Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

by Daniel Okrent

Host: Mike B.

Date: August 12, 2010

Judges’ Score: TBD

Some Dreams Are Bad Dreams

Prohibition is all the rage these days. Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Okrent who recently published Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Then, Ken Burns is working on a documentary about prohibition that will come out sometime next year. Then, last week, Rachel Maddow gave the commencement address at Smith College (click here for the video) and told the story of Carry Nation, whom God spoke to and told her to go and destroy saloons. Maddow’s cautioned Smith’s graduates “don’t be like Carry Nation”…”some dreams are bad dreams.”

The story of prohibition is an interesting one. American’s actually voted to give up their right to drink alcohol for 13 years (1920-1933). During that time organized crime thrived, thugs became celebrities,  and, ironically, liquor consumption actually increased. By one estimate, for every bar that closed, 16 speakeasies opened in its place. Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, and empowered corrupt government officials to break the law and profit from it. It was a complete failure.

Ultimately prohibition was repealed in the midst of the Depression basically to raise much needed tax revenue. Maybe we fix our current budget woes by legalizing (and taxing) marijuana?

But, how was the 18th Amendment ever passed in the first place? And, what can we learn from it today? Okrent explains it this way:

Somebody said at the time of Prohibition that the difference between the pro-Prohibition and the anti-Prohibition groups in the years leading up to the passage of the 21st Amendment was that the pro-Prohibition people were out there marching and organizing and voting and the anti-Prohibition people were too busy drinking to do any of those things, I think that’s a joke of sorts, but not entirely. That is to say, we don’t fight to keep things the way they are; we fight to change things. And I think we’re seeing that again today. We’re seeing groups that want to change the way we live our lives in America and very few who are defending existing means of government.

Ponder that message with Maddow’s conclusion to her commencement address:

Do not for yourself today, but for yourself to be proud of at the end of your life. Do not for the fame, but for the glory – learn the difference. Do not just for your own life, but for the life of your nation, that is still, for all its challenges and its flaws, is in many ways the best hope on earth. A country that needs you and the best you have to offer and your best judgment.

A here’s a fantastic Amazon review by Steve Summers:

Prohibition was the best of intentions; it was the worst of results. A burning passion to cure the world of intoxication begat a wildfire of unintended consequences that permanently changed the American political landscape like no event since the civil war. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution–the first to curtail rather than to protect liberty–was imposed in a bipartisan political landslide of moral fervor led by fiery evangelicals bent on saving Americans from Demon Rum: an idea that had gathered 60 years of steam & brimstone, and whose time had finally come. Prohibition also created powerful new constituencies that profited from its continuance. Even its detractors became hopelessly resigned to its permanence.

It was not a revolution made led by dull people. The morally excited are, for all their dryness (pun intended), more animated, more colorful than the skeptical or the wise. Here the dramatis personnae of this tragicomedy seem more than merely memorable, they come to life on the page. But even in the limelight of the author’s wit, prohibitionists don’t seem caricatured, uneducated or stupid. (How could they have known? The lessons of hindsight were waiting offstage.) The complex tale of their successful constitutional coup is chronicled here in far more complex depth and detail than you might expect, yet the narrative flows quickly among the actors and events without losing momentum. The avalanche of startling facts and grotesque statistics are leavened with enough really good writing to yield laugh-out-loud descriptions, outrageous quotes and incisive commentary. Along with familiar folks like Rev. Billy Sunday, Carrie Nation, Andrew Volstead, et.al., Daniel Okrent introduces us to the forgotten workaholics who engineered this disastrous triumph of prescriptive moralizing.

Not all the consequences of prohibition were unforeseen. Anti-booze activists were instrumental in passing the 16th Amendment in 1913 authorizing a federal income tax in anticipation of the end of alcohol taxes–then the federal government’s 2nd largest revenue source (after tariff duties). The bulldog fixation on winning and keeping the prohibition prize created all sorts of odd bedfellows: suffragettes and Ku Klux Klansmen, Boston puritans and rural sharecroppers, and later on, the bootleggers and prosecutors, smugglers and judges. When prohibition finally arrived, it rode in on the coattails the anti-German hysteria of World War One: most of the nation’s brewers had Germanic surnames. Widespread anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic sentiments had heavily fertilized the grass roots of the cause.

And so this catastrophically bad idea was made law by a lopsided legislative majority representing a demographic minority. The the constitutionally mandated congressional reapportionment to reflect the 1920 census was deliberately (and illegally) delayed 8 years to keep that majority intact. But nothing could prevent the unprecedented mass civil disobedience which followed prohibition’s victory. The Twenties roared because all liquor laws (save the infamous Volstead Act) had been effectively swept away. Once the fruit was forbidden, it quickly became glamorous, accessible, and demand exploded. With the flotilla of smugglers, an army of bootleggers, and dense constellations of speakeasies came a flood tide of corruption that inundated nearly every police precinct, courtroom, and customs house in the nation. New fault lines appeared: civil service laws were bypassed to give the Anti-Saloon League control of federal liquor enforcement hiring, but state legislatures and local officials were often uncooperative (or obstructive) for a variety of reasons.

To prosecute so many millions of victimless crimes would have bankrupted America in a month. So the token fine and a metastasizing culture of bribery soon replaced enforcement. The profits of crime ballooned. Al Capone is alleged to have made $60 million in a single year. Soon the Klan would be deputized to terrorize moonshiners–and all too predictably, others. Later, Congress would pass the Jones Act “get tough” and “send a message”–like life imprisonment for repeat moonshine sellers. Sound familiar? Wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and even deadlier intoxicants became common bootleg additives. The phrase “blind drunk” originated in prohibition. A neuropathic chemical pollutant would permanently cripple some 500 tipplers in Wichita. (The vindictive crocodile tears of sympathy would be echoed by defenders of Paraquat in the 1980s).

Even economics becomes mesmerizing as legally “dry” America experiences skyrocketing commodity prices for the ingredients of fermentation and the nation’s residential cellars (and even bathtubs) are converted to forbidden production. But the irritations and absurdities of alcohol criminalization evolved slowly into political outrage, and like it’s entry, prohibition’s exit was kicked forward by the hard boot of circumstance: the stock market crash of 1929 and the the Great Depression. That it was overthrown so unexpectedly and so decisively is another part of a tale well worth telling, and in Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call” it is wonderfully told. Almost none of this rollicking history is spent on prohibition’s moral lessons or drawing parallels to the War on Drugs. They’re just too obvious. If you’ve recently been bored by history books that don’t hold your interest, this may be the kind of fun reading you”ve been waiting for.

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