The Gist: 100 years ago, Congress voted to ban America’s 5th largest industry (and the source of ~40% of government revenue). It took a cultural movement, an income tax, women getting the vote, and World War I.
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I don’t drink alcohol but I socialize often “over drinks,” as the time immediately after work is called. Meeting at a bar, new companions often ask if it’s okay if they indulge. “Go ahead,” I say. “I am a teetotaler, not a Prohibitionist.”
Prohibition today is little more than an (unspiked) punchline or a hazy memory. But in the middle history of America, Prohibition was a cause embraced with as much fervor (and by many of the same people) as the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglas, pledging never to drink again, claimed “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery.” Susan B. Anthony entered politics to fight for temperance.
Figure 1. Were the world sober, we might face other problems: a significant downturn in the tattoo industry. Underpopulation. Or, most significant of all, jokes would have to be funnier.
W.J. Rorabaugh’s Prohibition: A Concise History lives up to its promise with a pithy overview. Daniel Okrent’s Last Call expands on the subject – perhaps a chaser to Rorabaugh’s shot. In today’s edition of Sober History, we’ll explore the extraordinary story of how Prohibition came to be (despite the fact that alcohol was America’s fifth largest industry and provided around 40% of federal government revenue.)
Before the Civil War, the average adult white male drank nearly two bottles of whiskey a week – about 90 bottles a year. By modern accounting, that amount of daily consumption, even spread over an eight hour period, would be more than twice the legal limit for driving – and more than three times the average consumption today.
Figure 2. A properly trained horse was the self-driving car of its day. Your trusty steed “Uber” could get you home but couldn’t do anything for your liver.
There was an economic rationale as “whiskey cost less than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk, and it was safer than water.” But that explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory: men drank nearly six times as much as women, who suffered the consequences. Drinking was cultural: George Washington lost his first election when he failed to distribute enough alcohol to voters. Sam Houston stated with some contempt that his teetotaling Tennessee contemporary (and eventually America’s greatest president) James K. Polk was a “victim of the use of water as a beverage.”
Figure 3. New theory for why Sam Houston left for Texas: the Tennessee Constitution explicitly forbids the distribution of drinks for votes and bans violators from office for 6 years.
While plenty of alcohol was homemade, notoriety centered around the saloon. Rorabaugh relates: “The unemployed or unemployable drunkard abandoned his family so that the wife and children sometimes faced starvation while the husband and father debauched himself.” Spousal and child abuse, assault, even murder was committed under the influence of alcohol, which soon earned the credit. The margins on alcohol weren’t especially good for proprietors so they turned to additional offerings, including “gambling and prostitution, which brought financial ruin and sexually transmitted diseases.” Okrent paints the sorry picture:
“A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many rural and small-town women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle; the job lost or the farmwork left undone; and, most pitilessly, a scourge that would later in the century be identified by physicians as ‘syphilis of the innocent’—venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons.”
Figure 4. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, things go terribly unbearably wrong. Stay sober, my friends.”
Evangelical Christians were horrified. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At first preaching only against whiskey, they eventually demanded teetotal abstinence, lest drunkards trade one poison for another, and began a debate about whether the wine mentioned in the Bible was actually grape juice. Evangelicals managed to persuade a few states to change their laws but were far more effective at changing hearts: “by 1840, nearly half of Americans had taken the pledge” to quit drinking altogether, resulting in the fact that “between 1825 and 1850, the amount of alcohol consumed per person in the United States dropped by half.” With that stupendous success, less people were drinking but those who did were as boozy as ever.
Figure 5. Water into grape juice was not a miracle greeted with nearly as much enthusiasm
Still, you can almost understand that contemporaries thought that alcohol abstinence was going to be easier and happen sooner than abolition of slavery. Some “reformers saw alcohol as the greater problem: Drinking took place throughout the country, while slavery was relegated to the South.”
As Rorabaugh relates, they were changing the culture!
