America’s Long Hangover

America’s Long Hangover

How did Prohibition turn into a law-enforcement extravaganza?


In October 1931, union men in Newark, New Jersey, staged a protest march. During the previous two years, the United States had tumbled into economic depression, with the unemployment rate rising as the stock market sank. Industrial jobs were especially devastated, leading to dozens of unemployment rallies and anti-eviction protests across the country. But the Newark men took no interest in that. Instead, with their ranks stretching for block after block, they held up signs proclaiming their top political priority: We Want Beer. What they cared about, ardently and urgently, was bringing an end to the disastrous national experiment known as Prohibition.

In The War on Alcohol, Harvard historian Lisa McGirr seeks to explain this political passion: Why, at the height of the Great Depression, did so many Americans care so much about beer? The answer requires a sober look at Prohibition not as a quaint episode of moral overreach, but as a near-impossible challenge of governance and one of the most fiercely fought political contests of its day. McGirr shifts our attention from gangsters and flappers to policemen and agency chiefs in order to explain the critical role of Prohibition in the creation of the modern American state. Histories of temperance often stop in 1919, with the unlikely passage of the 18th Amendment. McGirr picks up where those stories leave off, exploring the daunting political problems and personal casualties that came with trying to enforce this strange new law.

With her emphasis on the American “state,” McGirr steps into what has become one of the most fruitful, if sprawling, areas of inquiry in academic political history. Half a century ago, political historians tended to write about the so-called great men: presidents, statesmen, legislators, and the like. Today, prodded by sociologists such as Theda Skocpol, they more often explore the “state,” shorthand for what is described outside of academia as the “government.” The word “state” has always been an awkward fit in the US context; for most Americans, it conjures up images of Connecticut or California rather than the Social Security Administration. Historians have nonetheless embraced the term, producing a spate of recent books like Warfare State, The Straight State, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, and Debating the American State. As academic shorthand, the word signals a set of concerns beyond elections and lawmaking, focusing instead on the grand structures and dark corners of government administration.

McGirr makes two main contributions to this debate. First, she notes that many studies of the American state have focused on the peculiarities of the country’s social-welfare system, with its odd blend of private and public insurance. By that standard, the 1920s seem to be a period when nothing much happened; “Wobbly Warren” Har­ding and “Silent Cal” Coolidge kept the shop running (more or less), but without the big ideas of the Progressive Era or the New Deal. McGirr shifts the focus from social reform and welfare legislation to the police, prisons, and courts—areas in which the 1920s were a period of tremendous government experimentation, energy, and growth.

This leads to McGirr’s second major insight: To understand the “American state,” she argues, one has to consider not just its social-welfare system, but also its vast security apparatus. If temperance had been a moral crusade, Prohibition itself turned out to be a law-enforcement extravaganza, in which the police, politicians, and judges had to figure out how to force people to obey a law that they didn’t much like. In the end, most Americans concluded that highly coercive policing, a massive administrative apparatus, and a hefty tax burden were too high a price to pay for slightly healthier livers and supposedly cleaner, more godly behavior. It was this mismatch between moral strictures and state structures that produced the great disaster of Prohibition.

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How did such a strange and punishing idea become a constitutional amendment in the first place? As McGirr notes, many European countries enacted some form of alcohol restriction in the early 20th century, hoping to contain urban disorder and crime. Only the United States took the extreme measure of banning the sale as well as the consumption of almost all forms of alcohol by almost everyone in the nation. The usual culprits in this saga—Victorian women and evangelical Christians—have not fared well in popular culture, depicted as prim moralizers hell-bent on stopping other people from having a good time. McGirr notes, by way of fairness, that alcoholism was a genuine social problem in the early 20th century, when consumption rates—especially of hard liquor—were considerably higher than they are today. Heavy drinking contributed to domestic violence, addiction, and early death, as well as the impoverishment of women and children dependent on undependable breadwinners.

The broader social and economic system behind the so-called liquor trade presented its own set of problems. In many Northeastern cities, particularly in immigrant neighborhoods, the all-male saloon housed the ward’s political machine, lubricated by the frequent exchange of alcohol for votes. Reformers who objected to these corrupt practices often worried even more about what the saloon symbolized: the rising power of Catholic immigrants, the urbanization of American society, the potential for working-class revolt. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, saw nothing less than racial self-preservation in the struggle against alcohol. “I believe that alcoholism threatens the destruction of the white race…because it promotes disease and degeneracy,” he declared. Far from being the exclusive domain of prim Midwestern ladies, Prohibition attracted champions from across the political spectrum, including the progressive feminist Jane Addams as well as the teetotaling industrialist John D. Rockefeller.

