The War on Alcohol; Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.

The War on Alcohol; Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr. W.W. Norton, 2016.

Lisa McGirr reminds us that the Eighteenth Amendment which prohibited the manufacture, distribution, or sale of alcoholic beverages was the only amendment that took away, rather than upheld a right. It sailed through Congress in January 1919 and was quickly approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The Volstead Act, a year later, provided the administrative apparatus to support enforcement and funding.


The deleterious impact of alcohol on public and private life was one of an array of public anxieties in the early years of the last century. Others: the massive growth of industrial capitalism that was transforming the U.S. economy, fear of the resulting volatile proletariat, apprehensions about large numbers of recent European immigrants, and Southern blacks and poor whites crowding into northern cities. Given all these worries it is difficult to explain why the public focused on the proletarian culture of the saloon and the liquor trade. The easy passage of a constitutional amendment, McGirr suggests, and its repeal in 1933 only fourteen years later with much the same enthusiasm, needs explaining.


It must be remembered that the anti-liquor crusade was nothing new to the Country. Individuals and groups had been advocating prohibition for decades. The best known were the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and several of the prominent religious congregations, though not the Roman Catholics. Most of the immigrants to the US in the early decades of the twentieth century were from Southern and Eastern Europe and were Catholic. And they brought with them their fondness for socializing in saloons.


The U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917 may have been the tipping point. We required a disciplined fighting force, and alcohol consumption was considered inimical to that need. It was also true that the beer industry was dominated by German-Americans.


It is also important to remember that Prohibition was part of a more general concern about recreational narcotics. The dispute over the regulation of alcohol resembles the current division in this country about suppressing narcotics – our war on drugs.


And like the present-day war on drugs, enforcement of the Volstead Act and the many state laws was “selective.” And this eventually soured public opinion. Federal and state agents seemed to concentrate on working-class neighborhoods. True, many of the individuals who took part in the illegal trade were working-class. McGirr talks about “kitchen table” drinkers, who would buy and consume alcohol in their homes where they brewed or distilled spirits. Or in speakeasies in poorer neighborhoods. Less bothered by enforcement were those who patronized more elegant drinking establishments and night clubs where they would purchase both liquor and entertainment. The illicit trade in alcohol supported many ragtime and jazz musicians.


Once in a while the federal agents would make some sensational bust, which would be covered by the press. The Bureau of Prohibition gained a reputation for its strong-arm tactics. Like many a banned activity, the illicit liquor trade attracted a criminal element, and they frequently fought amongst themselves and with the “G-men” over turf. All sides became armed; the machine gun was introduced into law enforcement. The resulting carnage produced some memorable photojournalism.


The Bureau claimed that there was never enough money available to support Prohibition. So it invited the public to help with enforcement. Sheriffs would deputize locals. McGirr discusses the substantial involvement of the revitalized Ku Klux Klan in the enforcement of Prohibition. She claims that Prohibition, and the violence surrounding its enforcement, contributed to the KKK’s rebirth in the twentieth century. The African-American leadership wondered why so much energy was devoted to the suppression of recreational drinking amongst blacks, but not to suppressing lynching.


During the 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover appointed a committee to look into the shocking rise in criminal activity in the country and what should be the appropriate federal response. The eleven-member Wickersham Commission focused on Prohibition enforcement. It was critical of the resulting “penal state.” It found little support for the continuation of Prohibition from those who testified at the Committee’s hearings.


President Hoover, on the other hand, advocated more enforcement, more prisons, getting tougher on crime, a more efficient judicial system, and better surveillance methods. Al Smith his opponent in the 1928 campaign was openly “wet.” Hoover won in a landslide getting 58.2% of the votes. McGirr claims, nevertheless, that the ‘28 election closed one political era and opened another. The industrial working class left the Republican Party, in part over the Prohibition issue.


The Amendment was repealed and the Volstead Act Amended in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. The nation now had the sobering “Great Depression” to think about. Though much of the elaborate legislation enacted by the states remained and remains on the books. McGirr claims that the U.S. war on alcohol in the early part of the twentieth century also built the foundations of the penal state which flourishes in our new century.




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