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National Research Council (US) Panel on Alternative Policies Affecting the Prevention of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; Moore MH, Gerstein DR, editors. Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1981.

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Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition.

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Temperance and Prohibition in America: A Historical Overview



In a recent book review about marijuana, Albert Goldman (1979, p. 250) wrote:

The only controls should be those that are imposed to protect the public from bogus or polluted merchandise. With the dreadful example of Prohibition before us, it seems nearly unthinkable that we should have done it again: taken some basic human craving and perverted it into a vast system of organized crime and social corruption. When will we learn that in a democracy it is for the people to tell the government, not for the government to tell the people, what makes them happy?

This “dreadful example” is now so firmly established that it has become a maxim of popular culture, a paradigm of bad social policy, and a ritual invocation of opponents of a variety of sumptuary laws. The record of the 18th Amendment often has been read by libertarians as a morality tale. Detached and abstracted from their historically specific contexts and presented as a single crusade around which cranks and fanatics have clustered for 150 years, temperance and prohibition have been portrayed as touchstones of bigotry. The lineage of reaction is traced straight from sin-obsessed Puritans, to evangelical extremists and Know-Nothings, to nativists and Klansmen, and most recently to McCarthyites and antiabortionists.

The record of efforts to restrict drinking is, of course, far too complicated to warrant such axiomatic disparagement. But despite important, recent scholarship, and scientific validation of arguments once ridiculed, claims established by dint of repetition have achieved a kind of incantatory truth and ultimately have been enshrined as pieces of political folk wisdom (Warner and Rossett 1975).1

During the 1920s, partisan tracts featured titles like Prohibition Versus Civilization: Analyzing the Dry Psychosis and The Prohibition Mania: A Reply to Professor Irving Fisher and Others (Darrow and Yarros 1927, Barnes 1932).2 Repeal institutionalized this propaganda and established an ideological legacy that historians came to inherit long after the battles had ended and the moral climate had cooled. As the antiliquor movement disappeared from the nation's political agenda, it also withered as a subject for research and study, not to reappear again until the early 1960s. Two books, Prohibition: The Era of Excess and Symbolic Cru sade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement, made important contributions to this recovery.

In Prohibition: The Era of Excess, Andrew Sinclair (1962) described the prohibitionist movement as a national St. Vitus's Dance.3 Employing both Freudian and neo-Marxist categories, he attempted to reveal the “aggressive prurience” behind the masks of religious zeal; he argued that dominant economic interests, anxious to distract the gaze of reformers from the problem of the trusts, helped spread this “rural evangelical virus.” Sinclair's portrayal of Prohibition as a florid outburst of a persistent, lurking paranoia backed by big business substituted indictment for objective examination. It represented a sophisticated caricature that drew heavily on the stereotypes of earlier critics.

Joseph Gusfield's (1963) book, Symbolic Crusade, constituted a fundamental advance beyond the psychohistorical exposé favored by Sinclair. Gusfield treated efforts to curb drinking not as mass hysteria but rather as a middle-class movement designed to defend lost status. He rejected the view of temperance and prohibition as repositories of a Snopes-like aberration and reoriented the terms of discussion. His analy sis established a new standard of inquiry—dispassionate, free from polemical shrillness, and motivated by the desire to explain rather than carp or debunk. Nonetheless, Gusfield's work was not primarily directed toward explicating alcohol control as a thing in itself. “Issues like fluoridation or domestic communism or temperance,” he wrote, “may be seen to generate irrational emotions and excessive zeal if we fail to recognize them as symbolic rather than instrumental issues.” As an example of what he termed “expressive politics,” temperance “operates within an arena in which feelings, emotions, and affect are displaced and where action is for the sake of expression rather than for the sake of influencing or controlling the distribution of valued objects” (Gusfield 1963, pp. 11, 23).

Gusfield's approach provided a store of subtle insights, but its conceptual richness tended to overwhelm other investigative strategies. The explicit, self-identified concerns around which people in the antiliquor movement mobilized, the particular regulatory techniques that were experimented with, and the nature of their impact are all areas that, to a large extent, have lain historically fallow. The emphasis on the “expressive” and on rationalization, projection, and displacement as key analytic tools has had the effect of distracting attention from the actual content of the movement and shifting the level of discourse from the literal to the figurative.

Gusfield's influence is a mark of the power of his formulations. But the struggles that people waged in the past to regulate or proscribe alcohol do not necessarily have to be treated as a nexus of symptoms. Without denying the continued usefulness of Gusfield's concept of expressive politics, it is necessary also to recognize the worth of complementary models of investigation. If, as Room (1974, p. 11) suggests, “Our chief aim is to open up the range of frameworks within which the prevention of alcohol problems is discussed,” and if accomplishing this requires that we better understand how the governing images evolved around that which we orient our current strategies of remediation, then we must attempt to understand the antiliquor movement, both as a symbolic crusade and as a massive, sustained organizing effort with a highly developed set of tactics and coherent, tangible goals.

Any attempt to discover a “usable past” in the history of American temperance and prohibition requires first that investigators abandon contemptuous reductionism and disenthrall themselves from lurid myths; this process has been largely accomplished, and scholars like Gusfield deserve respect and appreciation for breaking ground. Those, however, who seek to develop improved policy instruments around alcohol use and abuse must be creative scavengers willing to approach prior efforts both as cultural artifacts and as a body of experience capable of yielding valuable clues to the possibilities of regulation today. Through examination of how consumption patterns have changed and the basis for computing the social costs of drinking and through identification of various tactics of control, their original settings, and the reasons for their relative success or failure, the historian can develop a perspective that elucidates the policy choices to be debated.

The Colonial Period

The colonists brought with them from Europe a high regard for alcoholic beverages. Distilled and fermented liquors were considered important and invigorating foods, whose restorative powers were a natural blessing. People in all regions and of all classes drank heavily. Wine and sugar were consumed at breakfast; at 11:00 and 4:00 workers broke for their “bitters”; cider and beer were drunk at lunch and toddies for supper and during the evening.

Drinking was pervasive for a number of reasons. First, alcohol was regarded not primarily as an intoxicant but rather as a healthy, even medicinal substance with distinct curative and preventive properties. The ascribed benefits corresponded to the strength of the drink; “strong waters,” that is, distilled liquor, had manifold uses, from killing pain, to fighting fatigue, to soothing indigestion, to warding off fever.

Alcohol was also believed to be conducive to social as well as personal health. It played an essential part in rituals of conviviality and collective activity; barn raisings, huskings, and the mustering of the militia were all occasions that helped associate drink with trust and reciprocity. Hired farm workers were supplied with spirits as part of their pay and generally drank with their employer. Stores left a barrel of whiskey or rum outside the door from which customers could take a dip.

Alcoholic drinks were also popular as a substitute for water. Water was considered dangerous to drink and inhospitable and low class to serve to guests. It was weak and thin; when not impure and filled with sediment, it was disdained as lacking any nutritional value. Beer or wine or “ardent spirits” not only quenched the thirst but were also esteemed for being fortified. They transferred energy and endurance, attributes vital to the heavy manual labor demanded by an agricultural society.

Official policy also endorsed consumption as trade in liquor provided an important source of revenue to the early colonists. Beginning in the 1630s, an ad valorem tax was levied on both imported wines and spirits and domestic products. The resulting monies were used to finance a wide range of local and provincial activities, from education in Connecticut, to prison repair in Maryland, to military defense on the frontier (Krout 1925, p. 19).

People drank, too, because alcohol was readily available. Although domestic production of gin, rum, or whiskey did not commence until the latter part of the 17th century, fruit brandies and especially cider were native beverages of daily consumption. Alcoholic drink was a staple that individual farmers created from local stuffs; people wanted it because they thought liquor was good for them and because they connected its production and consumption with traditional forms of civility. To brew ale or press cider were activities that supplied a valuable food, helped domesticate a natural wilderness, and helped restore a sense of continuity with a distant mother land.

Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was personal indiscretion. Although Georgia did attempt an initial ban on ardent spririts, the colonial period was otherwise notable for a loosely pragmatic approach to control (Krout 1925, pp. 57–58). But while pragmatism reigned and strategies of regulation were improvised according to the distinctive conditions in each colony, there were basic models that could be found in all regions. Beyond sanctions for drunkenness, which ranged in severity from fines, to whipping, to the stocks, to banishment, conventional mechanisms of control were: (1) limits on the hours that taverns could stay open, on the amount that customers could consume, and on the time that could be spent “tippling”; (2) prohibitions against serving slaves, indentured servants, debtors, or habitual drunkards; (3) laws that proscribed certain activities in conjunction with public drinking (e.g., gambling or loud music were generally forbidden in taverns); and (4) requirements that taverns provide lodging and food, and that retailers sell only for home consumption—not small amounts to be drunk on the premises.

Although acceptable patterns of consumption were thus set forth in law, informal social controls played a much more significant role than legislation. Throughout the colonial period, legislatures delegated to boards of selectmen or county courts the authority to grant tavern licenses. Since the bodies holding this power were composed of the socially prominent, it naturally developed that licenses were issued to men of similar station. This arrangement proceeded less from the wish to maintain a class monopoly on a lucrative trade than from a deep sense of civic obligation with which the clergy and the leading men of property were imbued. As a community institution—a place that provided the amenities of life to travelers as well as a comfortable setting for local recreation—the tavern was a resource whose administration had to be both moral and efficient. The proprietor was expected not only to dispense food, drink, and hospitality, but also to monitor behavior by relying on the deference and respect accorded his social position to keep customers in check. In return for such a responsible oversight, the innkeeper was often granted an exclusive operating right within a particular area; franchise was awarded, or sometimes imposed, for maintaining this service along crucial thoroughfares or adjacent to key bridges.

Tavern owners were often men of rank, as evidenced by the early records of Harvard University, where the names of students, listed by social position rather than alphabetically, showed that the son of an innkeeper preceded that of a clergyman (Krout 1925, p. 44). It was often the case that leading citizens would conclude their public career, having served as town clerk, justice of the peace, or deputy to the General Court, by securing a license to run a public house. Men habituated to moral surveillance could thus continue their scrutiny.

There was always circumvention of rules, however, regulating the flow of liquor. Unauthorized sellers, for example, evaded the prohibition against keeping a tippling house by taking advantage of an ancient right of Englishmen to brew and sell without a license in brush houses at fair times. Thus, in Virginia, “divers loose and disorderly persons set up booths, arbours, and other public places where, not only the looser sort of people resort, get drunk, and commit many irregularities, but servants and Negroes are entertained, and encouraged to purloin their master's goods, for supporting their extravagancies” (Pearson and Hendricks 1967, p. 21). Though slippage existed, the system of control did work. Drunkenness was inweighed against, but it had not become recognized as a serious social problem.

As the 17th century came to a close, this “stable, conservative, well-regulated” system changed (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 29). As large quantities of imported West Indian molasses began to arrive in New England, the domestic distilling trade burgeoned. Soon rum was being manufactured in large enough quantities to supplant French brandy in the triangular slave trade. As hard liquor achieved an increasingly central commercial role, “the public accorded it,” Krout wrote “that approbation which attaches to most things indispensible to the world of business” (Krout 1925, p. 50).4 But while leading citizens amassed fortunes from trading rum for Africans, a glut of alcohol began to erode the structure of class control by which drinking behavior had been regulated. As the price for rum plummeted (in 16 years the cost per gallon was cut almost in half), demand increased and violations of licensing laws became notorious (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 29). As the regulations against the selling of drams by retailers were less frequently observed and as the services that taverns were required to provide shrunk from minimal to nonexistent, the enforcement capacity of local officials was overwhelmed. In Boston, surrendering to pervasive circumvention, officials expediently granted licenses to many of the violators. Operating permits, once awarded only after assessment of the character of the propsective tavernkeeper, were now dispensed pro forma, and their number increased from 72 in 1702 to 155 in 1732 (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 25).