As with many Progressive Era reforms, the temperance movement’s first victories occurred at the state and local level. By 1910, McGirr notes, half of all Americans were already subject to some form of liquor prohibition. But the Progressive Era was also the great age of the constitutional amendment; in the six years before Prohibition, the country approved women’s suffrage, the income tax, and the direct election of senators. One amendment’s success often contributed to the next: By providing the federal government with a new source of revenue, the income tax assuaged fears about losing the hefty liquor tax and thereby eliminated one of the chief arguments against Prohibition.

Even then, however, there was no guarantee of success. In 1914, Texas Senator Morris Sheppard introduced a constitutional amendment prohibiting alcohol—and nothing much happened. It wasn’t until three years later, when the United States entered World War I, that Prohibition gained momentum. Wartime rhetoric lent itself to moral absolutes; it also fomented an anti-German sentiment that seriously damaged the image of the brewing industry. Most of all, Prohibition came to seem like smart wartime policy, a way to ensure that both soldiers and laborers—including in the arms industry—showed up for work sober. In late 1919, the final states passed the 18th Amendment, and Congress scrambled to follow up with the Volstead Act, which transformed the amendment into a workable law. At midnight on January 16, 1920, after a last mournful popping of champagne corks, federal Prohibition began.

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In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the new law was doomed from the start—a colossal mismatch between human desire and government policy. As McGirr notes, however, this wasn’t at all clear in 1920. With the new law in place, many Americans stopped drinking. (Whatever its other consequences, Prohibition did decrease the consumption of alcohol.) Almost immediately, Congress authorized the creation of a new Prohibition Bureau within the Treasury Department, which hired some 1,500 agents as a start. Local police departments also began shifting their resources into liquor enforcement and training officers to ferret out this new type of crime.

The problem, of course, was that millions of Americans had no intention of cooperating with the law or giving up the pleasures of drink. McGirr recounts in devastating detail the human consequences of transforming a legal, widely available substance into illegal contraband. Large brewing and liquor companies went out of business, forced to fire their employees and sell their equipment. A host of illegal, unregulated, clandestine businesses sprang up to take their place, from mom-and-pop stills to elaborate organized-crime networks. Many of these new entrepreneurs cooked up “liquor” by stripping industrial alcohol of its toxins, but the process was often imperfect. The rates of poisoning and overdose skyrocketed, sometimes with gruesome effect. McGirr writes of one bootleg cocktail known as Jake Ginger, which in the wrong dose caused nerve damage and worse. “Affected drinkers lost muscle control or feeling in their legs or limped, dragging their feet,” she writes, an affliction immortalized in songs like “Jake Walk Papa” and “Jake Leg Blues.” In New York City alone, 60 people died of wood-alcohol poisoning in 1928, while others suffered blindness or permanent paralysis.

Less devastating but still consequential were the ways in which Prohibition transformed the social landscape of American cities. The urban saloon—that bête noire of progressive reformers—disappeared in 1920. Many luxury hotels went out of business as well, deprived of the liquor sales that had kept them in the black. In the first four years of Prohibition, New York City lost several landmark establishments, including the famed Knickerbocker Hotel. Other formerly respectable restaurateurs continued to serve alcohol but devised elaborate new stratagems—hidden rooms, secret client lists, small but frequent deliveries—to minimize their risk of fines and jail time. Out of this shift rose the fabled speakeasy culture of the 1920s, with its race-mixing and gender-bending, its jazz riffs and uptown style. While McGirr gestures toward this supposedly glamorous scene, she also pays attention to the waiters, cigarette girls, and front-door lookouts who risked their personal safety to service the new trade.

Her main interest, though, is the effect of Prohibition on American government—the winners and losers in the political contest over alcohol. At the federal level, the Treasury Department initially appeared to be the prime beneficiary, allotted millions of dollars in appropriations. And yet the dismal task of enforcement exposed agents to all manner of new threats and dangers. While the occasional straitlaced lawman like Eliot Ness made his name as a scourge of gangsters and rumrunners, most ordinary Prohibition agents found themselves denounced as thugs and cheats, risking their lives for an uncertain cause.

The urban bloodbath that took place in those years remains well-known; at least part of the Chicago tourist trade still survives on timeworn stories of Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Less widely understood is the outsize violence that both federal and local agents inflicted on poor people, especially African Americans, in the name of preserving the nation’s sobriety and virtue. McGirr recounts several graphic episodes of law-enforcement violence, including a raid outside Richmond, Virginia, in which police shot and killed a black man and his wife over a quart of whiskey. She also documents the severe punishments often meted out to low-level offenders, including spending months in prison or on a chain gang for possession of a few sips of alcohol.

