Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition
© 2010 Daniel Okrent
“Law and order should not ruin the lives of law-abidin’ people! Like that stupid law of Prohibition they had in the old days. Gangsters had to go out there and open up speakeasies, so’s decent people could raise a glass.” – Archie Bunker
Prohibition ranks as one of the strangest and most romanticized periods in American history, a period of over a decade in which Americans earnestly sought to deny themselves a pleasure enjoyed by mankind since the first hints of agriculture: alcohol. In Last Call, author Daniel Okrent takes the reader back into time to find out how it happened, what it was like, and how it mercifully ended. A history of Prohibition could easily descend into mythologizing about the Mafia, but this is an account with considerable more body than that. Indeed, Okrent connects the rise and execution of Prohibition to deeper political forces that make the general politics of the time more comprehensible.
How on Earth did the American nation come to deny itself the pleasures of the bottle? Excess didn’t help: prior to widespread sanitation systems, beer, wine, and other kindred spirits were the safest source of water, and because they were also fun to drink, they were easily abused, and especially after distillation made chronic inebriation cheap. Various groups within the nation – worried wives, Progressive moralists, guardians of the family – all advocated for temperance, but attempts to convey this into political action were undermined by the fact that their associations tended to pick up other political causes as well, atrophying by distraction. When Prohibition passed as a Constitutional amendment, ratified by the majority of state congresses, it triumphed because of its skillful management at the hands of the Anti-Saloon League. The ASL, hereafter referred to as the League, combined various groups into one coalition, focusing them all on one common goal and steadfastly ignoring any other social issue.
Other social issues were at play, however. The coalition included nativist groups like the KKK, for instance, which saw the increasing population of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe as a threat to both Protestant religion and the American way of life. The League, as its full name indicates, had an especial grievance against saloons, which were not merely watering holes but the nucleus of immigrant communities. 70% of saloons were owned by first-generation Americans, and their halls were host to political organizations that gave new citizens a stronger voice in the public arena. Prohibition’s rise is even more interesting, however, connected as it was with both the women’s suffrage movement and a landmark step in the growth of the Federal government, the income tax-establishing 16th amendment. The amount of female leadership within temperance and prohibition movements gave many suffragists their first experience in political organization and agitation, and the income tax amendment was a necessary first step for the war against booze. Without taxes on potable beverages, even the relatively small national government of the belle époque couldn’t fund its services. Soaking the rich, which politicized mobs liked the idea of, would provide enough revenue to only compensate for the decline in liquor taxation, but allow the government to reduce its tariffs to boot — a boon for the working man. Prohibition was thus a cocktail of political causes.
The execution of Prohibition itself, of course, is a legendary failure. Had the brewers and distillers realized that the League was a serious threat, they may have rallied to stop it. But what massive business could be seriously threatened by some locals running around in bedsheets, or a crowd of campaigning women? Despite its passage, Prohibition trimmed off at most a third of the overall consumption of alcohol. Individuals were subverting the law from the moment it went on the books., moving alcohol into the states from outside by plane, train, automobile, and a flotilla of rum-running speedboats. Consumer markets quickly created products that would allow people to produce homemade alcoholic beverages — a kind of grape concentrate, for instance, that if were supplemented with yeast, sugar, and a few weeks of peaceful darkness, would turn into wine. Beer kits were also available, and completely legal within the law. The amendment depended on enforcement by the states, but making a law isn’t quite as easy as enforcing it. The fact that so many people were willing to blow raspberries at the law made widespread investigation and arrests prohibitively expensive, and some states never bothered. Those which did were undermined by networks of corruption that kept police wallets and the speakeasies full. Even when corruption wasn’t a problem, the amount of people being hauled into court was. Rather than wasting an enormous amount of time plodding through a trial, judges simply levied fines – and the bootleggers absorbed them, just as they would a tax had alcohol been legal. They even managed to buy their cars and speedboats back if they had been seized by the state. None of the presidents at the time were strict enforcers – Harding was wishy-washy, Coolidge had no interest in meddling in other people’s business, and Hoover was slow to spend money. By the time the Federal government did begin intervening, the new sanctions proved to be too much, too late. Tipplers were outraged by the fact that the government had abruptly decided to take the issue seriously, and as the Great Depression loomed, popular support saw the wisdom in creating more jobs and generating more revenue by uncorking alcohol once again.
The Last Callfinishes as a superb history of the period; the author’s emphasis on political and social movements provides insight into the period in general, understanding that would have been missed had he simply dwelt gratuitously on the Mafia. There’s a great deal to learn here, not only about the era but about the absurdity of the government attempting to manage people’s lives, including their spending habits. Say what you will about the human race, we’re an adaptable species that knows the truth of “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.