“The use of alcohol became socially unacceptable, particularly in middle-class circles in small towns. Middle-class employers refused to employ anyone who drank. To advance in business or society, a person found it necessary to abstain. Advice books and novels, which were beginning to circulate among the middle class, told young women not to marry any man who drank,”
including such slogans as “Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine.” Henry Ford would go so far as hiring detectives to check “garbage cans at workers’ homes for liquor bottles.” One of the first major credit rating agencies included in their evaluation business owners’ drinking habits, reserving the highest rating for teetotalers while “anyone with an interest in the liquor industry was all but eliminated as a borrower.” Desiring places to gather and socialize beyond the saloon, teetotalers built their own, including Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the eventual home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Figure 6. Country music would not always prove to be the tribute to sobriety that Ryman might have hoped, where lyrics like “If You Like Whiskey, Let’s Get Frisky” have become more common.
The temperance movement was especially remarkable because it was the one area of public life in which women could participate as equals – and even leaders. The struggle for women’s suffrage was linked closely in the public mind with the abolishment of alcohol, as Okrent suggests: “They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them.”
A great spark was the Women’s Crusade, a civil disobedience movement in 1870s Ohio. Responding to a call to arms from churches, women began to surround saloons, singing hymns, praying on their knees, and insisting they wouldn’t leave until the dens of deceit closed for good. Amazingly, many did! But even when the movement died down, saloon proprietors were increasingly social pariahs. And, so long as we’re on the subject of direct action, we should introduce to Carry A. Nation. Decades after the Women’s Crusade, unsatisfied with mere prayer, Nation took a hatchet to any illegal liquor she could get near, prompting many a bar to display a sign that said “All nations welcome – except Carry!”
Most women were not inclined to violence; in the spirit of the Crusade, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded to organize against alcohol with speakers, materials, and lobbying. Frances Willard was the long-time leader and her slogan was “Do everything.” And the WCTU did, to the harm of their core cause against liquor. Her “Protestant nuns,” fighting for “Home Protection,” were naturally for getting the vote “but also for prison reform, free kindergartens, and vocational schools” while simultaneously being against “gambling, tobacco, opium, pornography and prostitution.” When Willard became a “Christian socialist,” she began “agitating for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, railroads, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation” and other unrelated topics, previewing the fact that women were not one-issue voters. Eventually, they would even coin the phrase “equal pay for equal work.” Simultaneous to their almost comically broad agenda, however, was a deadly serious opposition to compromise, refusing to sanction anything but total abstinence from alcohol.
Stringent and unfocused, the WCTU could only get so far – but they did manage one significant coup: a substantial takeover of the public school system. Rorabaugh reports that “WCTU members interviewed candidates for teaching positions, and school boards were pressured to hire only abstainers.” Over half of American public schools used textbooks approved by the WCTU and by the end of the 19th century, Okrent reveals “twenty-two million schoolchildren in a given year were administered their three-times-a-week serving of temperance education.” Willard warned Congress: “The day is surely coming when from the schoolhouses all over the land will come trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.”
Figure 7. Compare to today, when students go to school to learn how to drink, such as at Μπύρα fraternity house.
But perhaps the most powerful special interest group in American history was the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), ably led by Wayne Wheeler. The ASL was ruthlessly focused on alcohol, tactically flexible in accepting any progress toward their goal, and merciless in punishing opponents. Marketed to the general public as opposed to the worst excesses of alcohol consumption found in the saloon, they were financed by membership dues, church offerings, and a guarantee from the richest man in America, teetotaler John D. Rockefeller, that he’d contribute 10 cents for every dollar they received elsewhere.
Figure 8. America’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos, is unlikely to finance a prohibitionist organization given the amount of drunk online impulse buying.
The WCTU cared about everything. The ASL cared about one thing. The WCTU refused to work with anyone who drank. The ASL was happy if politicians voted as they prayed, rather than as they drank. The WCTU was excited about the dismally performing Prohibition Party. The ASL wanted majorities of all parties dry and were indifferent to partisan identification. In elections, the WCTU chose only the driest possible candidates. The ASL chose the driest candidate who could win and hold a seat for the long term – and then backed them to the hilt with training, volunteers, cash, and endorsements from the dry press and the church pulpits.
The ASL’s strategy was to systematically dry out America. “In 1910, half of all Americans lived on farms or in towns with fewer than two thousand people.” The ASL started by pushing states to allow counties to ban alcohol. Once large majorities of counties had banned alcohol – and weakened the local liquor lobby – they pushed statewide prohibition. If they couldn’t get a ban, they’d heavily regulate the industry by “stopping sales on Sundays, imposing closing hours, limiting the number of liquor licenses, creating dry zones around churches and schools, setting age restrictions, or banning sales to known alcoholics.”
