Dry Rot

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition BY Daniel Okrent. Scribner. Hardcover, 480 pages. $30.

The cover of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

In an age when the US Senate was plunged into near paralysis over an anemic simulacrum of health-care reform, it seems unthinkable that Congress could have ever rushed headlong into the folly of amending the Constitution to outlaw drinking. But as Daniel Okrent reminds us in Last Call, his richly detailed reconstruction of Prohibition’s thirteen-year reign, what seems in retrospect like a foolishly giddy union of Protestant moralism and the federal state was actually the culmination of generations’ worth of reformist zeal.

Unlike the many chroniclers who affect bemusement in revisiting the Prohibition fiasco, Okrent—the former public editor of the New York Times—highlights the numerous ways that prohibitionism entwined with the early twentieth century’s irrepressible climate of reform. The temperance movement shared the evangelical heritage that spurred such moral crusades as abolitionism and woman suffrage. Indeed, abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass were earnest temperance supporters, and first-wave feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton initially yoked their careers to the temperance cause. The temperance enthusiasts’ incorrigible appetite for public betterment was best summed up in the famed slogan of Frances Willard, the revered nineteenth-century founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union: “Do everything.”

Still, it’s one thing to buzz around the Chautauqua circuit dramatizing the horrors of demon rum—including, but scarcely limited to, worker penury, papal conspiracy, urban political corruption, white slavery, and domestic violence. It’s another thing entirely to mobilize the machinery of the Constitution to micromanage the behavior of individual citizens. As Okrent notes, apart from the three ratifications arising from the crisis of the Civil War, the Constitution “had been amended exactly twice in the preceding 118 years.”

But prohibitionists in the first decades of the twentieth century knew that they had the political winds at their backs. After all, those two fresh amendments—instituting a federal income tax and mandating the direct election of US senators—had been the handiwork of their allies in the Progressive movement. What’s more, the income tax helped meet a principal objection to outlawing alcohol: that doing so would deprive the Treasury of a critical source of tax revenue. And the Progressive reformers’ culturally inflected moral crusades intersected with the dry agenda: the surge in women’s political activism (which would produce the amendment enacting woman suffrage the year following the Eighteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1920), the anxiety over the “Americanization” of poor and working-class immigrants from the Catholic and Jewish stretches of southern and eastern Europe, the eager solicitude of southern and midwestern lawmakers to impose small-town moral probity on sprawling, corrupt, and gin-soaked urban political machines.

Still, as Okrent observes, the greatest gift to the dry cause was an inadvertent one: American entry into World War I. The last wave of nineteenth-century urban immigrants brought with them a fierce taste for beer, and the majority of the large American breweries—Busch and Pabst are the best known—shared a deep German pedigree. The German-American Alliance (GAA), an ostensible advocacy group for America’s German community, all but doubled as a brewers’ front group. As anti-German war hatreds raged, Wayne Wheeler, the influential and politically savvy head of the Anti-Saloon League, connected the dots on behalf of lawmakers engaged in the promotion of American virtue on the fields of military and cultural combat. “By 1917,” Okrent writes, “the GAA had been identified by Wheeler as an organization whose ‘leaders urge its members to vote only for those who stand for Germanism and oppose Prohibition.’ ‘Germanism’ meant anti-Americanism, and by Wheeler’s conflation, it also meant ‘wet.’” Within months, the once-outlandish idea of a federal ban on alcohol was made to seem a patriotic duty. And when the legislation endorsing the amendment left Congress—which disingenuously pawned it off on state legislatures as a matter of “submission,” i.e., a neutral measure simply enabling state legislatures to vote on the dry question—the rural majorities in most state bodies made short work of the amendment, hitting the required three-fourths majority early in 1919, courtesy of a 98–0 aye vote in Nebraska’s lower house.

