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Ignoble Experiment

Prohibition couldn’t work, and it didn’t.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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Last Call
The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
by Daniel Okrent
Scribner, 480 pp., $30

Ignoble Experiment

Contraband beer being dumped into the streets (1925)

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The dawn of the 20th century was an exciting time in the alcohol trade. Distilleries, many Jewish-owned, poured forth millions of gallons of liquor. Breweries headed by enterprising Germans with names such as Busch, Pabst, and Ruppert did booming business. Vineyards tended by Italians and others thrived from Virginia to Missouri to California, and the quality of their wine made Europe fret. Consumers had more choices than ever.

Then came Prohibition. In December 1917, Congress passed a resolution proposing to amend the Constitution to ban the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” A little over a year later, 36 states had ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, and the ban took effect on January 16, 1920.

Prohibition is often thought of as a sudden American freak-out, a bit of craziness imposed by a fanatical few fundamentalists. Not true. Prohibition was an international phenomenon. Lloyd George attacked drink relentlessly, famously declaring in 1915 that Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.” Great Britain, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Sweden all enacted anti-drink measures. And as Daniel Okrent shows in this garrulously readable volume, Prohibition was a long time coming in the United States. Agitation had begun in localities and states a century earlier.

He writes: “By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year,” the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of hooch per week. The alcohol industry did itself no favors; it peddled whiskey as a cure for every conceivable illness and sold beer as a health tonic for mothers and children. Unscrupulous booze barons bought off newsmen and politicians.

Temperance began largely as a social movement. Advocates used education, moral suasion, prayer, and shame to encourage responsible consumption. When this failed to achieve widespread effect, the movement turned to politics and, increasingly, demonization of anyone who had anything to do with alcohol. Maine was the first state to ban drink in 1851, and others followed. Gentle Temperance gave way to bellicose Prohibitionism and Carrie Nation’s hatchet-wielding vandalism.

A diverse coalition promoted it. Christians supported it in droves. So, too, did women, who sought to curtail irresponsible and vicious behavior by men and to draw support to women’s suffrage. Progressives denounced liquor because it retarded social progress and individual enlightenment. Big Business thought sobriety would make for greater productivity, while socialists believed working men would throw off their “false consciousness” if they were not stewed. Racists and nativists saw Prohibition as a tool for controlling blacks and punishing immigrants, Roman Catholics, and the “hyphenated Americans” who ran many of the beverage companies. The U.S. Senate did itself no honor when it held hearings, in 1918, accusing brewers and German-Americans of being disloyal propagandists doing the Kaiser’s bidding. And then there were the assorted health nuts and killjoys who saw booze as poison and liquid lust.

Of course, as a national policy, Prohibition was patently mad. It was impossible for the federal government to police drinking over a three million-square-mile land mass. Americans had been imbibing since they had landed on North America’s shores and were not about to quit cold turkey. Politicians often honored the law in the breach: President Harding openly sipped Scotch and soda while congressmen had bootleg whiskey delivered to their Capitol offices. Criminals got rich, and as many as 45,000 Americans might have died from poisonous liquor concocted in shabby stills.

Prior to the Noble Experiment, the federal government received 30 percent of its revenue from alcohol taxes; to solve the revenue problem the anti-alcohol crowd pushed through the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913. When the American economy collapsed 16 years later, income tax remittances plunged. Federal revenues dropped more than 50 percent between 1930 and 1932. In more ways than one, the country no longer could afford Prohibition. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified and Prohibition ended. Alcohol flowed legally and the tax dollars began rolling in. The anti-alcohol movement quickly dissipated, as did the crime wave it spawned. Although the Depression continued until the outbreak of World War II, better days had come.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author, most recently, of Whiskey: A Global History.

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