Reflections On The Dry Season

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In any case, the Congress that proposed the amendment was elected in 1916, as were most of the ratifying state legislatures. Prohibition did not simply replace the genial neighborhood saloon, the “poor man’s club,” with the tainted speakeasy. Thousands of saloons (owned by absentee breweries) were reeking dives where whores, cardsharps, and hustlers separated workingmen from their pitiful paychecks. True, the Anti-Saloon League ran a lobbying campaign as slanted and powerful as any conducted by a 1990s single-issue pressure group, but not entirely without substance.

Nor is it true that Prohibition created big-city criminal organizations. In Chicago, for example, the celebrated bootlegging gangs had already established a base in prostitution and gambling. Prohibition simply gave them new markets, and the automobile and the telephone enabled them to extend their sphere of business operations— much as the jet plane and electronic fund transfers have helped to internationalize today’s drug trade.

Why, then, was Prohibition abandoned with such relative swiftness? Partly, of course, because it did contribute to hypocrisy, graft, and disrespect for law. In good part, too, because the strongly dry consensus of 1910-20 began quickly to unravel. Lender and Martin point out that the temperance appeal rested on an old, small- r “republican” ideal (they call it “neorepublican”) of a well-led, sober, virtuous, and self-denying American commonwealth simultaneously pursuing social justice and personal salvation. That was hard to reconcile with the new age of advertisements, installment-plan buying, popular Freudianism, the culture of Hollywood, the freedom of the highway, and the literary emphasis on individual liberation and fulfillment. Clark suggests that temperance, like other “family” virtues, had been sold first as a counterbalance to the disorder of the frontier, then of the booming and strife-torn Babel that was the new industrial town. Now both were giving way to order, so individuality in every sense was more affordable. It would greatly oversimplify these interpretations to say that the twenties was the first “me” decade, but that suggests their drift.

So many of us who discuss the drug question carry the stigmata of our combined frontier and evangelical heritage.

While such views are arguable, few scholars disagree that the coup de grace for Prohibition was the Depression. The electorate had other things on its collective mind—and the promise of jobs and tax revenues from a revived distilling industry was too good to resist. Americans simply decided in 1933 that tolerating some alcohol abuse was easier to square with our actual values and behavior than trying to eradicate the habit entirely. As a recent footnote, a 1989 clipping from my files reports that hard drinking has fallen off as a new temperance, based on health and fitness concerns, overspreads the land.

Does this record, then, make a clear historical case for either strengthening or repealing our drug laws? Hardly. Different era. different substances, a different population—the argument by analogy would be not only unfruitful but plain dumb in this case. And yet— yet—I personally discover one lesson in the text. Both Prohibition and Repeal were heavily oversold. Temperance in speech was as rare as any disposition to compromise between hardline “dry” and “wet” partisans. A Presbyterian man of God insisted that the Volstead Act should be enforced “if every street in America had to run with blood.” By contrast, in 1932 a representative supporting a pro-Repeal measure said: “Pass this resolution and depression will fade away like the mists before the noonday sun.” And even an ordinarily prudent businessman like Pierre S. du Pont predicted that a liquor tax “would be sufficient to pay off the entire debt of the United States . . . in a little less than fifteen years.”

All those who debate Prohibition and Repeal —like so many of us discussing the drug question here and now—carried the stigmata of our combined frontier and evangelical heritage. The town can be cleaned up in a single shootout. The sinner can be redeemed in one white-hot blast of grace. There is always an instant solution, after which we can go back to Eden or onward to Utopia.

It is strange. Politically we are a world-admired example of pluralism and compromise at work. But let a moral issue enter the ongoing dialogue of democracy, and absolutism rages and howls and, in the end, settles nothing. I will confidently make one prediction. Whatever we do or don’t do legislatively about drugs, when the seventieth anniversary of Repeal comes around in 2003, some people will still be using and abusing some addictive substances. Perhaps by then we’ll have found a way of dealing with them that is widely accepted, tolerant, democratic, and efficient and does no more harm than the evils it addresses. But don’t bet on it.