By the middle of the 18th century, management as a moral guardianship and community service gave way to management as a business venture. The innkeeper had lost status; his son fell from rank at Harvard as the occupation as a whole was increasingly dominated by the common folk (Krout 1925, p. 45). John Adams bemoaned the deterioration of control: “I was fired with a zeal,” he wrote, “amounting to an enthusiasm, against ardent spirits, the multiplication of taverns, retailers and dram shops and tippling houses. Grieved to the heart to see the number of idlers, thieves, sots and consumptive patients made for the use of physicians in these infamous seminaries, I applied to the court of sessions, procured a committee of inspection and inquiry, reduced the number of licensed houses, etc. But I only acquired the reputation of a hypocrite and an ambitious demagogue by it. The number of licensed houses was soon reinstated, drams, grogs, and setting were not diminished, and remain to this day as deplorable as ever” (Kobler 1973, p. 31). The futility that Adams felt in trying to curb this disorder was shared by other representatives of his class. The breakdown of traditional controls and the social turmoil seen to proceed from it were associated with the increasing commercial exploitation of distilled liquor. Once a largely imported substance whose distribution was an aristocratic monopoly, it had become democratized by the end of the colonial period. Cheap rum from Boston and Providence widened the availability of hard liquor (90 proof, compared with the milder and less potent domestic fruit brandies). People drank more and did so in a context that was less strictly monitored than when taverns had been under the aegis of a proprietary civic elite.

The Decline of Authority

The Revolution accelerated the breakdown of class deference and mythologized the public drinking place as a bastion of liberty of the common man. Indirectly, the war also helped to topple the domestic supremacy of rum and replace it with cheaper domestic whiskey. Because trade with the West Indies was disrupted, thereby cutting off the source of rum, a need developed for a substitute hard liquor. Scotch-Irish settlers, arriving in America during this period, brought with them a tradition of pot still whiskey making.

In 1789, the first Kentucky whiskey was made by a Baptist preacher named Elijah Cook; by 1810, the known distillers totaled 2,000 and the annual overall production was more than 2 million gallons (Roueché 1960, p. 42). The rum-producing states attempted to defend themselves against this encroachment. In 1783, Congress voted to help finance the central government by taxing imports; the ratification of this legislation was delayed until 1789 when the New England states, afraid that an excise on molasses would price rum out of the domestic market, succeeded in having whiskey taxed at a level that maintained the preexisting ratios between the two drinks. The farmers of western Pennsylvania resisted this compromise, and their 2-year rebellion, during which tax collectors were tarred and feathered, was crushed only after President Washington (acting after Governor Mifflin refused to call out state militia) occupied the region with 15,000 troops. The imposition of the tax did nothing, however, to stem the decline of rum and its displacement by whisky. Prices for rum had doubled during the 1780s. Annual imports fell from one gallon per capita in 1790 to less than one-half gallon by 1827 to below one-fifth gallon in 1850. The repeal of the whiskey tax in 1802 simply made the position of whiskey even more advantageous (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 68).

The whiskey trade became an indispensible element in the economic expansion westward. H. F. Willkie, writing in 1947, noted: “There were no roads in the new territory and most of the trade was by packhorse. It cost more to transport a barrel of flour … than the flour would have sold for on the eastern markets. If the farmer converted the grain into whiskey, a horse, which would carry only four bushels in solid grain, could carry twenty-four bushels in liquid form. Practically every farmer, therefore, made whiskey. So universal was the practice that whiskey was the medium of exchange” (Roueché 1960, pp. 39–40). Albert Gallatin, drafting an appeal to Congress in 1792, wrote: “Distant from a permanent market, and separate from the Eastern coasts by mountains, we have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or meal. We are therefore distillers by necessity, not choice” (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 54).

Though the estimates of the per-capita consumption vary, it is generally agreed that, beginning at the turn of the 19th century, demand for distilled liquor exploded. In 1972, when the population was 4 million, domestic production was 5.2 million gallons and imports almost 6 million gallons more. Within the next 18 years, the number of distilleries increased 6 times; production tripled. According to the most conservative estimate, per-capita consumption of hard liquor went from 2.5 gallons to almost 5 gallons. Other estimates place the consumption levels much higher, doubling the figure to 10 gallons (Clark 1976, p. 20; Asbury 1950, p. 12). Whatever the most accurate computation, there is consensus that the market for distilled alcohol was inundated. For example, rye, which wholesaled in 1820 for 60 cents a gallon, was 30 cents a gallon within a few years (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 68).

The sudden and dramatic increase in production and consumption coincided with a rapid demographic change. Between 1790 and 1830, the population doubled in Massachusetts, tripled in Pennsylvania, and increased five times in New York. In the 20 years following Washington's inauguration, the overall population of the country jumped nearly 100 percent. While only 100,000 people lived in the west in 1790, by 1810 there were 1 million. The population of Philadelphia quadrupled; New York City's population increased 600 percent. Geographic mobility and staggering population increases were accompanied by newly emerging economic relations. Factory towns sprang up, and by the beginning of the 19th century an urban proletariat was evolving (Rothman 1971).

As America became a new society, sloughing off its hierarchical, agricultural, and colonial past, a belligerent pride and enthusiasm developed. Americans believed, Tocqueville observed, “that their whole destiny is in their hands.” He went on, however, to comment on the often desperate tone of this optimism. He identified an acute ambivalence at the core of the exaggerated self-confidence and suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries left people bereft and disoriented. “The woof of time is every instance broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who come after, no one has any idea; the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself” (Lasch 1979, p. 9).

It was during this period of brutally rapid disjuncture that alcohol began to be widely perceived as a serious threat to social order. The experience of discontinuity, which has been called “unparalleled in the world,” fragmented networks of deference and respect (Clark 1976, p. 29). Throughout the colonial period, authority was embodied in direct personal relations. The tavern owner was a civic overseer as well as a tradesman. Beyond a fixed pattern of roles, the dimensions of obedience also depended on a belief in man's immutable nature. The colonists did not have to agonize about drunkenness because sin and human weakness were understood to be predictable and internal. Only after deviance grew to be regarded as an inextricable function of environmental disequilibrium did excessive drinking become the target of organized reform.

Sanctions to regulate conduct, operating within an overall context of civic cohesiveness, were intended to shame the offender before the community. The stocks or the wearing of the letter “D” subjected the drunkard to ridicule, and such ceremonies of public humiliation were assumed to have a deterrent power. However, with frenzied economic and geographic mobility, exile became self-imposed. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. The stable, self-policizing community was demolished; the forms of behavioral management that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete.

One can only speculate on the degree to which a coherent and fixed social order would have been able to absorb, with fewer ill effects, the dramatic rise in the consumption of alcohol. In attempting to account for the shift in the conceptual paradigm of drinking—that is, from an occasional nuisance to a permanent menace—it is impossible to construct a rigid hierarchy of causation or precisely factor out the variables. We do know that the combination of precipitate and bewildering change unmoored people from their sense of place, both social and physical. We do know that there was more drinking of hard liquor in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. The tavern or inn, where food and lodging provided a milieu that militated against intense drinking, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Drinking became detached from earlier safeguards. And whereas before this process of detachment had provoked attempts to reassert controls, efforts at regulation became increasingly listless and ineffectual. During the first decades of the 1800s, as people drank more and more in places specifically and exclusively designed to cater to consumption of alcohol and as laws governing operating hours or sales to minors were regularly ignored, public drunkenness grew to be defined as a social problem. As in England, when the gin epidemic spread during a period of social and economic transformation, the sharp rise in the amounts of alcohol consumed coupled with the deterioration of drinking behavior reflected the deepening cultural turmoil and impaired the capacity of institutions to relegitimate themselves (Rorabaugh 1979, p. 144).5

Lyman Beecher, who in 1812 organized other leading churchmen and established the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Good Morals, was an avowed conservative determined “to save the state from innovation and democracy. Our institutions, both civil and religious,” he wrote, “have outlived that domestic discipline and official vigilance in magistrates which rendered obedience easy and habitual. The laws are now beginning to operate extensively upon necks unaccustomed to the yoke, and when they become irksome to the majority, their execution will become impracticable. To this situation we are already reduced in some districts of the land. Drunkards reel through the streets day after day, and year after year, with entire impunity. The mass is changing. We are becoming a different people” (Krout 1925, p. 86). Clearly, the significance that Beecher and others of his class attached to drunkenness cannot be separated from their anticipation of the downfall of the standing order. Personal insobriety was feared because it was a harbinger of social chaos. Despite Beecher's admitted antidemocratic sentiments, his perception that drunkenness was more common and more overt in its display was shared by a wide spectrum of Americans. The meaning of this phenomenon may have been interpreted differently, but what people observed seemed to be the same thing.

Democrats, concerned about the survival of popular government, were fierce in their opposition to increasing drunkenness. Jefferson bemoaned the rise in the consumption of hard liquor and was particularly concerned that it sapped civic virtue. “The habit of using ardent spirits in public office,” he wrote, “has often produced more injury to public service, and more trouble to me, than any other circumstance that has occurred in the internal concerns of the country during my administration. And were I to commence my administration again, with the knowledge that from experience I have acquired, the first question that I would ask with regard to every candidate for office would be, ‘Is he addicted to the use of ardent spirits?' ” (Kobler 1973, p. 33).

The concept of addiction was borrowed by Jefferson from his friend and advisor Benjamin Rush and became integrated into a theory of individual behavior and social obligation that was essentially optimistic and progressive. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a medical pioneer, and an inveterate activist, published in 1785 an enormously influential tract, An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, of which 200,000 copies were distributed in the first three decades of the 19th century. Rush's tract was intended to change public opinion and overthrow the commonly held faith in the efficacious properties of hard liquor. People didn't need spirits for health and stamina, Rush argued, and were actually poisoning themselves through drink. He laid out an elaborate description of this disease syndrome and emphasized the moral as well as physical decay that alcohol brought on. Spirits progressively deranged the will as they sickened the body. Hard liquor debilitated self-restraint and incited pathological excess. It changed people and induced compulsive behavior by short-circuiting natural mechanisms of self-control.

Rush's analysis of the effects of drinking in terms of addiction had great explanatory appeal to Americans at the turn of the century. Dramatic changes were apparently taking place in patterns of liquor consumption; these changes were especially ominous in their correspondence to rapid social and political irregularities. Rush's model was persuasive not only as a diagnosis. The fatalism implicit in the Puritan view of drunkenness as deliberate, informed self-abuse, an expression of a sinful nature, was replaced, as Levine observes, by Rush's explanation that the alcoholic was a person compelled and controlled, a victim of a substance extraneous to himself (Levine 1978).

This diseased condition of dependence could be cured, according to Rush, only by total abstinence from hard liquor. A variety of treatments were recommended to effect this cure: fright, bleeding, whipping, aversive therapy with emetics. But to restore the drunkard to self-determination, every method had to operate within a context of public support and concern. Rush urged the churches to unite in a campaign of education and political pressure; the number of grogshops must be limited; and the social stigma attached to the sale and consumption of ardent spirits made more harsh. “The loss of 4,000 American citizens, by yellow fever, in a single year,” he wrote, “awakened general sympathy and terror, and called forth all the strength and ingenuity of laws, to prevent its occurrence. … Why,” he asks, “is not the same zeal manifested in protecting our citizens from the more general and consuming ravages of distilled spirits?” (Rush 1814, p. 27).

