REVIEW: "The Rise and Fall of Prohibition"

I read Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition as an extended reflection on the complexity, unpredictability, and (frequent) folly of seeking social change. I continue to support progressive politics, but reading the history of Prohibition is like drinking a cocktail that is equal parts bemusing, fascinating, and sobering. To quote George Eliot, “Certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we’re so fond of it.”

To supplement the insights in Last Call about the role religious leaders played in the Prohibition movement, I hope soon to read Christine Rosen’s Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. However, concerning the book at hand, I will offer below less of a traditional review, than some brief reflections on some of the passages that stood out to me most.

Toward the beginning Okrett gives a prime example that much of what happens in history would be unbelievable if it hadn’t actually happened: “How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions? How did they condemn to extinction what was, at the very moment of its death, the fifth-largest industry in the nation” (3)?

I am also interested in studying the Prohibition era because it involved a grassroots movement that led to a (successful?) Constitutional amendment: “The original Constitution and its first seventeen amendments limited the activities of governments, not of citizens. Now there were two exceptions: you couldn’t own slaves, and you couldn’t buy alcohol” (3).

I was also fascinated to learn the theory that the anti-alcohol movement helped galvanize the women’s suffrage movement:

The most urgent reason for women to want to vote in the mid-1800s were alcohol related: They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them. To do all these things they needed to change the laws that consigned married women to the status of chattel. And to change the laws, they needed to vote. (15)

I also love the irony that Northwestern University was established in “‘the interests of sanctified learning.’ This interest was abetted by a legal proscription against the sale of alcoholic beverages within four miles of its campus and buttressed by the creation of a similarly liquor-loathing women’s school” (17). How things change….

But as the old saying goes, “The more things change…the more they stay the same.” Accordingly, one of the strongest ‘wet’ groups who opposed the ‘dry’ Prohibition movement were the Republicans “who generally opposed the income tax, the vote for women, child labor legislation, and anything else that transferred an ounce of power to the federal government or subtracted it from the plutocrats who interested they tended to serve” (84). Plutocracy is a word that should be in more frequent use today: “rule by the wealthy, or power provided by wealth” — from the Greek ploutos (“wealth”) and kratos (“to rule or govern”).

I’ve already used the word “irony,” but the Prohibition era was replete with irony: actions that resulted in consequences that were the opposite of the intended results. The intention of Prohibition was a dry nation. The actual results were, in one pithy formulation, that “the drys had their law, but the wets would have their liquor” (114).

In general, the anecdotes alone are worth the price of admission and the time to read the book:

Baron M. Goldwater of Phoenix arranged to have the bar, back bar, and brass rail of his favorite saloon installed in the basement of his house.

New Orleans civic leader Walter Parker built two new wine cellars in his house, purchased a stock of more than five thousand bottles, and proceeded to dip into it daily for the next fourteen years.

In Los Angeles, Charlotte Hennessy bought the entire inventory of a liquor store and had it relocated to her basement. (120)

The clothing industry developed “garments designed both for smuggling and for partying [such as] a vial embedded in a high-heel shoe, which could accommodate a full shot of whiskey.”

In perhaps the most cynical statement of Prohibition-resisters, Chicago lawyer George Remus (who as a result of bootlegging “in one year deposited $2.8 million into one of his many bank accounts — the equivalent, in 2009, of more than $32 million) said, upon finally being arrested, “I tried to corner the graft market, but I learned there isn’t enough money in the world to buy up all the public officials who demand a share.” As a footnote:

Remus eventually did a few years time in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, first in a cushy part of the prison called “Millionairs’ Row” and later in his own apartment in the prison’s hospital building; he ate dinner each evening with two other well-connected bootleggers in the peaceful hush of the prison’s Catholic chapel. After his release he shot and killed his wife, who had been having an affair with the federal agent who had put him in prison. For that act, Remus served no prison time at all. (199)

Indeed such was the sheer amount of corruption and the vast number of scofflaws that so much illegal liquor was produced that “some of it was actually being exported to Canada, where it could be sold at lower prices than that country’s legal, taxed liquor” (201).

In a brilliant capitalist twist, many breweries made money during Prohibition by continuing business as usual except that they stopped their usual production process just short of fermentation. They called this product “malt syrup…. A more accurate name would have been ‘beer starter.'” At home, “With the addition of water, yeast, and time, the syrup blossomed into real, foamy, alcohol-rich beer. And, purchased in its packaged form, pre-fermentation, it was every bit as legal as the grapes that went into homemade wine” — which helped keep those California vineyards afloat (250-251).

In conclusion:

In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption…. But in one critical respect Prohibition was an unquestioned success: as a direct result of its fourteen-year reign, Americans drank less. In fact they continued to drink less for decades afterward…. the pre-Prohibition per capita peak of 2.6 gallons was not again attained until 1973.

One of the questions I am left with is for all those who were zealous against intoxication: “What were they resisting, sublimating, or repressing in themselves?”

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