The first time I remember learning about prohibition in school was my freshmen year of high school. My Social Studies class, which was half civics and half psychology (The Supreme Court and Jung together like they were always meant to be), spent a day or two on the 18th Amendment. I’m not proud to admit that the only thing from that day’s lesson plan I remember was a nifty trick my teacher, Mrs. Birkenhead, taught us to remember prohibition and its subsequent repeal. Prohibition was the 18th Amendment, and the drinking age used to be 18. Repeal was the 21st Amendment, which is the current drinking age. Trust me, it stays with you.
It was this lack of substantive background information about the almost fourteen years Prohibition was the law of the land that I kept coming back to as I read Daniel Okrent’s exhaustive “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” Okrent initially traces the idea from its nascent days in the mid 1800s as a progressive movement that ran in some ways parallel to abolishing slavery, through its growing popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. This growth can be attributed to women like Carrie Nation, Mary Hunt, and Frances Willard, as well as groups like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. It wasn’t until the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) formed in the 1890s that “Drys” focused all of their energy on the goal of Prohibition. ASL’s power, as its long-tme leader Wayne Wheeler explained, came from the margins. His group could swing elections with just ten to twenty percent of the vote.
Okrent ably portrays the odd-couple coalition that came together that supported Prohibition. Supporters included industrialists, the International Workers of the World union, progressives, nativists, suffragists, and the Ku Klux Klan. There was more than a hint of xenophobia and racism at work as 80 percent of saloons were owned by first generation Americans and unchecked immigration into the nation’s urban areas would eventually bring greater political power for these newcomers at the loss of those in more rural areas.
“Last Call” proceeds primarily in chronological order to the readers benefit as you
become familiar with the back-story of how a constitutional amendment calling for Prohibition was able to make it out a congressional committee for the first time in 1914, due in no small part to a lucky break and a drunk Speaker of the House. Although it fell short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass, it attained a majority of votes and the loss went down as a symbolic victory. There were two major events that made victory easier for Prohibition: World War I and the 16th Amendment.
Many brewers were German-American and it was a combination of xenophobia and bad public relations by the beer magnates that helped increase support for prohibition. The 16th Amendment, which created the income tax provided prohibition advocates with a way for the federal government to survive the loss of revenue following a ban on alcohol. This was crucial since by 1875, one third of federal revenue came from tax on beer and whiskey.
The Shepherd Act of 1917 easily passed both the House and Senate, sending the prohibition amendment to the states. In a game of semantics that would have fit in today’s political climate, supporters of the bill said they were only voting to allow the states to decide, not to actually prohibit liquor. On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified and went into effect one year later. There were two changes that differentiated the bill in 1914 from the Shepherd Act of 1917. First, the language “for sale” was removed and second, the ASL had “alcoholic beverages” removed in favor of the vague “intoxicating liquors.”
Once the amendment was ratified, the job of crafting legislation to enforce the new law fell to Rep. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota. The National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act, crafted several exceptions to the national prohibition. Liquor already owned by an individual and housed at their residences before the 1920 deadline was legal. Another clause, “the fruit juice clause,” language intended to allow farmers’ wives to “mollify rural voters who wanted their hard cider.” This was the catalyst for what Okrent dubs the “California Grape Rush of the 1920s.” The other two exceptions were for religious sacramental purposes and medicinal uses.
These exceptions helped some turn Prohibition into a profitable legislation. Just five years after the American Medical Association unanimously declared that alcohol had no beneficial impact on one’s health, the AMA, in 1922 released a survey that found doctors believed alcohol could be used in response to 27 different illnesses.
Many went beyond the exceptions. Okrent describes the explosion of bootleggers who shipped liquor into the US from Canada, the Bahamas, and a French island in the Atlantic. Along the Atlantic and Pacific existed a permanent “Rum Row” with ships acting as wholesale stores just outside US waters. Bootleggers would fill these ships up and locals would trek out empty and scurry back stocked up.
Many of the stories surrounding the fourteen years of Prohibition are engrossing and resonate today. Brewing companies looked at every option possible to stay in business, with the survivors finally settling on a malt syrup product that could be turned alcoholic at home. It was in the 1920s that mobsters, providing the public service of a drink, rose to power and prominence. Okrent takes care to remind readers of the dark side of Prohibition that shouldn’t be forgotten. Mob violence escalated, the use of diluted industrial alcohol injured and killed people, and police corruption and government duplicity was widespread. In a moment of American history that is nearly forgotten, Congress failed to pass legislation reapportioning Congressional seats and the Electoral College from 1921 until 1928 because rural legislators were loath to lose seats to urban states with their teeming immigrant masses huddling in big cities.
Prohibition’s slow death began in New York State. In 1923, Governor Al Smith signed legislation repealing the state’s enforcement, a first. The 18th Amendment called for concurrent efforts on the state and federal level. This created an almost absurd situation where federal efforts called for more action and no money while states spent did little. In the wake of ratification, the federal government, outside of adding not nearly enough prohibition agents, never increased the budget or positions in the Justice Department to enforce the laws. On the local level, states never funded their efforts and the mob or bootleggers usually paid off the enforcement. Smith would run for President as the Democratic nominee in 1928 and get trounced by Herbert Hoover. The Anti-Saloon League used despicable anti-Catholic attacks against Smith, himself a drinker and a Manhattan native.
It is Okrent’s conclusion that 1928 was a turning point in the fight to repeal prohibition. The ASL saw Hoover’s victory and their continued success on the Congressional level as a pro-dry mandate. However, as Okrent explains, no one would vote out the Republicans with the economy booming as it was in 1928. A closer look would have revealed troubling developments. Local referendums were overturning prohibition on the state level. For a multitude of reasons, most obviously the onset of the Great Depression, 1929 was a very bad year for the Prohibition supporters. The late 1920s was the same time the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment gained strength as corporate titans, angered by income and corporate tax rates, joined the cause to repeal the 18th Amendment. Repeal happened in 1933, but “Last Call’ makes it clear that there already had been a social nullification of the law, with the boom of speakeasies, house parties, and the prominence of “Wet-Dry” politicians who voted dry despite their fondness for the bottle.
At the outset of the book, Okrent poses the rhetorical question, “ How the hell did it happen?” The book does a great job of traversing nearly a century’s worth of American history to explain the lead-up, enactment, enforcement – or lack thereof, and repeal of Prohibition. The great thing about a book like this is that so much of our current history is directly and immediately impacted by the actions of our cultural and political predecessors. One of Okrent’s many strengths is that he brings all the individuals and characters who play a role in Prohibition to life with great ease. The funny thing is that Prohibition worked, in the sense that the amount Americans drank decreased, but at the same time it created a sellers market.
Boston Book Blitz Update: Book four is done! I know we are a little off the pace here, but the coming holiday weeks with provide ample free time to catch up. Next on the docket in fiction is “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, followed by “The Last Hero,” Howard Bryant’s biography of Hank Aaron.