Rush believed that “spirits are anti-Federal … companions of all those vices calculated to dishonor and enslave our country,” and that the government, to protect itself as well as the well-being of its citizens, should adopt a public health approach and control the epidemic of addiction. These propositions became the central constructs for the temperance movement that began slowly in the early 1800s and burgeoned 20 years later.

Mobilizing for the Crusade

With the formation of the Union Temperance Society of Moreau and Northumberland, New York, in 1808 by farmers, inspired by Rush's tract, agitation against ardent spirits and the public disorder they spawned gradually increased. This dramatic surge of popularity for temperance, unparalleled in the development of any mass movement, occurred in the 1820s. The American Society of Temperance, created in 1826 by clergymen, spreading the gospel of antidrink through the network of the ministry, inaugurated a crusade of revivalistic fervor. Within 3 years, 100,000 people had pledged to abstain from hard liquor. By 1831, membership had nearly doubled; in 1833, 5,000 chapters were spread across the country, and by 1835, of a total of 13 million citizens, 1.5 million had vowed never to consume ardent spirits again. In 1837, the Eighth Annual Report of the New York City Temperance Society listed 88,076 members, of a total city population of 290,000 (Cherrington 1920, p. 93).

The temperance movement diversified and fragmented as the initial phase of mobilization subsided. Fierce debates about its tactics and ultimate purposes were waged. At the national convention in 1836, radicals pushed for and won a ban on all alcoholic beverages—not just ardent spirits. Rejecting the tradition of Rush and Jefferson, according to which beer and wine were exempted from censure and, in fact, were praised as “temperance drinks,” the radicals argued that logical consistency demanded a ban against all intoxicants, even those less concentrated in their “poison” than rum and whiskey. Resistance, however, to the new “long” pledge was initially strong; amid strenuous doctrinal disputes about the character of the wine served at the Last Supper, membership in temperance societies dropped and contributions fell off. (In New York State in 1837, 220,000 people belonged to temperance organizations; 3 years later there was a decrease of 100,000.) Despite the toll that factionalism took, by 1840 temperance had become largely synonymous with teetotalism (Krout 1925, p. 61).

Beyond this debate over the proper extent of abstinence, other struggles took place around the question of political intervention. Although Rush had seen educational and political activity as consistent and mutually reinforcing, the temperance movement had gained its adherents in its first 10 years through an emphasis on moral suasion. But as moral reform began to be increasingly undermined by an organized traffic, legislation came to be regarded as a necessary weapon. Converting the liquor dealers gave way to passing laws that curbed their “mercenary ruthlessness.” Some people, it was argued, were simply impervious to example or exhortation and shameless in their pursuit of profit. Social action, not just individual action, was required against this group of moral bandits, just as it was against the commercial slave-traders.

In 1838, known as the “petition year,” appeals were made to six state legislatures to restrict the sales of alcoholic beverages. From then until 1855, a majority of the states passed one form or another of regulatory control. Local option was adopted in some states; laws were passed to abolish public drinking by limiting in bulk the amount of the purchase (from 1 to 15 gallons, depending on the state); still other states imposed “high license”—a tax ranging from $100 to $500—on the theory that such expensive taxation would both curb the sale of alcohol by grocers and drive out the small, low-life dive. Actual prohibition of hard liquor was passed in 13 states from 1851 to 1855.

There were endemic problems in the enforcement of all these disparate mechanisms of control. Laws were constantly being experimented with, revised, and repealed; of the 13 states that had prohibition in 1855, only 5 remained dry in 1863.

In 1855, Connecticut passed a prohibition law, only to have it repealed 2 years later. The breakdown of prohibition, according to Governor Dutton, was caused by the sabotage and greed of state attorneys and enforcement officers, “men who made use of the law for the purpose of making money” (Grant 1932, p. 5). Massachusetts's 15-gallon law was attacked as class legislation that left the rich free to consume but penalized the working man. The law was openly flouted, and, in some cases, near riot broke out when grogshop patrons attempted to prevent the owners from being arrested (Krout 1925, p. 271). In Maine, elaborate subterfuges were concocted to evade the prohibition law passed in 1851. A pickle or wedge of cheese would be sold at an inflated price accompanied by a free drink—the law, of course, banned only the sale of alcohol.

Despite the persistent difficulties in enforcement, and varying degrees of control imposed by the states, the first wave of the temperance movement (1825 to 1855) did accomplish dramatic reductions in the level of consumption of hard liquor. Although beer drinking increased sharply after 1850 (Coors, Pabst, and Anheuser established breweries to supply recently arrived immigrants; the first lager brewery and beer hall opened in Philadelphia in 1840), consumption of whiskey and rum decreased by at least half between 1820 and 1850 (Clark 1976, p. 47).

It is difficult to assess the extent to which this decrease can be attributed to temperance organizing. Changes in styles of consumption having little to do with the antiliquor movement were significant. But it nonetheless seems likely that temperance agitation did accelerate this process. The social legitimacy of spirits was undermined as a new status became attached to self-control.

Temperance had a broad-based support. While the urban poor, increasing numbers of whom were immigrants, never responded to antiliquor appeals and the rich were only marginally involved in the crusade, the middle class—the skilled mechanics and tradesmen—represented the solid force. Many of the groups that belonged to the movement were unaffiliated with the church. As fraternal organizations, they were dedicated to mutual aid. The Washingtonians, self-styled ex-drunkards who recruited other drunkards, the Independent Order of the Rechabites of North America, the Sons of Temperance, and the Independent Order of Good Templars all developed outside traditional ecclesiastical control. In fact, their unconventional approach to proselytizing and their disinterest in religion often caused evangelical temperance exponents to view these groups suspiciously.6

The enormous popularity of this secular wing (in 1850, the Sons of Temperance had 230,000 members) derived primarily from their emphasis on creating a cohesive structure of reciprocal obligation. Membership allowed participation in an active social life free from alcohol and a sense of brotherhood and collective identity. Family integrity was given special prominence. Auxiliaries for wives were formed; children were mobilized into “cold-water brigades,” complete with uniforms and marching bands. Regalia, rituals, and group outings, along with various group insurance programs, were all designed to maintain family intactness within a context of organizational support.

One of the most persistent themes in the temperance movement, cutting across factional lines, was the need to aid the family in its struggle with the saloon. The perception of the family under siege was constantly expressed. Family breakdown was blamed for pauperism, crime, and dependency; the blandishments of the grogshop were regarded as fundamentally subversive to the security of the home. Beginning in the 1820s, prison officials regularly made inventories of the causative factors that were at the root of the crime. Of 173 biographies compiled at Auburn Prison, two-thirds were interpreted to show that a malfunction in family control provoked crime and that, in most of the cases, intemperance was the underlying reason for the disordered home life (Rothman 1971, p. 65). The New Prison Association proclaimed that intemperance was “the giant whose mighty arm prostrates the greatest numbers, involving them in sin and shame and crime and ruin.” Behind it, “never let it be forgotten, lies the want of early parental restraint and instruction” (Rothman 1971, p. 74). A vicious cycle was thus identified: drinking made parents irresponsible and slack; children growing up without discipline were apt to inherit both a craving for alcohol and a defiant attitude toward authority; as adult offenders, they would pass along to their children the same disabilities.

As the community became less and less coherent and caring, as contacts between employer and workers became discordant and estranged, as the capacity of the church to serve as a mediating force eroded, the family was invested with a redemptive and protective sacredness. Mass migrations, whether impelled by desire, ambition, or economic duress, were disorienting. A recently arrived family on the frontier or in a burgeoning city was forced to turn to itself. The support system that once had helped sustain family life was either primitive or nonexistent. As strangers in new surroundings, the family had to serve as its own refuge from isolation. Given the fragile nature of the requisite self-reliance, anything that might weaken this familial membership became a jeopardy to survival. It was precisely such a threat that alcohol, and the public setting in which it was drunk, constituted.7

Beyond surpassing the home in decorativeness, if not physical comfort, the public drinking place was able to offer recreation and companionship. And alcohol soothed and consoled. In sum, the saloon and the substance it sold supplanted the most precious functions of domesticity.

Throughout the voluminous literary propaganda that temperance organizations printed, throughout the public readings of tracts and the conversion testimony of the Washingtonians (both of which constituted the popular moral theater), the high moment of melodrama was the scene of drink-induced domestic violence. Scenes of children being abandoned to poverty and shame by their drunken father or of wives being brutally beaten were constantly depicted. Justin Edwards's classic tract, Temperance Manual, presents a litany of evils attendant on drink. There is gruesome medical evidence, complete with descriptions of swollen and discolored organs and of bodies exploding when alcoholic breath gets too near a candle; the “poisoning of the seed and a legacy of death and disease” are likewise luridly detailed. But according to Edwards, the most powerful proof of the threat that drinking posed is the insanity and savage familial violence it provoked. Edwards lists episode after episode of murder and mayhem: “A father took a little child by his legs and dashed his head against the house, and then, with a bootjack, beat out his brains. Once that man was a respectable merchant, in good standing, but he drank alcohol” (Edwards 1847, p. 37). The temperance plays, The Drunkard, or the Fallen Saved, One Cup More, or the Doom of the Drunkard, similarly evoked the terror of husbands out of control, subject to fits of violent rage or total neglect, visiting on their families broken bones or economic dispossession.

Tocqueville observed that the narrowed range of community trust and cooperation had “confined the interest of man to those in close propinquity to himself.” This “propinquity” could become murderously claustrophobic. But amidst a period of pervasive social disorder, the family was looked to as a bastion of self-restraint, the bulwark of rational affection. The family was expected to be the primary structure of attachment through which social purposes were embodied.

Alcohol subverted this structure. Justin Edwards described it as “the great deceiver and mocker,” creating “new, artificial, unnecessary and dangerous appetite. … It cries for ever ‘Give, give,' and never has enough. Hence the reason why the incautious youth, or the sober man who had unhappily formed this appetite, went on step by step with increasing velocity, to the drunkard's grave. Not a man on earth can form this appetite without increasing his danger of dying a drunkard” (Edwards 1847, pp. 28–29). “The grog-shop,” General James Appleton wrote, “decoys men from themselves and from their self-control.”

It has been suggested that this preoccupation with alcohol as a moral snare and with the saloons as an arch-rival to the family became a fetish used to ward off a more comprehensive and disturbing diagnosis of social ills. But while the temperance movement, during its first wave, did identify liquor as the root cause of pauperism, crime, and family disintegration, its adherents were also convinced that defective social structures had eroded traditional collective defenses against drunkenness and had condoned and even encouraged the omnipresence of corrupting influences. Walter Channing, who lectured widely in the 1830s on intemperance and pauperism, accused the rich of materialism and selfishness and of a betrayal of the partriarchal trust that as a class they had once assumed toward the poor. Class division had excluded the lower orders from civilizing associations and abandoned them to vice and drink. “By our mode of life—our house—our dress—our equipage: in short, by what is strictly internal to us, men detach themselves from their neighbors—withdraw from the human family … in its even recognized relationship of brotherhood” (Rothman 1971, p. 174).8 Joseph Tuckerman, minister and temperance activist in Boston during this same period, also indicted the community for callousness and neglect. “Has not society a large share of responsibility for the evil of intemperance?” he asked. Did not the citizen involved in the liquor traffic “minister to the utter ruin of his fellow beings?”