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It is in such stories that the true absurdity of Prohibition hits home, reminding us that the war on alcohol was neither a high-minded crusade nor a glamorous spectacle, but rather a national experiment in brutality, abuse of authority, and state violence. Many Americans had reached a similar conclusion by the late 1920s, when a reinvigorated anti-Prohibition movement began to mobilize to compel the law’s repeal. Some of this movement’s supporters had always been “wets,” urbanites who scoffed at rural America’s rigid moralizing. Others, including John D. Rockefeller, had become converts to the cause, willing to admit they’d misjudged the situation and that the national well-being required a change of course. Franklin Roosevelt complied in March 1933, when he signed a “beer bill” as one of his first acts in office. The 21st Amendment—­the only constitutional amendment ever to reverse an earlier amendment—went into effect by the end of the year.

The great fact of repeal helps to explain why the role of the state during the Prohibition era has never attracted much interest within American political history; from a distance, the whole effort just seems silly, and in any case the nation righted itself by getting tipsy again and moving on. McGirr argues that this notion is much too simple, that Prohibition yielded deep and lasting consequences for the entire nation. The law-enforcement methods forged in the Prohibition era would gain a new lease on life in the budding War on Drugs, which was launched to less fanfare during the same era. Harry Anslinger, appointed to run the new federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, had gotten his start at the Prohibition Bureau. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he adopted many of the same approaches, insisting that addiction and drug trafficking could best be contained through law-enforcement strategies instead of antipoverty or public-health programs.

For Prohibition’s victims, those men and women whose lives had been damaged or disrupted by the government’s 13-year war on alcohol, there was no going back: Dead men didn’t rise from their graves, Jake Ginger victims couldn’t walk again, hotels didn’t reopen. Nor did social mores revert to their prewar state. To the contrary, the café society of the 1930s brought speakeasy culture out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

Most of all, Prohibition forever changed the ways that Americans viewed the federal government—though, McGirr argues, not necessarily in the ways that one might expect. It would seem axiomatic that the federal-enforcement debacle would produce disillusionment, a commitment never to use federal power again in such invasive ways. McGirr argues, however, that it also produced a new willingness to think creatively about federal intervention, and to bring federal policy to bear on social issues once seen as the province of local authorities. “Prohibition marked the birth of a qualitatively new and enduring role of the federal state in crime control,” she writes. “For the first time, crime became a national problem, and a national obsession.”

As evidence for this claim, McGirr cites Herbert Hoover’s creation of a federal crime commission in the early 1930s, assigned to study the problem and recommend government solutions. Though the commission made limited progress on Prohibition, it produced a wide-ranging study of crime and policing, previously considered to be exclusively local issues. This, in turn, set the stage for dramatic federal action during the Roosevelt years, when crimes like kidnapping and bank robbery were federalized for the first time, and when J. Edgar Hoover’s newly empowered Federal Bureau of Investigation emerged as a national sensation.

In the end, McGirr isn’t simply interested in the past; she also wants to know what the war on alcohol can tell us about our own era’s War on Drugs, although she cautions against easy parallels. The war on alcohol restricted a widely available substance with deep resonance in human culture, a fixture of baptisms and weddings and ritual feasts as well as neighborhood bars and domestic day-to-day life. Narcotics and other illegal drugs have never possessed that sort of cultural or social legitimacy, nor—despite widespread use—have they ever been accepted as a routine part of daily existence. Perhaps as a result, to many white, middle-class Americans, the War on Drugs has often seemed liked something that happened to somebody else: addicts, dealers, poor people, African Americans.

The basic questions, though, are not so different: How much policing is too much, even in the name of sobriety? Are the costs—in terms of lives lost or destroyed, or tax revenue diverted from other causes—worth the benefits? Do law-enforcement approaches truly make sense, or are there better models for addressing addiction and crime? Is it possible to step back and admit that the country may have made a colossal mistake?

McGirr doesn’t promise that the story of Prohibition holds all of the answers, but she does believe that it offers a prod to rethink our own conventional wisdom. “While no simple repeal will be enough to light the way out of our current quagmire in the war against narcotic drugs and the crisis of imprisonment ongoing today,” she concludes, “a renewed challenge to the punitive ethos animating all of America’s narcotic wars will be an important battleground.”

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