Figure 9. The last step before Prohibition was to allow alcohol only to be purchased exclusively with penny rolls every other Friday but only 2 hours after the last business closed and before any other opened from the one retailer who was 100 miles from any church or school, so long as you were over 35 and never purchased any alcohol before. Still, given the extraordinary strength of the 19th century dollar, you could get quite a bit for your penny rolls.
With plenty of experience in local regulation, what the ASL desired more than anything was to continue the social ostracization of liquor:
“Some drys naively believed that if the law were passed, it would be honored, but this proved to be untrue in large cities, mining districts, seaports, or logging areas with large numbers of single young men. Other drys were more cynical. They knew the state laws would not be enforced; however, their main concern was not to stop individual drinkers but the alcohol industry. By making the industry illegal, everyone connected to it could be made odious. This would force respectable people out of the liquor business.”
Eventually, the ASL concluded America was sufficiently arid to push for a national constitutional amendment. They directed their allies in Congress to hold a vote in 1914. They lost. But that was the point: they wanted the names of everyone who opposed them. After all, the group’s founder stated their mission: “the Anti-Saloon League is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.”
Figure 10. Not to be confused with the Anti-Salon League, which was formed for the purpose of opposing dying – an objective that often required clarification for cryogenic freezing enthusiasts seeking to join.
The ASL had certainly set the stage but they could not have achieved their goal without three events and the support of an unruly coalition. It’s easy to think in the modern era that Prohibition was imposed on America by conservatives but some of the earlier referenced positions of the WCTU – led by a Christian socialist – reveal the odd politics. Against the liquor lobby and its consumers were feminists suspicious of men drinking; nativists suspicious of immigrants drinking; racists suspicious of minorities drinking; rural voters suspicious of urban drinking; patriots suspicious of beer manufacturers; commercial interests that sought to benefit as substitutes to alcohol; prayerful Evangelical teetotalers convinced that alcohol was poisonous to the soul; and, new on the scene, Progressives convinced by contemporary science that alcohol was poisonous to the body and to society.
And yet Okrent calculates that the alcohol industry was America’s fifth largest in the lead up to Prohibition – and controlled or owned 70% of American saloons, themselves centers of political power in urban machines. The fight was bound to be brutal – in Tennessee, statewide Prohibition only passed after the leading dry, the editor of the Tennessean, was gunned down on the streets of Nashville.
Three events enabled Prohibition: women receiving the right to vote, the income tax, and America’s entry into World War I.
The funny thing about women earning the right to vote is that they voted fairly similarly to men on Prohibition but, because of temperance propaganda, were thought to be militantly for it. The alcohol industry was perhaps the largest opponent to women’s suffrage, pushing arguments like: “God pity our country when the handshake of the politician is more gratifying to woman’s heart than the patter of children’s feet.” With women’s suffrage imminent, politicians perceived a great wave of support for Prohibition and promptly voted for their own political survival. That women were not of one mind on politics would prove significant soon enough.
The second major event that prompted Prohibition was a constitutional amendment that allowed an income tax. Until the 20th century, America financed its government primarily through tariffs, land sales, and alcohol taxes. Alexander Hamilton thought the alcohol tax ideal, especially for the size of government he envisioned: Uncle Sam could get revenue from (and discourage) a popular unproductive activity roughly evenly distributed across states! In the lead up to Prohibition, up to 40% of federal government revenue (not to mention local revenue) came from alcohol taxes. Prohibitionists saw that number as an embarrassment – a testament to the tax’s ineffectiveness in suppressing alcohol consumption – but needed a revenue replacement. They successfully proposed an income tax, which had the dual political advantages of not only being concentrated on the rich but also geographically: in the first year, 44% of income tax revenue for the entire country came from New York. The tax issue, too, would soon prove significant.
Figure 11. Most Americans even today would probably be very comfortable giving about half of the burden of paying for the federal government to New York.