The millions of Americans who were part of the first temperance wave joined the movement for reasons other than deference to the stewardship of men like Channing and Tuckerman. As Gusfield suggests, drunkenness was more than a metaphor encapsulating and accounting for a nexus of disorders, abstinence more than a gesture of “moral athleticism.” For those who became members of temperance groups—particularly the fraternal organizations that operated as mutual aid societies—such structures of affiliation helped to restore a sense of belonging. Amid economic and demographic dislocation that affected large numbers of the poor, those on the edges of society clutched at whatever they could to enhance dignity and self-possession.

By 1855, the approach of Civil War had fragmented and regionalized the temperance movement (a prohibition movement now in all but name) and shifted the focus of moral energy. Northern temperance societies were militantly antislavery and had inundated subscribers to southern temperance journals with abolitionist literature. The war further split apart a movement whose unity had already disintegrated. But in 1869, when the national Prohibition Party was formed from the remnants of the temperance forces, its supporters proudly saw themselves as the direct descendants of the abolitionists. A national war of liberation was called for in the keynote speech. Just as the government had taken a moral stand to end slavery, so too should it now unshackle the drunkard from the manacles that the dramshop had slipped on him. Although its platform was built around the destruction of the saloon—“that manufacturer of madmen and murderers … and millions of rum-ruined and unutterably wretched homes”—the party from the very beginning aligned itself with a range of other causes. During its first national campaign in 1872, not only did it endorse the direct election of United States senators, but it also was in the vanguard of advocacy for complete and unrestricted suffrage for women and full, adequately protected voting rights for blacks. A meager turnout of supporters—5,600 votes in all—simply encouraged the party to become even more broadly based in its appeal for support.

New styles of organizing and agitation were employed. For the first time, women were recruited systematically into the antiliquor movement and given a leading role in the struggle. Beginning in 1873 in Ohio, crusades were mobilized to shut down the saloon. Hundreds of women demonstrated, kneeling in the streets before the barroom, singing and praying. In one famous episode of direct action, the women of Cincinnati laid siege for 2 weeks to a particular saloon, keeping a round-the-clock vigil and even rigging up a locomotive headlight to expose what was taking place behind the swinging doors.

Such strenuous and imaginative efforts coincided with a severe economic depression and an accelerating process of monopolization within the brewing industry. These factors were crucial in accounting for the drop in production in the United States of malt beverages to 5.5 million gallons between 1873 and 1875 as well as the disappearance of 750 breweries. But the Women's Crusade, “the whirlwind of the Lord,” also made important contributions to this temporary decline (Asbury 1950, p. 85).

As with earlier forms of temperance activity, the crusade provided—this time to women—a sense of collective purpose and solidarity. As one of the crusaders wrote: “The infectious enthusiasm of these meetings, the fervor of the prayers, the frankness of the relation of experience, and the magnetism that pervaded all, wrought me up to such a state of physical and mental exaltation that all other places and things were dull and unsatisfactory to me. I began going twice a week, but soon got so interested that I went every day, and then twice a day in the evenings. I tried to stay home to retrieve my neglected household, but when the hour for the morning prayer meeting came around, I found the attraction irresistible. The Crusade was a daily dissipation from which it seemed impossible to tear myself. In the intervals at home, I felt as I fancy the drinker does at the breaking down of a long spree” (Kobler 1973, p. 129).

This experience of moral comradeship, which provided an outlet for the social needs of isolated women in the context of service to the family, led to the creation of the Womens' Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU became one of the national forces in the fight for prohibition. Raising the banner of “home protection,” local chapters were formed across the country. In 1880, Frances Willard gave her support to the Prohibition Party, which, to commemorate the alliance, changed its name temporarily to the Prohibition Home Protection Party.

Beyond being engaged in work around prohibition, the WCTU was also deeply concerned about a range of issues: womens' rights, prostitution, prison reform, the struggles of labor, kindergartens, and smoking. Within the WCTU 45 separate departments carried on special campaigns and won victories ranging from the installation of female guards in womens' prisons to an increase in the age of consent to 18 (it had been age 10 in 20 different states). Of particular signifiance was the department of scientific temperance instruction. Under its aegis, an elaborate curriculum was developed that school systems all across the country soon made mandatory. Temperance education repeated the tales of earlier propaganda: “The majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy. … When alcohol passes down the throat it burns off the skin leaving it bare and burning. … Alcohol clogs the brain and turns the liver quickly from yellow to green to black” (Furnas 1965, p. 285). But though these clichés had been the stock in trade of temperance literature for nearly 50 years, they gained new credibility and exposure. When prohibition won its later electoral victories, voters had been systematically inculcated with this lurid pseudoscience.

Frances Willard's intelligence and energy as well as the espousal by the WCTU of a variety of progressive causes vitalized the Prohibition Party. The coalition she helped engineer increased its share of the vote in the election of 1884 to 151,809, a dramatic surge from the 10,000 votes recorded 4 years earlier. The party also gained great prestige by cutting away votes from the Republicans and swinging the election to the Democrats. In 1888, the prohibitionist forces increased their total to 250,000, and in 1892, to 270,000.

The period from 1880 to 1890 marks the second great prohibition wave. More state legislatures voted on prohibition and submitted to the people the question in the form of state constitutional amendments than at any other time. But though the issue was fiercely contested in three-quarters of all the states, only six enacted prohibition laws by 1890.

In some regions, particularly in the South, policies evolved that attempted to strike a balance between statewide prohibition and completely free-license systems. Following the example established by the Gothenberg Plan, by which corporate bodies of local government were allowed to control the liquor trade, a number of different towns and counties in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia began to operate local dispensaries. The aim of these municipally run distribution networks was to further the cause of temperance, presumably by removing the profit motive from alcohol sales, and to generate revenues for the public welfare. The compatability of these twin purposes was given its most extensive test in South Carolina; there, in 1893, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, assuming the governorship after an election in which the majority of voters supported statewide prohibition, struck a compromise by creating a state board of control to administer and regulate sales. A state dispensary commissioner, appointed by the governor and approved by the board of control, was the chief officer. By law, he was required to be a man of “sound moral character” as well as “an abstainer from intoxicants” (Grant 1932, p. 7).

Under the system that Tillman set up, all production of alcohol was banned within South Carolina. Bulk orders were placed by the board and commissioner with manufacturers outside the state; these orders arrived at the dispensary at the capital; there, repackaging was conducted, along with shipment to county or city retail dispensaries. Operated by a county board, these outlets sold liquor only during limited hours; the purchaser had to submit a signed request, and anyone of intemperate habits or bad social reputation was theoretically to be refused.

This system, on paper, had appeal to a wide spectrum of opinion on the liquor question. Prohibitionists and antiprohibitionists were initially united, and the first year of the experiment seemed to bear out the promise of this immediate approach. In the year before the new law went into effect, there were 613 licensed saloons in the state; once these were shut down, the 146 dispensaries constituted the only points of legal distribution (Grant 1932, p. 8). Besides reducing the number of outlets, the state-run system produced significant revenues; the profits amounted to one-half million dollars a year, roughly a third of the total raised from all state sources. Despite an auspicious beginning, the state-operated scheme of regulation soon proved to have major flaws. The chief problem that emerged was pervasive malfeasance in the management and enforcement apparatus. The state board of control and the county board whose members it approved became notorious for their venality. As an investigating committee of the legislature reported in 1906, “officials of the dispensaries ‘have become shameless in their abuse of power, insatiate in their greed, and perfidious in the discharge of their duties'” (Grant 1932, p. 10). State agents were imprisoned for various conspiracies to receive bounties and rebates from distilleries; local dispensaries regularly violated the letter of the law, which required written application, and the enforcement officers, called “spies,” were as suspect of corruption as those whose conduct they were supposed to monitor.

The failure of the dispensary system in South Carolina and its eventual abolition in 1907 represented a victory for prohibitionists. The lesson educed was that half measures could not work, especially when they implicated the state in a dirty business. Dry representatives felt confirmed in their belief that government regulation was not only ineffective, but counterproductive; once the state sought to rehabilitate the liquor trade by becoming an accomplice, the principles of temperance were irrevocably compromised. Efforts to control were viewed as misguided and expedient; prohibition, it was concluded, was the only consistent response to a traffic intrinsically dedicated to excess and disorder.

If attempts at control like the one experimented with in South Carolina were regarded as futile and misconceived, prohibitionists saw in federal regulation an even more flagrant example of law serving the greedy interests of the liquor traffic rather than curbing them. In 1890, the Supreme Court, in its Original Package Case, reversed a ruling that had been in effect since 1847, and then held that a dry state was powerless to bar a liquor dealer from importing alcohol and then reselling it in its original package. This ruling essentially annulled state prohibition by holding that interstate commerce and the sanctity of trade took precedence over dry laws.

Congress responded to the Supreme Court decision by passing the Wilson Act in the same year. This act affirmed the right of a dry state to impose its law on liquor arriving from outside its boundaries. The Supreme Court, in turn, defined the word “arrival” to mean that state laws applied only to shipments that actually “arrived at its destination upon direct delivery to the consignee” (Grant 1932, p. 6). This loophole permitted easy circumvention. Through the use of traveling salesmen, often going door-to-door, and through advertising and other forms of solicitation, liquor dealers in wet states took orders from citizens in dry states and shipped in liquor COD. If warehouses could not be set up in dry states, then stocks could still be widely distributed through express and freight companies acting as informal agents.

A demonic pattern was detected behind compromise measures like those enacted in South Carolina and in the apparent unwillingness of the federal judiciary to allow dry states to enforce the law. Prohibitionists blamed the organized, conspiratorial might of the liquor industry for whatever failures dry forces suffered. These assertions have usually been treated by historians as paranoid tirades; the corruption and plot-filled intrigue against which people reacted is more than apocryphal.

In 1862, the alcohol beverage industry had begun to organize to defend its interests; by 1880, the Personal Liberty League of the United States was ensconced in Washington and state capitals to prevent passage of any measures that might jeopardize sales. Efforts were especially active in cities. Of 24 aldermen elected in New York City in 1890, 11 were saloonkeepers; in 1884, 633 of 1,002 Republican and Democratic conventions and primaries were held in saloons (Asbury 1950, p. 107).

Large amounts of money were raised to support antiprohibitionist candidates; contributions were crucial to the successful operations of urban machines. The connection between political corruption and the traffic in liquor was well established. The funds raised by the industry through subscriptions from the 900-member Brewers' Association, from distillers, and from the ancillary businesses—hotels, grain dealers, coopers—were the war chests used to bribe politicians and buy votes (Timberlake 1963, pp. 110–115).9

Brewers owned or had controlling interests in nearly 80 percent of all saloons. With the development of refrigerated railroad cars, and the crown bottle cap, fierce, unrestrained expansion became endemic. The big brewers of St. Louis and Milwaukee began establishing local district offices and made loans at easy terms to saloons for licenses, fixtures, and stock. Once such deals had been struck, the saloonkeeper was driven to sell as much as possible. The saloon became increasingly a “putrid festering spot” because survival in a market flooded with drinking places encouraged, or even required, violation of existing laws. At the turn of the century, saloons in Washington state stayed open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in complete defiance of regulations (Clark 1976, p. 58).