Prohibition went into effect a full year after its ratification, so as to allow distilleries and breweries to demobilize into dry economic enterprises, and a veritable cavalcade of unintended consequences ensued. Loopholes pocked the Volstead Act, the legislation enacting the protocols of Prohibition’s enforcement, to keep the disparate elements of the dry coalition appeased. “Concurrent enforcement,” the ceding of much of Prohibition’s legal authority to state and local jurisdictions, was a sop to states rights southerners and spread the graft that accompanied bootlegging widely across the parochial heartland. A provision permitting the domestic manufacture of hard cider—another gift to the rural constituencies in the dry ranks—midwifed a boom in all manner of fruit-based household bootlegging, prompting California’s grape-rich Napa Valley to convert to the easily shipped, potently fermentable alicante grape. These dark red bunches made “truly lousy wine,” Okrent observes, but nevertheless helped bring the drink, which had to that point been the preferred quaff of rich socialites and poor immigrants from southern Europe, into the American mainstream: “In 1917, when wine was legal, Americans consumed 70 million gallons—imported, domestic, and homemade. By 1925 Americans were drinking 150 million gallons of just the homemade stuff, all of it also legal in its own peculiar way.”

Most infamously, Prohibition also mainstreamed hypocrisy and criminality. The moral irony came courtesy of dry politicians and exhorters ensnared by Volstead-enforcing cops while toting pungent and leaking baggage home from trips abroad—episodes gleefully exploited by the mainly wet major metropolitan press. It must be allowed, though, that the era’s most celebrated such case issued through Washington’s law-and-lobbying revolving door: Mabel Willebrandt, the vigilantly dry Kansan attorney who spearheaded the Justice Department’s Volstead prosecutions, turned up as a private-sector counsel to Fruit Industries, a firm best known for marketing a barely legal home-winemaking kit called Vine-Glo.

Popular lore has mythologized Prohibition’s criminal element, mobsters such as Al Capone and Frank Costello. But the attention paid to these colorful and murderous figures distorts the accomplishments of the era’s true bootlegging visionaries. Consider the Chicago-based lawyer George Remus, a teetotaler who nonetheless appreciated the many chances that Prohibition presented to an investor with imagination. He set about acquiring Volstead-shuttered distilleries around Cincinnati, home to 80 percent of America’s bonded-whiskey inventory. These were legal acquisitions, so long as the amber liquid didn’t circulate beyond the medicinal market that the act carved out for distilled spirits. Remus, who had also worked as a pharmacist, bought a Kentucky-based pharmaceutical concern to abet the distribution of his inventories. And then the kicker: “The drug company’s trucks were hijacked by Remus’s own employees, a brilliant stratagem that diverted all that liquid medicine into the bootleg market—a bootleg market that differed from the drugstore market in two financially appealing ways: fewer middle-men, no taxes.”

On the debit side of his ledger, though: lots and lots of bribes—to sheriffs, cops, city political fixers, and the federal “gaugers” hired to monitor his home distilleries. Eventually, he landed in a white-collar federal penitentiary in Georgia, known as Millionaire’s Row, and offered this appraisal of his Promethean ambitions: “A few men have tried to corner the wheat market, only to find there is too much wheat in the world. . . . I tried to corner the graft market, but I learned there isn’t enough money in the world to buy up all the public officials who demand a share.”

A fitting epitaph, that, for the federal government’s most celebrated dalliance with mass moral improvement. In his painstaking chronicle of the ironies and pratfalls of prohibitionism, Okrent wisely stops short of interpreting the legacy of the Volstead experiment as the jolly Menckenite punch line it has become in popular memory. The Great Depression galvanized the case for repeal in much the same manner that the Great War had turned Prohibition into a fait accompli—making the whole dry crusade seem frivolous by comparison, and the tax revenues from a legitimate booze trade well nigh indispensable—and thereby foreshortened our sense of how the Eighteenth Amendment reshaped America’s social fabric and political traditions. As Okrent notes, the thirteen-year reign of the drys helped “provoke the establishment of the first nationwide criminal syndicate, the idea of home dinner parties, the deep engagement of women in political issues other than suffrage, and the creation of Las Vegas.” Prohibition’s bumpy course through the legislature and judiciary “would force the rewriting of the fundamental contract between citizen and government . . . and initiate a historic realignment of political parties.” Surely that calls for a toast, no?

Chris Lehmann, an editor of Bookforum, is writing a book about the American money culture. He takes his bourbon on the rocks.