A Dry Story

Almost a century after Prohibition went into effect, we remember it as Puritanism run amok. Scott McLemee looks into a book taking a different view.

February 23, 2018

Has anyone ever compared a law to the 18th Amendment and meant it as praise?

That’s the one criminalizing “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.” Ratified in 1919 and repealed near the close of 1933, Prohibition has become the quintessential example of public policy at its most catastrophically misguided: a perfect storm of the counterproductive and the self-defeating. The images of that period that come to mind tend not to be of sober or law-abiding people, with the possible exception of Eliot Ness. And as W. J. Rorabaugh reminds us in Prohibition: A Concise History (Oxford University Press), Ness was something of a publicity hound, eager to claim credit for ending Al Capone’s career. Minus the spin, Ness and the handpicked agents in his Untouchables squad stood as evidence of how much the illegal liquor trade had corrupted the rest of law enforcement.

Hence the more or less consensus judgment that the whole episode amounted to an unrealistic attempt to legislate morality -- a legacy of Puritanism, perhaps, which H. L. Mencken called “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” (Mencken got through Prohibition by learning to brew his own beer.) In the 1960s, Joseph Gusfield offered a more sociological variant of this interpretation in Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement, treating Prohibition as an effort to shore up the waning authority of groups threatened by social change. Besides giving the force of law to the old-fashioned American virtue of abstemiousness, the 18th Amendment delivered a blow to urban immigrant communities such as the Irish and the Germans, who accepted drinking as normal behavior.

Historians have debunked much of the received wisdom about this side of the American experience -- but without the general public noticing, for the most part. On that score, Rorabaugh’s “concise history” might prove more effective in changing minds than any of the monographs he and his colleagues have published.

For one thing, the whole “lingering Puritanism” or “Yankee abstinence” mythology about the roots of Prohibition should have bitten the dust a long time ago. “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness,” preached Increase Mather, the father of Cotton, “but the abuse of drink is from Satan …” Virtue was in moderation, not abstinence. Rorabaugh includes a telling story about the political education of one of the Founding Fathers:

In 1755, when George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature, he neglected to offer the customary liquor, and the voters declined to elect him. Three years later, Washington provided 155 gallons of rum, punch, wine, hard cider, and beer. He won with 307 votes. Each vote had cost him almost half a gallon of alcohol.

But colonial Americans were quite restrained compared to their descendants in the early republic. “By the 1820s,” Rorabaugh notes, “the typical adult white American male consumed nearly half a pint of whisky a day,” roughly three times today’s rate. And if Americans drank a lot of whiskey, that was in part because there was a lot of whiskey for them to drink: it was more profitable to turn grain into spirits than to transport it. Unlike milk, hard liquor did not spoil quickly, and it was less likely to spread disease than the water available in urban areas.

But heavy consumption took its toll, both on individual health and public order. The rise of a movement to discourage drinking was arguably less a “symbolic crusade” than an attempt to deal with quite concrete problems. And it did so to noticeable effect, with alcohol consumption falling 50 percent between 1825 and 1850. The author points out that this figure represents not reduced drinking per capita so much as an increase in the number of people who rejected alcohol entirely.

And so a kind of virtuous circle began to turn. Teetotaling became a middle-class norm: a condition of employment, marriageability and access to credit. Local governments, “strongly supported by dry forces,” began to provide clean drinking water to city dwellers. Coffee became the beverage of choice -- fuel for the social mobility of the hardworking.

The other side of this emerging value system was that the rest of the population consumed as much alcohol as much as it ever did. And the expanding economy of a growing country created a new business model as drinkers developed a taste for beer: “Major breweries established tied-house saloons,” writes Rorabaugh; “that is, the brewers owned or financially controlled the saloons, and each saloon-keeper agreed to sell only one brand of beer. The brewer provided the building, furniture, fixtures, and inventory in return for monthly rent … A national brewer might locate four or six saloons on a single block to capture foot traffic and keep out rivals.”

Distillers did the same for their product. To turn a profit, saloon keepers sometimes ran sidelines in gambling and prostitution. Another option (not mutually exclusive by any means) was for the saloon to become a voting place allied to a local political machine. One clergyman characterized saloons as “the most fiendish, corrupt, and hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit,” which seems a little overblown, though not an entirely groundless assessment by any means.

If the temperance advocates of the first half of the 19th century tried to strengthen the moral fiber of the individual citizen against the temptations of alcohol, the Prohibition movement regarded drinking as only part of the problem. Prohibitionists were up against a confluence of liquor manufacturers, corrupt politicians and criminal predators. Passing laws against the sale or use of alcoholic drinks on the local or state level was one approach -- an effective one, it seemed for a while, especially in rural areas. But improved transportation and interstate commerce undermined the local option. Only on a national scale could the scourge be defeated.

And not even then, suffice it to say. Rorabaugh is no sympathizer for the Prohibitionist cause, but he seems very evenhanded in presenting why and how its advocates thought and acted as they did. Insofar as any figure represents the Prohibitionist movement in the American popular memory, it’s probably Carrie Nation -- an enraged woman taking her ax to a bar to smash the bottles and furniture. She was hardly typical, however, and Rorabaugh says she was an embarrassment to others in the movement. On the other hand, she also re-enacted her “hatchetations” on Broadway in sellout performances, suggesting she understood a thing or two about cultivating the public’s attention.

But what carried the movement to victory was the far more subtle role of a lawyer from Ohio named Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League. “Wheeler insisted that prohibition not become a partisan issue,” Rorabaugh says. “If one party went wet, the wet party might eventually gain power and destroy prohibition. To prevent that result, dry majorities were needed in both parties.”

Under his leadership, the ASL shepherded the 18th Amendment through Congress and ratification during World War I -- probably the only time it could have passed, Rorabaugh suggests. The movement’s victory was also its defeat: however much credit it’s granted for laudable intentions, Prohibition had no effect at all.

Right? Well, again, the facts prove a little more complex than that. “An American born in 1900 could not drink legally until the age of 33,” the author points out, “past the age when use normally peaks. Consumption drops with each decade of adult life, and by age sixty-five a majority of people are abstainers.” Per capita consumption was reduced by about a third following repeal, and only returned to pre-Prohibition levels in the late 1970s. That hardly means the effort was a good idea, but it had an effect -- even, to some degree, the effect intended.


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