The liquor industry was also crude and belligerently aggressive in its self-promotion. There was little effort made to soften its image or mollify public concerns. At a convention of dealers in Ohio in 1874, the question of serving minors was raised. A delegate argued: “Men who drink liquor, like others, will die, and if there is no new appetite created, our counters will be empty as well as our coffers. … The open field for the creation of appetite is among the boys, and I make the suggestion, gentlemen, that nickels expended in treats to the boys now will return dollars to your tills after the appetite has been formed” (Timberlake 1963, p. 102).

The liquor industry was a perfect archetype of unbridled, plutocratic self-interest, and the prohibitionist campaign against it represented a critique of both the economic and moral order. The traffic threatened America along several fronts: it debased electoral politics by corrupting voters; it allowed conglomerates to gain unfair advantage in the marketplace and mock the principle of equal competitive opportunity; and it spread environmental blight. “Why make the brewer or the distiller impound their tailings? They draw the young men of the country into their places of business, they crush them, they extract from them all that is precious—and they throw their tailings out upon society. They make society pay for the insane, the pauper and the criminal” (Binkley 1930, p. 24). The liquor industry was perceived as quintessentially parasitic; the descriptive images of the prohibitionists were loaded with metaphors of cholera. Alcohol infiltrated the drunkard's body and the social body, breaking down self-control, and eventually resulting in a befouled and excruciating death.

The prohibitionists who worked to eliminate this public health hazard largely felt themselves to be innoculated personally from the disease. The biographies of 641 leaders in the antiliquor movement between 1890 and 1913 show a group of solid, middle-class men and women. Most were born in the Northeast, and more came from urban backgrounds than the national average. Four out of five belonged to evangelical denominations, primarily Methodist and Presbyterian. Of those who fought in the Civil War, three out of four were on the Union side; previous party affiliation was overwhelmingly Republican (Blocker 1976, p. 8).

The prohibition movement in the late 19th century involved an attempt by “the decent classes” to create a morally coherent national culture. The solid division that had appalled Channing 50 years before had grown more gaping and antagonistic; massive immigration, the gross materialism of the new rich, and the rising violence of labor struggles all were signs of the times. A great war had to be fought to reestablish unity, to reconcile the opposing forces, and to stabilize a social order that seemed to be coming apart. Restraint—through inculcating self-restraint and imposing social control—had to be institutionalized. From the same basic concern for social and moral cohesiveness, earlier temperance advocates had also invoked the right of governmental intervention. But by the last decade of the century, the detachment of classes from one another, which Channing had seen ominously evolving, appeared now as a commonly accepted fact of life. Given these fixed, pervasive polarities of class, it became incumbent on the state to act systematically as mediator and, when necessary, even to impose moral and civil equilibrium.

The mandate that the prohibitionists encouraged government to accept was designed to curb extremist behavior. Rich and poor, the exploited and the exploiter were locked in a folie à deux. The alcohol addict and the millionaire brewer were each impulse-ridden. The gilded capitalist and the beer-swilling slum dweller were both dedicated to consumption. By contrast, a prohibitionist writer defined his fellow activists and himself: “We are the whole better class: the working, paying, thriving, home-loving masses, whose lives are lived between and distinct from the idle on the one hand, and the vicious on the other. … We represent,” he said, “teachers and professional men, clerks, skilled mechanics, and railroad men. Drunkenness and tippling belong now to the very rich, the reckless, the ignorant, the vicious, and the very poor” (Blocker 1976, p. 16). In this survey, there are clearly tensions between politically conservative and progressive impulses. Censure of those above and below provided no clear theoretical basis on which to plan strategy. As self-styled protectors of the social outcasts, the prohibitionists went beyond simple paternalism. At the same time, there was deep anxiety about alliances with other political groups that shared a commitment to social justice but were not equally dedicated to the drive against alcohol. During the 1890s, a struggle was fought within the Prohibition Party; its outcome would decide the ultimate future of the entire antiliquor movement.

“Narrow” Versus “Broad-Gauge”

Frances Willard led the faction that urged coalition building. The Populists, the Farmers' Alliance, and the Union Party all were identified as potential allies. In 1890, the beginnings of the kind of coalition that Willard recommended were established on the state level, with Populist and Prohibition candidates running as a slate. But despite Willard's attempts to build on this collaboration, it never evolved beyond this preliminary stage. The Populists themselves finally decided that their need for a farmer-labor alliance precluded a prohibitionist stand that might seriously alienate the urban, immigrant voter. While paying lip service to prohibition in their plank of 1892 (“Resolved: that the saloon is the great enemy of reform and the chief fountain of corruption in our politics. We denounce its pernicious influence upon our country and demand its suppression.”), the Populists refused to endorse legal controls (Blocker 1976, p. 54).

The Populists' rejection of fusion intensified rather than dampened the debate about the search for common ground. Momentum began to develop for an unequivocal, single-issue approach. “To succeed,” wrote Thomas Carskadon, a Methodist farmer, “we must bring to us that steady, Christian, patriotic element now constituting the best element of the old parties, and the populist party, too.” He went on to denounce broad-gaugers in the Prohibition Party who sought to attract “money-loving, unsanctified brother farmers.” While dwindling in influence, there continued to be those who argued for fusion: “Ours is a political party,” declared one prominent fusionist, “and not a church. If we do not desire votes, and take measures to secure them, we had better go out of politics and organize a hard-shell temperance society at once.” Another fusionist argument made clear the crux of the policy dispute; prohibition of liquor, E. J. Wheeler declared, was critical only because the power of the traffickers was used to block “the channels of legislation” through which other reforms had to pass. “To put an end to gin-mill government is the first, but by no means the last, thing required in order to reach the satisfactory solution to our industrial problems”—a solution that necessitated, he said, government ownership of monopolies, women suffrage, and more (Blocker 1976, pp. 72–73).

Though in 1893 the party national paper, The Voice, could still comment on Berkman's attempt to shoot Henry Frick by noting that it was becoming increasingly hard “to reconcile the teachings of Christ, who said, ‘bear yet another's burden,' with the competitive system of today that says ‘get what you can, keep what you get and devil take the hindmost,'” (Blocker 1976, p. 88); the interparty debate was drawing to a close by 1896, with the single-issue approach becoming more dominant.

The formal split between the fusionists—committed to coalition politics, hostile toward established economic power, and often disaffected from the churches of America—and the narrow-gaugers—more suspicious of the dispossessed than the possessors, deeply involved in organized religion, and fearful of becoming entangled in lower-class, civil issues such as currency or the wage system—took place at the party convention in Pittsburgh. “There is a wide difference between us [and the Populists],” one narrow-gauger remarked. What these masses need is a strong moral party to rise and abolish these sources of crime and poverty, take away those irresistible temptations, and turn the price of labor into legitimate channels of trade that will bring comfort and contentment into the home. Labor organizations ought to aid us in this, and, instead of constantly demanding higher wages, should systematically teach their members how to get the most real good out of it. ‘By industry and economy one becomes rich' is old but always and eternally true. All the ages have been oppressive to those who ‘have wasted their substance with riotous living'” (Blocker 1976, p. 103). Other antifusionists recoiled at the idea of a partnership with disreputable elements. “We had better die a natural death, and leave an honorable record behind us, than be choked to death in an attempt to swallow socialism, communism, and anarchism in one gulp. Look at history, and point to an epoch in which the ragamuffin elements of society have won a battle. You will find ambuscades and bloody streets. You will not find a case in which civilization has been advanced. When you have brought into the Prohibition Party Debs and Altgeld and Coxey, and Blood-to-the-Bridle Waite, and all their tattered and dirty followers, and have washed from them the stains of the gutters … you shall have a sight to behold,” another majority proportion warned. Concluding, the speaker said: “And while you are drawing these men in, you are proclaiming to the world that Prohibition is an [association] with all those which speak of disorganization and revolution. … There is a way to build up a party in America, and this is to build on American principles” (pp. 103–104). Such polemics were felt necessary to rebut what still were powerful, if minority, opinions. Fusionists countered by arguing that a single-issue focus doomed prohibition to political irrelevance: “Those who would debauch our people with liquor, double their debts with a dishonest dollar, enslave the toiler and lay out the heaviest burdens of taxation on the poor, are united in support of these indescribable wrongs, while reformers are fighting in factions. … He who thinks we can get the voters of the country this year to drop all other issues and settle the liquor question, is too visionary to deserve, and certainly will not get, the respectful attention of the people” (p. 108). A broad-gauged representative drew the line: “We are not here as a Methodist camp meeting, a Salvation Army or a church. We are holding a political convention. For 25 years the Prohibition Party has been run by narrow-gauge managers. Tons of prohibition literature has been sent out, but not a leaf on any other issue. There are 20,000,000 church-members in the country, 4,000,000 church voters, and yet we can only poll 270,000 votes. It is time we quit slobbering over the church” (p. 112). The broad-gaugers urged a platform that included: (1) government issue of money, and free silver; (2) land grants only to actual settlers; (3) government ownership of railroads and utilities; (4) income tax and free trade; (5) abolition of convict labor; (6) women's suffrage; and (7) one day's rest in seven.

The platform was rejected in favor of a call to the party to take on a missionary role: “Let us for once open up every church in the land and unshackle the voice of the preacher on this monstrous crime. … Give the church a chance. … Let us enable the banker of New York and the silver-miner of Colorado to stand shoulder to shoulder, and I assure you that every church that I can touch will ring out death to the rum traffic” (Blocker 1976, p. 113).

In response, the minority faction bolted and formed the National Party. The Prohibition Party, left now entirely in the hands of staunchly one-dimensional crusaders, suffered a dismal defeat at the polls, receiving less than half the votes it received 4 years earlier. This humiliation merely confirmed that the party had strayed too far from the paths of righteousness and demonstrated the need for an unqualified identification with the church. Toward this end, a depoliticizing of the party was undertaken. By 1900, former traces of sympathy for the underdog were all but effaced. In its place were only smug self-congratulation and moral primping; the party's self-image was as the “large and enthusiastic gathering of intelligent, sober, clean and prosperous citizens, willing to sacrifice year after year for the good of others.” But such protests of social conscience had grown wholly ritualistic; fear and loathing of the “rumsoaked rabble” had tipped the balance against joining a movement for social change in which sober citizens might be sullied by the blood or dirt of the misbegotten.

By 1905, the Prohibition Party had surrendered leadership of the movement to the Anti-Saloon League. The league was militantly single-issue and denounced partisan politics and expediency. Instead, the league, billing itself as “the church in action,” began to implement a strategy based on supporting major party candidates solely on their willingness to back antiliquor legislation. By its very name, it suggested a sober moderation of purpose—not to build a broad-based, mass movement, or even to prevent people from drinking, but rather to attack the seat of boss government—the symbol of decadence.

Even while the league intended from the very beginning to move toward national prohibition, it saw this ultimate victory accomplished only as the result of a series of local successes. The country would be dried up piecemeal. The popular will would be appealed to and mobilized along a wide continuum to oppose institutionalized debauchery. An elaborate hierarchical structure was created: beginning at the level of leagues sponsored by individual congregations and proceeding to town, country, and state chapters, the policy called for dry votes to be bartered as a solid block with political candidates in return for a commitment to support a designated regulatory approach. The league pushed for local option and then moved on to state prohibition. With hundreds of full-time, professional organizers funded through subscriptions from local churches and donations from national corporate leaders and with a publishing house that, during its first 3 years, printed the equivalent of 250 million book pages, the league brought bureaucratic rationality to the antiliquor movement. Its leaders, from H. H. Russell to Wayne Wheeler, acknowledged that their techniques derived from business practices, particularly those of the liquor industry itself. In its opportunism and pragmatism, in its single-issue approach, in its delivery of electoral payoffs to its friends, and in its ability to destroy its enemies, the league became a machine.

