May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
The voice down at the other end of the table was edged with irritation. “Damn it, Prohibition was a failure too. You’d think we’d have learned something by now!” Then my friend turned to the dinner party’s in-house historian. “Right, Bernie?”
“Sure” was my quick answer. Like most quick answers, it was too easy.
We were speaking of the drug “war.” As the 1990s began, people involved in some way with narcotics dominated the lurid headlines, and a small but growing number of spokesmen were for some form of drug legalization. It was these last who had raised the decibel level. In essence some guests believed that the “legalizers” were willing, as a cheap fix, to sell out the poor to addiction, while others—including my friend who had appealed to the court of history—contended that the “prohibitionists” ignored the sordid record of our thirteen-year effort to stamp out alcohol.
It was a good time to raise the issue. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of Prohibition’s beginning. The Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States, was ratified in January of 1919. The Volstead Act, the enforcing legislation, took effect a year later. Was it, in fact, a useless exercise?
My memory held a montage of true and fictional scenes from histories and novels, and movies set in the Roaring Twenties: speakeasies running round the clock; Al Capone and Johnny Torrio, Dutch Schultz and Little Caesar gunning each other down from black sedans; hip flasks at the prom; Gatsby’s guests whooping it up in West Egg. Familiar stuff, all of it suggesting one universal, uninterrupted law-breaking orgy.
But when I checked recent historical work on Prohibition, I learned that my automatic response had been as glib as most of the things we hear, read, and say about the complex issues surrounding the social control of addictive behavior. For example, in Drinking in America (first published in 1982 and revised in 1987), Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, after a careful and balanced review of studies made during and since Prohibition, note that Prohibition did reduce drinking. The average annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol by Americans of drinking age—that is, the total alcoholic content of all the beer, wine, and distilled spirits they consumed—stood at 2.60 gallons in the period from 1906 to 1910. It began to drop in the next decade due to state prohibition laws and wartime grain-saving restrictions on brewing and distilling. When statistics were kept again after legal consumption was resumed, the numbers were 0.97 in 1934, 1.20 in 1935, and an average of 1.54 for the period 1936 to 1941. (Pre-1914 levels weren’t reached again, in fact, until 1971.)
In addition, Census Bureau studies showed that the death rate from chronic or acute alcoholism fell from 7.3 per 100,000 in 1907 to 1.6 in 1919, surged to 4.0 in 1927, but was back down to 2.5 in 1932, Prohibition’s last full year. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, one cause of which is alcohol abuse, dropped from 14.8 per 100,000 in 1907 to 7.1 in 1920 and never rose above 7.5 during the 1920s. Economic studies estimated that savings and spending on household necessities increased among working-class families during the period, possibly from money that once went to drink. And Norman H. Clark’s fine 1976 “interpretation” of the Prohibition era, Deliver Us from Evil , cites impressive evidence that during the early years of Prohibition arrests for drunkenness and crimes committed while drunk fell off sharply.
Clark and Lender and Martin in their books drew on a key article by John C. Burnham in the Journal of Social History in 1968 titled “New Perspectives on the Prohibition ‘Experiment’ of the 1920s.” Drinking might have been cut back even further if more resources had been devoted to enforcement. In 1922 Congress gave the Prohibition Bureau only $6.75 million for a force of 3,060 employees (including clerical workers) to hunt for bootleggers, moonshiners, and rum runners in thousands of urban neighborhoods, remote hollows, border crossings, and coastal inlets. State legislatures were equally sparing; in 1926 state legislatures all together spent $698,855 for Prohibition work, approximately one-eighth of what they laid out on enforcing their fish-and-game laws. Even so, by 1929 the feds alone had arrested more then half a million violators.
Clark lists several legends about the Prohibition era that current historical understanding would challenge or at least modify. The Eighteenth Amendment was not sneaked into existence by bluenosed country Bible pounders while “the boys” were overseas in World War I. Twenty-three states had some form of statewide or local-option “dryness” by 1916, the result of a decades-long temperance campaign that enlisted plenty of progressive urbanites who thought that the liquor traffic was as great a threat to public health as the sweatshop or the tenement— though not all of them expected a total ban on every form of alcoholic drink. Businessmen, too, rallied to a cause that promised a clear-eyed and efficient work force.
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.
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.