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America’s Big Dry Spell

Interview with Daniel Okrent, author of 'Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition'

During Prohibition, America’s inborn puritanical instinct reared its head and tried to take all the fun out of an entire decade. Correct?

Actually, not even close. Judging by how the Puritans packed their ships when they sailed for America, they favored beer over water, and the country they helped settle drank like an out-of-control fraternity by the early 1800s. Every American past the midteens drank the equivalent of nearly two-fifths of Jim Beam a week.

In one of the many surprises of veteran journalist Daniel Okrent’s new book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, we learn it wasn’t a straitlaced sect, but progressives who began the drive to pull the country out of its perpetual buzz. Later, with their goal in sight, the same progressives instituted the federal income tax to replace liquor tax revenues, clearing away one of the final hurdles to Prohibition.

But, as Okrent shows us, Prohibition wasn’t all about cutting down on drunkenness. Nativists, xenophobes, and racists like the Ku Klux Klan saw Prohibition as a way to wage proxy war against hated Catholic ethnic groups in big cities. Almost paradoxically, Prohibition was also a powerful engine of equality, moving women to demand the vote—if only to get their husbands out of the saloons.

The reality of Prohibition—ineffective enforcement, metastasizing corruption—killed it just 13 years after the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920. Yet the achievement of a zealous minority that knew how to pull the strings of power remains a singular feat in the history of the Constitution. And, Okrent says, the repercussions are felt even now.

A veteran journalist and first ombudsman of the New York Times, Okrent spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about the failed effort to force alcohol out of American life.

(Read an excerpt here.)

Q. When Prohibition took effect in 1920, did it actually stop people from drinking?

A. In the first year or two, drinking dropped by about 70 percent. There’s a very rapid drop—partly because of availability, and partly because people believed they should obey the law.

Q. That didn’t last, did it?

A. Supply went up very rapidly, and enforcement plummeted partly because of corruption. It was easy to buy off a Prohibition agent or a cop; big city politicians lacked interest in enforcement. In Boston, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit—there wasn’t really any meaningful enforcement after the first few years.

Q. Your book influenced me to pick up a few bottles of hard cider. It’s a storied drink in American history, isn’t it?

A. I’d always thought Johnny Appleseed was planting apples for eating, but no—it was all about cider. Water quality in many places was lousy in the early 1800s, but cider was drinkable. Alcoholic and nonalcoholic, it was an absolute staple on the frontier. Farmers often kept a barrel of cider by the door for family or whoever dropped by.

Q. And cider, which is just as alcoholic as beer, wasn’t covered by Prohibition.

A. Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League, needed the support of the rural districts, where cider was an important part of life. Wheeler didn’t dare take that away from them. So he used that wonderful phrase about helping the farmers “conserve their fruit.” Yeah, right.

Q. So the drinking in those days wasn’t all bathtub gin and bootlegged Canadian whiskey.

A. There were huge shipments of grapes coming east from the Napa Valley under the same exception in the Volstead Act [legislation that helped clarify the 18th Amendment]. That’s why in the Northeast, people were making huge quantities of wine legally during Prohibition. The head of a household could produce 200 gallons a year for family use.

Q. If this was how much Americans were allowed during Prohibition, how much did we drink before it?

A. The high point was 1830, when the average American drank 7.3 or 7.4 gallons of pure alcohol a year. That’s the equivalent of about 90 fifths of 80 proof liquor for each American over 15. Obviously some people didn’t drink at all, so those who were drinking were really, really drinking.

Q. Did the temperance movement start simply as a reaction to the massive drunkenness?

A. That was absolutely one part of it, particularly to the degree that alcoholism and drunkenness affected the lives of women and children.

Q. How did it affect women?

A. Women married to alcoholics had no legal or property rights to speak of, and were at the mercy of these men. The coalition of temperance workers and suffrage workers that developed was essential to the success of both campaigns.

Q. The temperance movement roster reads like a who’s who of 19th century progressives—Susan B. Anthony, the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips ...

A. It was a real surprise to me that the people advocating temperance and later Prohibition—a very different thing from temperance—were people concerned about social welfare and what was good for the country and particularly city dwellers.

Q. Who were their big opponents?

A. The people who opposed Prohibition most aggressively were extreme right-wing plutocrats, people who thought this was an assault on individual liberties by the government.

Q. This runs counter to what I’d always assumed about Prohibition, which was that it was a pretty conservative, even backwoods kind of movement.

A. It does begin to pick up steam in the Methodist and Baptist communities of the American Midwest, people of native-born American stock, Anglo-Saxon stock. A lot of it is really a struggle over who’s going to control the country.

Q. What was that struggle about?

A. Prohibition was a perfect stand-in for arguments about whose country this was. Many of these people hated the cities, hated that immigrants were flooding the cities and electing people to Congress, and thus influencing the course of the country.

Q. It wasn’t just about protecting women and families?

A. There was something profoundly xenophobic and anti-Catholic particularly. For the Ku Klux Klan, it was part of their core doctrine. The phrase “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” summed up the view that the Irish big city machines were tools of the pope that were destroying the country.

Q. How did the First World War play into this?

A. It became a way for Prohibitionists to demonize the German brewery owners as tools of the Kaiser. The 18th Amendment passed after the election of 1916, when Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League pulled off the election of a sufficiently dry Congress. The ratification by the states was taking place during World War I while Wheeler and his cronies on Capitol Hill are running hearings on the evil behavior of the brewers. I think that was the clinching moment for Prohibition.

Q. You argue that Prohibition was the first case where a minority political movement found a way to control the country.

A. Wayne Wheeler is absolutely one of the most important people in American history. Everyone from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, James Carville, David Plouffe—whether they know it or not, they’re all students and heirs of Wheeler and his ability to use the political system to achieve something, and in this case, achieve something with a minority.

Q. His innovation seems to still be in use. What was it exactly?

A. A laser-like focus on one issue. If there’s a reasonably close race in a congressional or senatorial race, if he controls 5 to 10 percent of the people at the margins, he can deliver the voters to the guy who is right on the one issue they care about. It worked, and it still works.

Q. What brought down Prohibition?

A. It was a confluence of factors. One was the increasing corruption. Another was Pauline Morton Sabin, heiress to the Morton salt fortune, founder of the Women’s National Republican Club—really the leading society figure in New York. She turns against Prohibition in 1928, and went on a traveling road show against it with her society lady friends. It made it acceptable for women to oppose Prohibition, a real turning point.

Q. What motivated her?

A. She was motivated by the question: How do you raise children to respect the law when this one is so flagrantly disobeyed, and has brought about so much public corruption?

Q. Similar arguments are being made today about another common intoxicant.

A. Right, marijuana. There are many parallels.

Q. Such as?

A. What ultimately ends Prohibition is the Great Depression. The federal government needed revenue, but tax revenue had plummeted. The place it could get it, however, was the liquor tax. With the current economic situation and the inability of government to even hint at raising income taxes today—someone is going to say, “look at marijuana, there’s a lot of potential revenue there.”

Q. Were you able to speak with many older Americans about their experiences with Prohibition?

A. I found very few people with reliable memories about it—it ended 77 years ago, after all—but those I did talk to all had memories of one thing in particular: the uncle or grandfather or neighbor who was a bootlegger!

Chris Carroll is a writer from Maryland.