Politicians were intimidated. As one legislator said to a league official: “While I am no more of a Christian than I was last year, while I drink just as much as I did before, you have demonstrated to me that the boasted power of the saloon in politics is a myth. … I shall stand with you … if you give me your support” (Binkley 1930, p. 29). But the great successes that the prohibitionist forces achieved cannot be attributed simply to the ruthless pressure politics and lobbying skill of the league. Most of the dry victories came about through referenda, not legislative amendments. In 1906, only 3 states had prohibition; by 1913, there were 9, with campaigns under way in all the others. By 1916, there were 23 dry states, and in 17 of these states the measure was approved by the direct vote of the people.

The last great wave of prohibition sentiment that led directly to the adoption of the 18th Amendment represents far more than simply a public relations coup. No matter how organizationally adept and politically manipulative the league was, it could only engineer, not manufacture, the juggernaut. Just as references to “Wheelerism” in no way account for majority support for prohibition, so too is analysis insufficient that explains the triumph of the antiliquor movement as either the result of war hysteria or rural animus toward urban ascendency. Both were contributing factors, but not decisive ones. Of 25 referenda victories between 1914 and 1918, 16 preceded America's entry into the war. In 1914, the House voted for national prohibition by a 197 to 190 majority. Blocker, in examining referenda in rural states (defined as those states with more than half of the population living in areas of less than 2,500 people), concluded that class was a more significant correlate than ruralism for approval of prohibition (Blocker 1976, p. 240).


Admittedly, the article that the Anti-Saloon League drew up for Congress in 1917, which was ratified in January 1919 and took effect 1 year later, defined prohibition in far stricter ways than had most state laws. Only 13 states (with only one-seventh of the total population) had a bone-dry ban before the 18th Amendment. In the other 23 states with prohibition, numerous provisions allowed citizens to import a specified monthly amount or even to ferment wine. So many exceptions were included that between the years 1906 and 1917, the per-capita consumption of legal hard liquor increased from 1.47 to 1.60 gallons (Kobler 1973, p. 216). But even though the 18th Amendment went beyond abolishing the saloon—the goal that had provided the basis for unity for the antiliquor movement—and imposed a degree of abstinence that was unfamiliar to residents of most dry territories, the elimination of these loopholes was accepted as a more thorough purifying. For almost 40 years national prohibition had been associated with deliverance; for most Americans, its precise form was best left to league experts to elaborate.

In fact, the 18th Amendment was not nearly so rigorous and uncompromising as the league made it out to be. Its three brief sections prohibited, after 1 year, “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” gave states “concurrent power” to enforce the article, and made enactment of the amendment contingent on state ratification. Significantly, the amendment avoided proscribing the purchase or consumption of liquor and provided a grace period during which stocks could be put away by those who had the desire or the money. And by outlawing manufacture and sales only, it countenanced through omission patronage of the bootlegger. In addition, the substitution of the words “intoxicating liquors” for “alcoholic beverages” was more than semantic choice. Endless debates would ensue about whether the source of abusive behavior was inherent in a particular drink or in the particular psychology of the drinker. In addition, failure to define the nature of the “concurrent powers” of the states and the federal government gave rise to a dispute that lasted as long as Prohibition.

The Volstead Act, which detailed enforcement of the 18th Amendment, consisted of 72 sections full of complicated and equivocal codes. Designed with the help of the league, it was intended to integrate the best features of various state prohibition laws. However, far from crystallizing the collective experiences of Prohibition, the Volstead Act was a bewildering mélange. Cross-references, contradictions, and modifications of ordinary criminal procedures created enormous administrative and legal problems.

Under the act—which was intended to “prohibit intoxicating beverages,” regulate “the manufacture, production, use and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, … insure an ample supply of alcohol, and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful purposes”—the Treasury Department was charged with overseeing a vast system of permits, preventing illegal diversions, and arresting bootleggers. In 1920, little more than $2 million was allocated by Congress to put 1,500 agents in the field; as a group they were untrained and underpaid (the average salary was $1,500). Furthermore, they were all political appointees, the league having lobbied Congress to exempt the bureau from Civil Service so that men of “strong prohibitionist principle” could serve.

This use of the spoils system filled the Prohibition Bureau with men whose incompetence and venality discredited the enforcement apparatus with juries, courts, and the public. In 1921, 100 agents in New York were fired at one time for malfeasance; the same year, a federal grand jury for the southern district of New York declared that “almost without exception the agents are not men of the type of intelligence and character qualified to be charged with this difficult duty and federal law” (Kobler 1973, p. 247). But even had the bureau been staffed with more honest and able men, the tasks that they were assigned and the laws governing their performance made successful enforcement nearly impossible.

Agents of the bureau were responsible for tracking down the illegal production of alcohol; but the Volstead Act reinforced the federal statute relating to search and seizure by adding a clause making issuance of any warrant dependent on proof that the liquor was for sale. No matter how much liquor a person had at home, no matter how it was obtained or what use was intended, agents had to have positive evidence that a commercial transaction was involved. What such a requirement actually did was to permit home manufacture, both for personal use and as a cottage industry organized as part of large criminal networks. Small stills, primitive but effective, were set up by bootleggers in apartments, with the liquor being collected on a regular basis. More common were beermaking and winemaking for genuine home consumption. Malt and hops shops proliferated; big food chains openly advertised ingredients and apparatus—hoses, gauges, capping machines. Section 29 of the act, which permitted fruit juices to be made and consumed for personal use, led to a boom for the California grape industry. During the first 5 years of Prohibition, the acreage of vineyards increased 700 percent; the grapes were marketed as concentrate in “blocks of port,” “blocks of Rhine Wine,” and so forth and came with a warning: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in the jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine” (Binkley 1930, p. 108). Mayor LaGuardia of New York sent out instructions on winemaking to his constituents along with a bit of free legal advice: “The beverage may be called wine or beer, but must not be labeled as such. … The question of the intoxicating character of the beverage is not determined by any fixed or arbitrary code. … The average homemade wine may be considered nonintoxicating within the meaning of the law. It cannot be given to strangers; even though the beverage is nonintoxicating, it loses its legal character if sold” (Binkley 1930, p. 25). Such charades not only made it innocent and amusing to circumvent Prohibition but also revealed a pervasive ambivalence at the root of the 18th Amendment and its enforcement statutes. Even while possession of liquor illegally obtained was unlawful, the act of drinking was maintained as privileged. This anomaly suggests first that prohibitionists understood the politically feasible limits of regulating individual behavior. The league and other defenders of the 18th Amendment regarded as a slur any suggestion that they supported sumptuary laws and were deeply embarrassed and resentful of the popular concern of the dry snooper and killjoy on the prowl to mind someone else's business. There was, among prohibitionists, a pervasive if implicit recognition of the practical inviolability of private conduct.

But the failure of prohibition laws to intrude directly on the mores of the consumer was not primarily a tactical decision made on the basis of calculating how deeply public policy should be allowed to invade private experience. Once the destruction of the 170,000 saloons had been achieved, and the systematic spread of addiction stopped, it was believed that the appetite for drink would wither away without the artificial stimulation of an organized traffic. The taste for alcohol was a false need, implanted by moral brigands. Ever since Benjamin Rush elaborated the concept of drink as disease, the consumer was simultaneously exempted from fundamental blame and diminished in the degree of autonomy. For being freed from censure and sin, the drinker paid the price of compulsory wardship. In the tradition of temperance and prohibition, the person who submitted to alcohol was the quintessential victim. The environment needed to be decontaminated; there was no reliable way to immunize people or even to identify those particularly at risk. Instead, the body politic had to be kept free from infection. Once the liquor industry was removed, then health would be restored. “It is part of the philosophy of Prohibition that the final triumph of the cause, the definitive solution of the liquor question, requires that there should be an unsullied generation which would regard drinking as a moral perversion and the purveyor as a felon” (Binkley 1930, p. 25).

According to prohibitionist doctrine, Americans had once been pure. A nefarious trade had robbed people of their reason and corrupted domestic and social integrity. The 18th Amendment represented a millennial triumph inaugurating personal self-restraint and national solidarity. To police compliance was contradictory. It made no sense to enforce a cure that would naturally take effect.

But even with the saloon effaced, there continued to be both a demand for alcohol and a traffic to meet it. The Volstead Act had built in wholly inadequate safeguards against the reproduction of the trade.

Legal alcohol was among the largest source of illegal liquor. The total production of distilled spirits rose from 187 million gallons in 1912 to 203 million gallons in 1926. Most of this increase, of course, can be attributed to the greatly expanded use of industrial alcohol. As a basic chemical, it was required in the manufacture of cosmetics, leather goods, dyes, and synthetic textiles (one rayon plant used 2 million gallons of denatured alcohol annually). The single most significant factor in the expanded production of denatured alcohol was the spectacular burgeoning of the auto industry. In 1919, there were 7.5 million passenger cars and trucks registered in the United States; in 1926, there were 22 million. And whereas before, 90 percent were open and therefore not suitable for cold-weather driving, by 1926, 70 percent were closed, suggesting the possibility of operation in cold weather. Antifreeze was thus a sudden necessity, and three-quarters of the total output of completely denatured alcohol went for that purpose. A considerable portion of the enormous increase in production undoubtedly was diverted to bootleggers. Emory Buckner, the United States Attorney for the southern district of New York, estimated that in 1925, 60 million gallons were sold as beverage alcohol (Dobyns 1940, p. 283). Since it is likely that this congressional testimony was intended to secure additional appropriations for enforcement, the claims of such mammoth diversions are suspect. However, even more modest figures suggest systematic fraud.

The technique of diversion most often employed took advantage of the complicated chain of subsidiary denaturing plants allowed by the Volstead Act. Large distillers produced denatured alcohol but also sold alcohol in its natural state to smaller, independent firms for them to process. These firms could also pass along pure alcohol to other, even smaller plants. During this series of transactions, alcohol could be illegally diverted at any point. There was no way to monitor sales and verify them as legitimate. Distillers might sell 10,000 gallons to a dummy perfume manufacturer or chemical plant in receipt of a legal permit; the alcohol would then be sent to bootleggers. Some would be reserved to make whatever item the company was expected to produce, and this commodity (cologne, for example), with records faked to show a volume large enough to account for the diversion, would then be shipped to a wholesaler known as a cover house. The bill for the inflated amount of cologne would be paid and the deal completed. Such a ruse was almost foolproof. Inspection was woefully inadequate; prohibition agents were prevented from investigating beyond the point of the initial sale of alcohol to the manufacturer; and the number of legitimate companies requesting permits was increasing as a consequence of rapid industrial development.

The reluctance of the Volstead Act to monitor more stringently how businesses used their allocations of alcohol stemmed not simply from an unwillingness to expose the inherent problems of enforcement. Rather, it betrayed Prohibition's own sense of almost paralytic ideological bewilderment.

