Most popular accounts of Prohibition focus on its sensational aspects: bootleggers and lawmen; flappers, speakeasies and jazz. But the buyers and sellers of bathtub gin were only colorful bit players in a much larger struggle.
In The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (W.W. Norton, 255 pages, $28), Lisa McGirr, a professor of history at Harvard University, digs deep into the social, economic and political forces that lined up on opposite sides of the alcohol question. These forces long preceded the passage of the 18th Amendment, in 1919, and the shifting alliances and unintended consequences of Prohibition played out long after repeal in 1933.
Alcohol consumption in the United States increased steadily through the 19th century and, in reaction, movements rose up to advocate temperance. In the U.S., temperance societies were largely religion-based, especially within what McGirr calls "powerful currents of evangelical Protestant perfectionism." For these crusaders, "a pledge to abstinence smoothed the path toward salvation."
The church was pitted against the saloon, but other, less spiritual, factors also came into play. Saloons were not only un-godly, they catered to immigrants and the underclass, fostered political agitation and crime, and harmed productivity in the factories and the mines.
As McGirr puts it, "Mass poverty, market disorder, crime and vast inequalities of wealth accompanied the nation's transformation into an industrial powerhouse." Prohibition "was the quintessential reform of a white Protestant evangelical and largely Anglo-Saxon middle class who found their traditional mores and powers under assault in the rapidly paced world of unbridled American capitalism."
McGirr details how the enforcement of Prohibition led to a dramatic expansion of federal power, and how that power (amplified by citizen militias such as the Ku Klux Klan) was applied predominantly to immigrants in northern cities, blacks in the south and, in the concomitant war on drugs, to Mexicans and Chinese in the west and southwest.
In response, these populations, largely excluded from the political process, began coalescing in support of a Democratic party willing to back repeal. This fundamental realignment of the national political landscape led to Franklin D. Roosevelt's landslide victory in the presidential election of 1932 and the legal end of Prohibition in 1933. But growing government power was not rolled back; instead, it was retooled to serve the New Deal's ambitious reach into every aspect of American life.
In McGirr's larger view, alcohol was in many ways a token, a proxy for profound conflicts over how American society should be organized. She points out that the "war on drugs" is being fought on many of the same battlegrounds. She shows how the fault lines changed, as particular interest groups found themselves now one side, now on the other, and how the major political parties negotiated these issues, with more or less success.
McGirr's book, which I strongly recommend, is deeply researched, heavily footnoted and academic in its language and argument. Readers looking for a more accessible account can turn to Daniel Okrent's excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which illuminates many of the same issues.
I'm writing these words with a glass of wine at hand, grateful that the "Great Experiment" was long ago abandoned. But the forces mobilized by the war on alcohol are still engaged in mighty struggles across the national landscape. McGirr helps us to understand them and, perhaps, to make better decisions as we move forward.