The Magazine

The 18th Amendment

When the Constitution 'just said no' to alcohol.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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Dry Manhattan

Prohibition in New York City

by Michael A. Lerner

Harvard, 560 pp., $28.95

At the height of Prohibition, Fiorello La Guardia, then a New York congressman, held a demonstration in his Capitol Hill office for some newsmen and photographers to show them how to make beer easily by mixing legal "near beer" with flavored malt tonics.

"If the Prohibition people think it is a violation of the law to mix two beverages permitted under the law and that a person doing so can be arrested," he told the gathered reporters, "I shall give them a chance to test it." Needless to say, La Guardia was never arrested for the prank. (Note to Jonathan Alter, Jacob Weisberg, and Michael Wolff: There is ample historic precedent for abrasive New York City politicians to push the edge of the envelope in ways that sometimes outrage "respectable" opinion.)

By publicly mocking Prohibition in his Washington office, La Guardia hoped to show Americans how useless and self-defeating the law was. It is no surprise that such a challenge came from a New York City congressman, the son of immigrants who represented a polyglot district in Manhattan. For the central role the Big Apple played in the rise and eventual downfall of Prohibition is the subject of Michael Lerner's Dry Manhattan. Politicians like La Guardia and Al Smith were leading "wets," those opposed to Prohibition. Much of the city's immigrant and ethnic communities hated the law and could not understand the big fuss made about alcohol. Throughout the Prohibition era, the city proved to be one of the toughest places to enforce the anti-alcohol laws.

Lerner rightly notes that Prohibition is a "key to understanding the cultural divides that separated Americans in the 1920s." Today is not the first time Americans have been deeply divided over cultural and social issues.

Prohibition was the great "wedge issue" of its time, dividing Americans politically and culturally. By laying bare the era's cultural schisms, Prohibition was much like abortion today. But unlike the abortion debate, Prohibition receives scant scholarly or journalistic interest, a fact that makes this book so welcome. It is an engaging narrative that brings alive the 1920s, with its speakeasies, flappers, and mobsters.

Lerner believes that the "noble experiment" of Prohibition was a failure, and not even a noble one at that. The law appealed to the bigotry of Americans concerned about large populations of immigrants and their children living in big cities, and was an attempt to regulate their behavior. The industrialization and urbanization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries created great insecurities among many native-born Americans. Prohibition was just one of the many reforms designed to manage these changes and lessen their negative impact. But there was definitely a dark side to some of these reforms, as seen in the rise of immigration quotas, the Red Scare, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919 in the wake of the anti-immigrant feelings stirred by World War I, especially against German-Americans, who owned most of the nation's breweries. And the Volstead Act of that same year defined just exactly what would be prohibited: any drink with an alcohol content more than .5 percent.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, a majority of Americans were in favor of some kind of reform of the Prohibition laws, and the nation had other worries. It was a former New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the law legalizing wine and beer, making it the third piece of legislation during FDR's first hundred days in office. The repeal of the 18th Amendment would come at the end of the year.

Was Prohibition as much of a failure as Lerner paints? In New York City, and other large urban areas, the answer is probably yes. But as Lerner notes in an intriguing footnote: "Not all historians regard Prohibition as a failure." Oddly, he never explains exactly why these historians are wrong. Pointing to opposition to the law in New York and the very real obstacles to enforcing the law there does not exactly prove that the law was an overall failure.

A 1971 Department of Health, Education and Welfare study found that per capita drinking in America declined from 2.6 gallons consumed per capita in the first decade of the 20th century to just under one gallon in 1934, then rose to 1.56 gallons in 1940. On top of that, one historian argues that the cost of alcohol increased substantially during the 1920s, putting it out of the reach of most wage-earners on a regular basis. The wealthy could flout the law and drink at speakeasies much more readily than the rest of the population, and those reports often made their way into newspapers, thus coloring the coverage of Prohibition.