For the duration of the Volstead Act, there was a pervasive anxiety not only about interfering with personal behavior, but also about intruding on the marketplace. Just as individual consumption was protected as a right, so too was private enterprise sanctified. Under the direction of the league, the antiliquor movement had aligned itself more and more closely with the cult of efficiency and had come to regard corporate leaders as benefactors rather than as plutocrats. Two years before the passage of the 18th Amendment, a dry activist had written: “Every psychological trend in modern life is today sweeping towards Prohibition. … The cry of efficiency is on everyone's lips. It has come up out of the added pressure on our modern life, which has driven us to a scientific attitude towards life, a determined effort to find out just how much human force there is in every man or woman, and to get it all out, and not let any of it go to waste, to stop the leak at any cost” (Banks 1917, p. 48). But once this leak had been stopped through the law, then further governmental tinkering might risk damage to the delicate gears of the machinery of production. The individual, unfettered from seductive influences, would return to a natural state of sobriety; likewise, prohibitionists assumed business, left to its own devices, would be a strong ally, grateful for the profits extracted from a now abstemious labor force.

Throughout much of the history of temperance and prohibition, a tension can be traced between a public health perspective—one that emphasized the need for collective action on behalf of those disabled by drunkenness, stressed the accountability of a powerful, profiteering business in the creation of disease and human misery, and accepted the premise that genuine democracy could not exist so long as pervasive, systematic polluting of the social environment was allowed—and an essentially antagonistic free enterprise perspective—one that emphasized discipline, efficiency, and self-restraint.

Only for a brief period during the 1890s did at least some elements within the movement accept the implications of the call to liquidate an entire industry. But while a broad anticorporate agenda was rejected and though the politics of prohibition grew increasingly racist and demagogic as the league took command, the central contradiction could not be evaded. There was no convincing way to reconcile the confiscation of private property with a faith in the sacred rationality of the market. Prohibitionists invoked their descendency from abolition because such a heritage served to validate the justice of the cause as well as restrict the meaning of reform to a millennial moral triumph. The precedent of abolition had established that an evil traffic could be destroyed and owners dispossessed of their tainted wealth, all without threatening the legitimate property rights of other economic sectors.

There were, however, fundamental differences between commerce in beer and commerce in human bodies. Despite tirades against liquor as the Simon Legree of the soul, Prohibition could never successfully equate literal physical slavery and slavery to alcohol. No matter how aggressive and seductive the marketing of liquor might be, drunkenness still involved self-induced surrender of independence. Prohibitionists did argue that the power of alcohol to form moral lesions discounted the possibility of free choice, but this largely metaphorical line of reasoning was specious since its extensions could not easily be controlled. Although temperance and prohibition were always imbued with nostalgia for a bucolic and mythic past in which behavior was managed by a patriarchal guardianship, the concept of government as moral trustee did not belong exclusively to those who were looking backward. Socialists could just as easily appropriate it and demand that government intervene to protect the individual against the predatory attacks of a whole range of industrial buccaneers. Once the principle was established that the conduct of citizens was vulnerable to a pathogenic milieu, then regulating that milieu became legitimate.

As the business community recognized even before the passage of the 18th Amendment, the limits of this regulation were difficult to confine. The Commercial and Financial Chronicle declared “that it is a singular component of reform that nothing is so important as the task at hand, whether it be the manufacture and sale of intoxicants, or the eight hour day, or daylight saving, or the removal of signboards from vacant lots. … The moral of it all is that we cannot preserve either our liberties, our institutions, or our peculiar form of government, if we are to let self-appointed guardians of the public weal seek the cover of general law for the purpose of obtaining their self-satisfying ends. This prohibition measure and mandate is but one of these ends. It is … a theory of the proper social life. In precisely the same manner theorists are seeking to control individual life in commerce” (Timberlake 1963, p. 78).

In the enforcement of Prohibition there was always an underlying sensitivity to the boundaries of regulation. Even in the approach to its most notorious enemy—the brewery industry—prohibitionists proceeded with great caution.

The authors of the Volstead Act refused to adopt statutes, which were included in some state laws, that banned entirely the production of malt liquors. Instead, a clause was included that permitted breweries to manufacture beer as long as it was dealcoholized to 0.5 percent. This allowance of “near-beer” created further opportunity for evasion; agents were unable to monitor which part of the overall production wound up as legal beverage and which part as real beer was drawn off and secretly piped into vats for bootleggers (Dobyns 1940, p. 279).

The exemptions allowed under the Volstead Act seriously compounded the problems of enforcement. Not only were the energies of the inadequate and poorly trained bureau hopelessly divided between a myriad of potential points of violation, but more important, the special allowances contaminated the whole body of antiliquor law. Official disinterest in evasion encouraged noncompliance; an obvious lack of consistency in the way that availability was controlled made people question whether public policy actually intended to achieve a dry America.

Gusfield, in attempting to account for the gaping loopholes of the Volstead Act, has proposed that Prohibition never seriously aimed to curb drinking. The 18th Amendment was, he said, a ceremonial victory for the middle class, “a dramatic event of deviant designation.” The legislation itself, rather than its application, “affirmed one cultural standard of conventionality, and derogated another.” As a “symbolic gesture,” it thus made no difference if Prohibition was enforced. “Laws may be honored in their breach as much as in their performance,” he declared (Filstead 1972, p. 70).

Gusfield clearly makes an important distinction between law as a “designating ritual,” and law as purposive in instrumental terms. But the hesitation and apparent arbitrariness that compromised enforcement need not only be accounted for as part of “a patterned evasion of norms.” There were tremendous difficulties in preventing production and distribution and serious political constraints imposed on eliminating loopholes. It must also be borne in mind that for all the corrupt, inept, and discretionary ways that that law was written and enforced, it did reduce the amount that Americans drank.

There is now little dispute about the fact that the annual per-capita consumption level declined as the result of Prohibition. Because of the long war of statistics fought between wet and dry forces, data, no matter how useful, have often been assumed to be little more than disguised polemics. There was, of course, a surfeit of spurious evidence churned out by both sides. But there is a body of credible information suggesting that the 18th Amendment had a substantial impact on drinking patterns.

Those who opposed Prohibition argued that Americans were drinking less during the decades leading up to the 18th Amendment, and that a severely restrictive policy was both unnecessary and counterproductive. “All observant Americans more than fifty years of age,” W. H. Stayton wrote, “had, up to 1920, noticed a marked national change in the direction of sobriety. With the coming of national prohibition, that tendency was reversed” (Stayton 1923, p. 34). Statistics, however, reveal an entirely different picture of per-capita consumption. Between 1900 and 1904, consumption was 1.36 proof gallons of spirits and 16.94 gallons of beer annually. Between 1910 and 1914, the annual figures had risen to 1.46 proof gallons and 20.38 gallons (U.S. Department of Commerce 1923, p. 397).

In the 1932 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that recapped the experience of national prohibition, Clark Warburton presented data indicating a dramatic decline in consumption during the early years of Prohibition and a leveling off as the 1920s ended. In a persuasive summary of research on this question, Norman H. Clark concluded:

[Warburton's] synthesis was conjectural and his projections were admittedly rough but they were refined in 1948 by the century's most prominent and indefatigable researcher in alcohol studies, the late E.M. Jellinek. Even more recently, Joseph Gusfield has reexamined both these studies and concluded that “Prohibition was effective in sharply reducing the rate of alcohol consumption in the United States. We may set the outer limit of that at about 50 percent and the inner limit at about one-third less alcohol consumed by the total population than had been the case … [before Prohibition] in the United States (Clark 1976, pp. 146–147).

Various data tend to confirm his judgment. Death rates from cirrhosis were 29.5 per 100,000 in 1911 for men, and 10.7 in 1929; admissions to state mental hospital for disease classified as alcoholic psychosis fell from 10.1 in 1919, to 3.7 in 1922, rising to 4.7 by 1928 (Emerson 1932, p. 59). In two predominately wet states, the decline in alcoholic psychosis was even more dramatic. In New York, it fell from 11.5 in 1910, to 3.0 in 1920, to 6.5 in 1931, and in Massachusetts, from 14.6 in 1910, to 6.4 in 1922, to 7.7 in 1929 (Emerson 1932, pp. 59–60).

National records of arrest for drunkenness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922 (Feldman 1927, p. 367). Reports of welfare agencies from around the country overwhelmingly indicated a dramatic decrease among client population of alcohol-related family problems (Feldman 1927, p. 136).

Although the 18th Amendment, even supporters admitted, was so full of compromise and disparity as to be “amphibious” rather than dry, it still managed to fulfill some of the fundamental expectations about Prohibition. The principal benefits accrued to the group most vulnerable in the past to the devastating effects of drink. Observers, during Prohibition and since, have been unanimous in concluding that the greatest decreases in consumption occurred in the working class, with estimates of a 50-percent decrease (Sinclair 1962, p. 249).10 In large measure, intoxicants priced themselves out of the market. In 1928, when the average family earned $2,600 annually, a quart of beer cost 80 cents, 6 times more expensive than 12 years earlier; gin was $5.90 a quart, 5 times more expensive; and whiskey was $7.00, 4 times more expensive (Clark 1976, p. 54).

Defenders of Prohibition claimed improvements in the physical health and sobriety of the labor force as a vindication of their cause. Workers were more fit for production and more likely to avoid sinking into costly deviance or dependency. Spending money, once squandered at the saloon, was now used to purchase cars and refrigerators. Thus, the 18th Amendment deserved credit for helping to stabilize the behavior of the laboring class and pave the way for prosperity.

Given the dutiful service that the prohibitionists saw themselves delivering to industrial coherence, it came as an incomprehensible betrayal when major elements of the business community abandoned the dry alliance. This defection helped obscure the accomplishments of the 18th Amendment, shift the focus away from the public health benefits and toward the costs paid in terms of personal freedom and increased class conflict, and spawned a campaign to nullify the law through noncompliance.

The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) represented more than a front for the alcohol industry or a plot hatched by the du Ponts. Both of these interpretations are superficially plausible; breweries and distillers vigorously supported the organization of this earliest and most powerful prorepeal group. Pierre du Pont took over the AAPA in 1926 and solicited other millionaires on the basis that an end to Prohibition would save them huge amounts in corporate and personal income taxes. But it is a mistake to regard the AAPA as simply a crude tool wielded by venal interests.

The AAPA and its various subsidiaries (The Crusaders for Young Men and the WONPR, the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform) attacked Prohibition as “wrong in principle, has been equally disastrous in consequences in the hypocrisy, the corruption, the tragic loss of life and the appalling increase of crime which have attended the abortive attempt to enforce it; in the checking of the steady growth of temperance which had preceded it; in the shocking effect it has upon the youth of the nation; in the impairment of constitutional guarantees of individual rights; in the weakening of the sense of solidarity between the citizens and the government which is the only sure basis of a country's strength” (Dobyns 1940, p. 107).

Some of the claims contained in this litany are legends that can be quickly dismissed. Before the 18th Amendment, people were drinking more, not less. There is no convincing evidence that Prohibition brought on a crime wave; homicide had its highest rate of increase between 1900 and 1910; organized rackets, while expanding to take advantage of new opportunities, had been firmly established in urban areas before the 18th Amendment (Feldman 1927, p. 249). According to census statistics, the rate of death from wood or denatured alcohol remained almost constant from its peak year in 1920 of 369 (Feldman 1927, p. 401).

Mystifications constantly appeared in newspapers and magazines as fact. The image became imprinted of Prohibition as a public health hazard; the AAPA, with 800 prominent journalists and cartoonists working as a special committee, popularized the myth of “the tommygun and the poisoned cup” (Dobyns 1940, p. 107).

