the notoriously racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, were fiercely against immigration.

Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919. Forty-six states ratified the law, making it the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The victors celebrated with a prayer service in Washington, D.C., led by William Jennings Bryan, the famous orator and perennial presidential candidate. They were convinced that the battle was over; after all, few things were as permanent as a Constitutional amendment.

The next 13 years provided a case study in unintended consequences. From the beginning, Congress failed to provide enough money to fund the enforcement of Prohibition. Most states chose not to enforce law, leaving it to the federal government, whose courts quickly clogged. Boats freighted with booze anchored along the Atlantic coastline, unafraid of the country’s anemic Coast Guard. In Chicago and elsewhere, Prohibition served as a kind of “graduate school,” as Okrent calls it, for organized crime, which capitalized on the funds generated from bootlegging to extend their criminal empires.

Perhaps most distressing, at least for the stout-hearted women who lobbied so hard for Prohibition, was the unexpected change in mores. Drinking did go down in the 1920s, but public drinking, especially by women, seemed to blossom. With no saloons to frequent, men drank at parties and in homes, inviting young women to join them. For the proper ladies of the W.C.T.U., it was no small scandal.

One of the pleasures of PBS’s “Prohibition” comes from hearing from the young women who came to define that age. Two such women are interviewed, and it is revealing to watch photographs from their youth fade into their now elderly faces. This woman could easily be your grandmother, you think; and she was the one breaking the law. (Here the directors echo a central insight of Okrent’s book.) That is one of the lessons of “Prohibition”: A law widely broken ceases to have force.

The legal scholar Noah Feldman makes that point onscreen, joining an impressive array of talking (and exquisitely lit) heads that includes Daniel Okrent, Pete Hamill, Michael Lerner and Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Hamill, a reformed alcoholic, is called upon to elegize the culture of the immigrant saloon and the illegal speakeasy. He emerges as the poet of “Prohibition,” this year’s Shelby Foote.

Of course, it is easier to romanticize the saloon than to defend the Prohibitionists. Yet the few men and women who discuss the dry movement are surprisingly compelling. Sylvester Mather remembers how his family was terrorized by their neighbors because his father, a Prohibition enforcement official, broke up local distilleries. But he continued in his work and eventually was killed on the job. Justice John Paul Stevens describes his mother’s disdain for young men who took a drink: “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine.”

Though the prohibitionists may have been misguided, it is still possible, even at this historical distance, to feel the moral force of their argument. They wanted to save the family, and they did not know how else to do it. They believed in the progress of the human spirit and saw the abolition of alcohol as the next step in that journey.

It is these questions that make the story of Prohibition relevant. How do you defeat a moral evil when moral suasion is not enough? What role should the law play in the curtailment of objectionable behavior? In the middle years of Prohibition, some within the Anti-Saloon League argued for focussing on changing hearts and minds rather than imposing penalties through the blunt instrument of the law. They were overruled.

There is this lesson, too: after the 18th Amendment fell, it actually became more difficult to buy a drink. Laws were passed setting a minimum drinking age. Blue laws limited when and where liquor stores could operate. It turned out that legal restrictions could work when applied with prudence and precision.

With the advent of Prohibition, the moral majority thought that human behavior would change, that the absence of alcohol would lead to a surge of virtue. They were very wrong, of course. But in a way, their failure confirmed a central tenet of their Christian faith: the need for a grace that no human law can provide.

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Arthur Milholland
12 years 8 months ago

Alcohol is legal, but marijuana is a crime. It is OK for me to buy all the bullets and guns I want, but not a single marijuana cigarette.  Which is more dangerous?

Moreover, millions of dollars go to arrest, prosecute, and imprison offenders, who suffer damages for the rest of their lives.
Carol DeChant
12 years 8 months ago

I recall reading years ago that although prohibition did give rise to an unprecedented amount of crime, an unreported fact by those who call it a failure is that the level of alcohol consumption did not resort to its pre-prohbition usage until 40 years after prohibition ended. I don't recall that source, but having grown up in a dry state, (Iowa) in the 1940s and 1950s, it is entirely believable to me. Decades after prohibition Iowans had no access to alcoholic drinks in restaurants, and could purchase bottles only in state-owned liquor stores. It was not commonly served in any Catholic home I was in when company came, or at weddings (which were in the morning, usually followed by cake & lemonade in the church basement). We were Irish Catholics in a mixed-ethnic parish, where once a year during a Sunday mass, the congregation was invited to stand and "take the pledge."

I went to the largest public high school in Iowa and never saw alcohol at a private party or school event. The drinking age then was 21, so it was not even commonly consumed by minors (most college students) in my days at Drake University (I graduated 1960). I lived in the dorm throughout my time there, went to fraternity parties, etc. The only college friend I had who drank beer was an older Korean vet who lived off-campus; though it was common to celebrate turning 21 with beer (though never on university property).

People I knew who immigrated to the mid-West during those years told me later of their amazement at the lack of alcohol in the American culture, even at celebrations (compared to the Europe they were used to).

I think of this when I hear the "failure of Prohibition" used to justify legalizing addictive drugs with the "you can't legislate morals" argument. The women who advocated prohibition in the 1920s were not trying to legislate morals, they were trying to save families in an era when women & children who were abandoned by alcoholics had no means to survive without their husband and father.

I don't know that Prohibition was worth its cost to the nation in crime, but I do know that the use of alcohol now in homes, retaurants, campuses, at weddings and other parties, is drastically different now than it was 20, 30 and even 40 years after Prohibition in the America I have known.

Elizabeth Groven
12 years 8 months ago
Mr. Reidy has written beautifully of the beginning and end of the Prohibition movement in this country.

Perhaps understanding Prohibition will bring our people and our leaders to a better understanding of what is needed to win the war on drugs. Could it be: declare victory, regulate, and rehabilitate.
C Walter Mattingly
12 years 8 months ago

Dr Milholland, hard to say how many would be harmed by smoking marijuana cigarettes were it legal, but if you were to frame that question as to what causes the most deaths in the US, guns or alchohol, it is alchohol by a wide margin. Pairing guns with smoking tobacco rather than marijuana will provide an even greater margin of victory for tobacco.

Not that there isn't an argument to be made for legalization.

Norman Costa
12 years 8 months ago


@ Carol:

Your information on the low levels of drinking after the repeal of prohibition is accurate. My source is a nurse from the Masters program in Charlottesville, Virginia. The alcohol companies combatted the disappointing sales figures by a variety of means. They created the fashion of the cocktail dress and the cocktail hour. It became the staple of many, many Hollywood movies. They appealed directly to women in very much the same way as the tobacco companies.

I am forgetting the details, but many medical and social problems related to alcohol had a steep decline during prohibition. The statistics showed improvements in health and then a reversion to pathology as clear as night and day.

@ Dr. Milholland:

I think the best case for a significant change in drug policy was made by, above all people, William Buckley. He argued for legalization with controlled distribution on a tradeoff with spending enormous amounts or money that is not justified by the return to the country. It is cheaper to create a policy of treatment on demand, and federal control and taxing of distribution.

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