And what about World War I? There are some interesting smaller reasons: there were food shortages in Britain and France and so people reasonably thought foodstuffs should go to eaters rather than drinkers. Protestant congregations had set aside their theological differences to mobilize America for war and briefly kept united for Prohibition. But the main reason World War I mattered was an earlier decision by the brewers.
Most politicians did not want to be seen to be taking money directly from the liquor lobby so the industry decided to launder their money through a tangentially related cultural group with 2 million members. Unfortunately for them, it was the German-American Alliance, founded by Kaiser Wilhelm II. When America entered the war, it was suddenly scandalous to have ever taken money from them. But it wasn’t merely a laundering operation, Adolphus Busch, the leading brewer in the United States had personally “been decorated by the Kaiser,” had two sons-in-law in the German army, and owned a million dollars of German war bonds. His son “threw annual parties at his Missouri farm in honor of the Kaiser’s birthday” and his widow, vacationing in Germany when war broke out, decided to stick out the war there – and cared for German wounded at her villa. The liquor lobby, long internally divided and inherently controversial, was now under Congressional investigation and unpopularly associated with America’s enemies.
Figure 12. One disadvantage of winning the Cold War so soon is that the Soviet Union made a very appropriate endorser of big government.
So, when the Prohibition amendment came up again, times had changed. Even more popular than supporters realized, it sailed through Congress and passed through the necessary 36 states in less than 400 days. All but 2 states ended up supporting the amendment, and within the 46 supporting states, more than 80% of state legislators voted for it. Some context is notable here because legislative districts up until the 1960s were not of equal size – so “in New York, for example, the legislature was configured in such a fashion that an urban assemblyman might represent seven times as many people as the rural representative at the next desk.” But it was still a huge victory for the ASL, whose leader Wayne Wheeler frequently noted “God made the country but man made the city.”
The popularity for the concept overshadowed some thorny legal issues:
- Should the alcohol industry be compensated for their losses? No. Poison-peddlers were thought to be in the same category as slave-owners. But they were given a year to dispose of their goods.
- Would Prohibition empower the federal government at the expense of the states? Southerners were hypersensitive about this but mollified by language granting federal and state governments concurrent jurisdiction. But federalism would ultimately be a major contributor to Prohibition’s downfall
- Should consumption of alcohol be banned? Nope, though the Amendment banned the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating beverages. You could store and drink as much as you wanted – which the rich did, including the Yale Club, which ended up having enough to last the entire 14 year period of Prohibition.
- What beverages qualified as “intoxicating,” and therefore banned from commercial use? TBD. The ASL in particular embraced this ambiguity, leaving some people to believe only whiskey would be affected by the amendment. Stringent interpretation would ultimately undermine popular support.
And then there was the fact that the Constitution was primarily a document that limited government, not citizens. Were there any who opposed Prohibition because it took away freedom? Prominent Republican Elihu Root was one, saying that Prohibition “takes away the chief pleasure in life for millions of men who have never been trained to get their pleasure from art, or literature, or sports, or reform movements.” Yet his primary contribution was to argue before the Supreme Court, passionately but comically, that the new constitutional amendment was unconstitutional. He lost. And predictably, when the public rejoinder to his plea for pleasure came from Wayne Wheeler: “Did you ever hear of a man eating so much pie or cake or anything of that kind that he’d go home and shoot up the family?”
So, alcohol was banned! (More or less). Prohibition was the result of decades of concern and agitation about how the heavy consumption of alcohol had led to America’s problems, Evangelical social isolation of alcohol’s users and providers, and an especially adept lobbying organization in the ASL that mobilized a heterogenous coalition with perfect timing.
A new popular song typified the mood: “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife Until the Town Went Dry.” Now social ills could be cured, men could be good husbands again, and everyone could be a good American! And yet problems lay ahead as clear as vodka. More to come in my next email.
Figure 13. Click here to buy Prohibition: A Concise History by W.J. Rorabaugh. 10/10. I’m obligated to Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution for recommending these books and providing lots of interesting thoughts on the subject generally. Cowen says about this book: “Strongly recommended. If all books were like this, it would be hard for me to tear myself away from them.”
Figure 14. Click here to buy Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. It’s longer and thus includes more material, has some excellent turns of phrase, but isn’t quite as good.
Thanks for reading! You can find part 2 of this series, about how Prohibition ended, here: Dry Humor. If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!