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Last Call - The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent

On Jan. 17, 1920, America went dry. The 18th Amendment had been ratified a year earlier, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States and its territories. Thus began the era of Prohibition, a nearly 14-year orgy of lawbreaking unparalleled in our history. The 18th Amendment was a rarity in that it limited the rights of the individual rather than the activities of the government, thereby guaranteeing a hostile reception. As such, it holds the distinction of being the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed. Which leads one to ask: How did this happen in the first place? Why would Americans curtail their precious right to drink?

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Last Call, by Daniel Okrent, provides the sobering answers. Okrent, the author of four previous books and the first public editor of The New York Times, views Prohibition as one skirmish in a larger war waged by small-town white Protestants who felt besieged by the forces of change then sweeping their nation, a theory first proposed by the historian Richard Hofstadter more than five decades ago. Though much has been written about Prohibition since then, Okrent offers a remarkably original account, showing how its proponents combined the nativist fears of many Americans with legitimate concerns about the evils of alcohol to mold a movement powerful enough to amend the United States Constitution.

It wasnt easy. Americans have always been a hard-drinking, freedom-loving lot. George Washington had a still on his farm. James Madison downed a pint of whiskey a day, a common practice at a time when liquor was safer than water and cheaper than tea. But alcohol consumption rose dramatically in the 19th century, as new immigrants flooded American cities. Before long, beer had become king. In 1850, Okrent says, Americans drank 36 million gallons of the stuff; by 1890 annual consumption had exploded to 855 million gallons. According to census data, a vast majority of the nations 300,000 saloons were owned by first-generation Americans, most of whom were financed by the breweries. Okrent skillfully tells this story through the eyes of Adolphus Busch, the German immigrant who revolutionized the nations drinking habits. By vertically integrating his operation (brewing, pasteurizing, bottling, transporting, advertising), Busch quickly placed his product, a light lager named for the Bohemian town of Budweis, in taverns nationwide.

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There have been many studies that follow the rapid growth of the temperance movement in this era; the colorful saloon-busting of Carry Nation, the tent-revival magnetism of Billy Sunday, but none can match the precision of Okrents account. Momentum, he notes, depended on both a keen understanding of the political process and a ruthless approach to elected officials, who either joined the cause or found themselves under endless assault. Knowing that alcohol taxes accounted for about one-third of all federal revenue, temperance leaders campaigned successfully for a federal income tax to make up the difference. Believing that women were more likely than men to support restrictions on alcohol, these leaders strongly supported womens suffrage. And when America entered World War I in 1917, they helped fan the flames of anti-German hysteria by accusing the Busch family and other brewers of harboring sympathies for the kaiser (a charge, not entirely untrue, that turned beer drinking into a disloyal act).

Okrents description of the Prohibition era is a narrative delight. The Republicans, who controlled the White House and Congress in the 1920s, were largely indifferent to its success. Even those who did care were unwilling to spend the kings ransom needed to enforce it. There were never enough agents, and very few of them proved untouchable. The accompanying laws, meanwhile, provided enough loopholes to guarantee failure. Sacramental wine was permitted, allowing fake clergy men to lead bogus congregants in non religious romps. Farmers who fermented their own cider and fruit juices were given special exemptions, making them extremely popular neighbors. Doctors, dentists and even veterinarians were free to write prescriptions for remedies like Richardsons Concentrated Sherry Wine Bitters, which contained 47.5 percent alcohol (95 proof). In the 1920s, Charles Walgreen expanded his drugstore chain from 20 stores to an astounding 525, a spurt ludicrously attributed to his introduction of the milkshake. Much of the illegal liquor had a foul taste, leading to the introduction of mixed drinks with tonic water and ginger ale. And the lure of the speakeasy, with its dance floor and powder room, led to the sexual integration of the all-male drinking culture. Social life in America, Okrent writes, was changed forever.

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What was Americas wettest city? Okrent lists a number of contenders, including Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, but hands the title to Detroit, the corrupt, booming blue-collar metropolis known widely as the city on a still. At its lawbreaking best in the 1920s, Detroit housed more than 20,000 speak easies, about one for every 30 adults. The local Board of Commerce estimated that the illegal-alcohol business employed 50,000 people, excluding sticky-fingered police officers and politicians; it was the citys second-largest industry, behind auto mobile manufacturing. Geography also played a role, as Canadian bootleggers, assisted by Detroits notorious Purple Gang, smuggled alcohol freely across the border in trucks, railroad cars and high-powered speedboats. Huge fortunes were made and multiplied, Okrent says, perhaps the biggest by Sam Bronfman, who bought Joseph E. Seagram & Sons after he had come to dominate the large-scale, cross-border smuggling trade. As the chief Prohibition enforcement officer admitted, You cannot keep liquor from dripping through a dotted line.

By the late 1920s, all but the most extreme backers of Prohibition could see how miserably it had failed. Millions of otherwise honest citizens routinely flouted the law. Thousands more were poisoned by cheap homemade brews. Government revenues plummeted, while official corruption ran wild. Ruthless local gangs, led by small-time hoodlums like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, formed syndicates that modernized criminal activity throughout the United States.

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Yet in some respects the experiment was a success. Prohibition did cut down on drinking and alcohol-related illnesses. Equally important, its repeal in 1933 did not inspire a prolonged national bender, as many had feared. Indeed, alcohol consumption has actually declined over the years, with Americans drinking less today than they did in the first years of the 20th century. What is missing from Okrents otherwise splendid account is a sense of which groups were most affected, since it is clear that enforcement varied widely among regions and social classes. We get hints, but little more, that Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor.

Okrent resists the chance to link Prohibition to the current political scene. But the comparisons are tempting, to say the least. About a century ago, a group of determined activists mobilized to confront the moral decay they claimed was destroying their country. Their public demon was alcohol, but their real enemy was an alien culture reflected by city dwellers, recent immigrants and educated elites. Always a minority, the forces of Prohibition drove the political agenda by concentrating relentlessly on their goal, voting in lockstep on a single issue and threatening politicians who did not sufficiently back their demands. They triumphed because they faced no organized opposition. Americans were too distracted, perhaps too busy drinking, to notice what they had lost. It’s a story with an eerily familiar ring..

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