Even more important to the AAPA in its campaign to undo the 18th Amendment were threats of class strife. Al Capone, while a convenient symbol of the failure of Prohibition, was less terrifying than the spectre of Bolshevism. Advocates of repeal stole the thunder from the dry forces. Prohibitionists argued that “the most characteristic feature of the world today is the breakdown of authority …” (Fisk 1923, p. 8). Respect for the law and the Constitution were bulwarks against “hysterical unrest and anarchy.” The AAPA conjured up the same menance but accused “Volsteadism” of being the Reds' unwitting dupe.

W. H. Stayton, head of the AAPA, spoke directly to the business community and criticized it for being “singularly blind” to the real content of the 18th Amendment. “Surely that class of our citizens who should be most concerned to fight against laws confiscating private property is the employer class. … A few years ago a barrel of whiskey was private property; objectionable property, if you will, but property none-the-less. … Then came forward people saying, ‘We do not approve of that kind of property; we think it works harm to the people.'” Stayton then pitched his warning: “But there are many people in this country who do not approve of accumulated or inherited fortunes, believing them to be harmful to the people; indeed, some of those among us do not approve of any kind of private ownership. When the time comes that these classes demand confiscations to suit their beliefs, the employers will be in no position to turn to the working man for help in sustaining property rights; for the poor man may well reply, ‘No, it was you who made this precedent, and you made it for no good purpose, but with the intent to rob me of my hours of relaxation, so that you might get more work and more profit out of me'” (Stayton 1923, p. 32).

It was this stock in trade nightmare of the Anti-Saloon League that the AAPA appropriated as its own. While the AAPA did borrow and reconceptualize other classic prohibitionist images of dread (the saloon as “the Siamese twin of syphilis” became the hip flask, “the insidious moral danger to which maidens are exposed”), class struggle remained the dominant theme of jeopardy.

The defenders of Prohibition were both enraged and baffled by the betrayal of corporate America. A dry advocate declared that the failure of Prohibition “thus far lies with two elements of our population: the immigrants established in congested city colonies, and a fraction of the élite, to whom the use of alcoholic drinks has become not so much an inveterate habit as the sign and symbol of a luxurious ‘kultur'” (Woods 1923, p. 123). A Methodist minister was more mystified than angry by the apparently self-destructive behavior of the rich: “It is our observation that the laboring man and the poor are not the lawbreakers, but it lies more largely with the rich and the well to do, who seem to think it smart. … Their smartness … is the rankest stupidity, for as a class they would suffer most should the lawless get control and break up all the law” (Tomkins 1923, p. 19).

In their deep resentment and bewilderment, backers of Prohibition did not understand that the very prosperity for which the 18th Amendment took credit had gradually begun to create the need for a new labor force. The worker as exclusively a producer was being transformed into worker as consumer. Fearing national deterioration, prohibitionists argued that “this is an age when we need not more personal liberty, not more pampering and self-indulgence and influences contributory to ease and comfort, but less self-indulgence, less pampering, and more courage to face life's struggle” (Fisk 1923, p. 8). But important elements of the ruling class had to be incited rather than suppressed; a huge advertising industry began to develop in the mid-1920s to manufacture new needs.11 Workers would achieve equality in the marketplace, and their position there had to be respected and enhanced. Freedom of consumption required personal sovereignty; forward-looking companies understood this to be a tenet of economic growth and industrial peace. “Stopping the leaks”—the aim that prohibitionists had for so long advocated—was discarded in favor of a strategic policy of encouraging, or even creating, leaks.

This evolution in the concepts of corporate management took place organically; the ideological shift occurred not as part of a grand conspiratorial design, but rather as a gradual and intuitive reassessment. The worker needed to “blow off steam,” to be vented. As Samuel Gompers, as much a speaker for the employer class as a labor leader, observed: “Prohibition is not a matter of right or wrong. It is not a question of whether we approve of drinking or not. It is a habit, and when you invade a man's habit, you unsettle him. You find that the man who has heretofore been contended to labor as he had been laboring, becomes restive and discontented. … Harmful as vodka was, it enabled the Russian peasant to find surcease from dull monotony. Without it, he found only trouble and torment and the desire to tear down what he could not rebuild” (Stout 1921, p. 135).12

It was largely from the corporate-dominated movement opposing Prohibition that the concept of alcohol control emerged. As Levine suggests, the phrase was rarely used before the passage of the 18th Amendment; during the 1920s, however, it came to represent a pivotal idea in the struggle for repeal (Levine 1979, p. 3). Basically, advocates of control took a position that they defined as a just mean between dangerous polarities. Permitting saloon power to run amok had given rise to futile attempts at imposing moral fetters. A policy of control avoided this dual extremism. Instead of efforts to repress consumption through a total curb on availability, alcohol control emphasized effective regulation. Whereas Prohibition required that government assume the role of punitive moral arbiter, “control” conjured up the image of the state as manager. As part of the critique developed by the AAPA, the argument was made that bureaucratic rationality should underlie any state intervention.

The experiences of foreign countries were seen as especially instructive. The direct involvement of the state in Canadian, Swedish, and English systems of alcohol sales proved, according to proponents of control, that the best safeguards to public order were technical mechanisms rather than sumptuary laws. The example of Carlisle was among the most frequently cited. Here, a board of control bought out the entire alcohol industry in a 500-square-mile area of Scotland and managed the business themselves. The experiment, a wartime measure initiated in 1916, was undertaken in order to reduce problems of drunkenness that had increased sharply because of the doubling of the adult male population brought about by sudden industrial concentration. The city had the highest proportion of criminal convictions to population in all of England. The board proceeded to exert control through restrictive regulation and constructive arrangements. The number of licensed premises was reduced from 203 to 69; the practice of selling a mixture of beer and spirits was prohibited; Sunday closings were enforced, as were bans on sales to young persons. On the constructive side, the board encouraged the sale of food and nonintoxicants. As Lady Astor, an important publicist for the experiment, wrote: “There was a deliberate attempt to conduct a refreshment trade, and food taverns were opened, where a properly cooked meal was offered at a reasonable price” (Astor 1923, p. 274).

The results of direct government involvement were impressive; drunkenness declined rapidly, and the system earned the support of all sectors of the community. In the United States, those who believed that Prohibition constituted a perversion of federal power, pointed to Carlisle as a case in which the state had demonstrated its capacity for creative control. Those who designed public policies surrounding alcohol had to be free from narrow partisan prejudice; according to the AAPA and other adherents of the control model, neither the liquor industry nor the sectarian zealots of the Anti-Saloon League were competent to maintain social stability. Government action to regulate the distribution of liquor was promoted as the antidote to the poisonous viruses of fanaticism. The state, through direct supervision of sales, could both structure patterns of consumption and appropriate and defuse a social issue that had generated conflict and division for nearly 100 years.

The paradigm of control became a powerful theoretical alternative to Prohibition because it refined the principle of government responsibility rather than rejecting it. Control posited a fundamental substitution; instead of moral stewardship, government would provide administrative expertise. Under bureaucratic auspices, a new rationale would evolve. To overcome what John Koren, a leader in the control movement, called “the moral chaos, a morass” resulting from efforts to legislate abstinence, government had first to accept the fact that drinking would go on (Koren 1923, p. 52). However, by exercising its legitimate authority as defender of the public order, government was also entitled to place checks on drinking. George Catlin, author of the book Liquor Control, wrote that the curbs on consumption “on the one hand [must be] sufficiently lenient to be consistent with public opinion and susceptible of competent enforcement by the police without drawback to their more important duties, and, on the other hand, sufficiently vigorous to remove the drinking of intoxicants from the list of significant threats to social order” (Catlin 1932, p. 183). Catlin stressed the importance of particular techniques of regulation being geared to local conditions. Federal law should sustain the authority of the states. Beyond this, Catlin urged that “spirits be compulsorily diluted, discriminately taxed, and available only during certain hours” and recommended the establishment of chartered companies that would have a monopoly control of liquor within their areas (Catlin 1932, p. 184). Although advocates of control were in favor of experimenting with a variety of different forms, there was wide agreement on certain basic principles.

The guiding assumptions for Catlin—that spirits posed a greater threat than beer and wine and therefore required a more restrictive tax and that the liquor trade must not be run for private profit—were tenets of the control position.

In discussing the alcohol control movement it would be a mistake to exaggerate the degree of its influence in changing public opinion. As a theoretical concept, management of consumption was an approach set apart equally from Prohibition and laissez-faire; its stance was too scientific and too dispassionate to gain a following. While the AAPA incorporated in its membership those who made serious attempts to devise regulatory policies as alternatives to Prohibition, the movement for repeal mobilized its support primarily through the use of polemics and propaganda. Despite the earnest and objective inquiries of men like Catlin and Koren, such policy analysis had little impact on the immediate struggle. The battle lines were split between wet and dry, and ideological third parties were anathema. It must be understood, too, as the decade of the 1920s came to an end, that the forces favoring the maintenance of Prohibition were more than holding their own.

The gradual displacement of one model of individual and social behavior (virtue inherent in austerity and self-restraint) by another (virtue inherent in moderate consumption and easy-going compliance) did not constitute a sudden ideological transformation that swept away support for the 18th Amendment. For all the heavily funded organizing of the AAPA and for all the scandals involving both agents of the bureau and Anti-Saloon League members themselves (these latter exemplars of rectitude became implicated in various shady transactions), Prohibition was still strong in 1928. In the election of that year, dry political candidates swept the field. Hoover was an overwhelming victor; 80 of 96 senators, 328 of 424 House members, and 43 of 48 governors elected were backers of the 18th Amendment. The Wickersham Committee, appointed in 1928 to investigate the 18th Amendment, came out with a report that, while including minority opinions, nonetheless endorsed Prohibition and urged stronger enforcement. Even William Randolph Hearst, one of the principal opponents of Prohibition, as late as 1929, regarded repeal as out of the question. The prize-winning essay in the national contest sponsored by his papers proposed redefining beer as nonintoxicating; a more direct attack on the 18th Amendment was seen as political adventurism (Hearst 1929).

Prohibition was part of the Constitution and thus protected by an aura of the immutable. Breaking the law defied but did not overthrow official legitimacy. “Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment is pure nonsense—thirteen states with a population less than half of New York state can prevent repeal until Halley's Comet comes in,” Clarence Darrow had observed (Dobyns 1940, p. 389). But beyond this practical consideration, repeal involved an element of the blasphemous.13

Economic collapse created the possibility for extreme and unprecedented measures.14 By 1930, the AAPA-backed referenda drives had produced victory for repudiation in nine states. The primary argument now made for repeal was no longer the demoralizing effects of Prohibition on civil liberties or class harmony; the end of the 18th Amendment was presented as the key to economic salvation. In the pamphlet Prohibition and the Deficit, the AAPA declared that “by the end of 1931 annual liquor tax collections since 1920, if national prohibition had not intervened, should have totalled practically eleven billion dollars. This money might have been used (if all other sources of revenue had been availed of) to reduce our 1931 indebtedness from $16,801,000,000 to $5,801,000,000, If we continue our estimate, by the end of 1933 we should have a balanced budget and a public debt of $7,306,000,000 instead of $20,341,000,000” (Dobyns 1940, p. 377). Alcohol was now linked to a patriotic cause; just as Lincoln had turned to the liquor trade in 1862 to finance the war effort, so too did Roosevelt campaign in 1932 on the promise to repeal the 18th Amendment and revive an industry that could provide both jobs and tax revenue. Nine days after his inauguration, Roosevelt sent before Congress a piece of legislation modifying the Volstead Act and legalizing the sale of beer. During the summer of 1933, the administration stumped for repeal; with James Farley in charge of the effort, and the AAPA and WONPR providing organizational support, repeal was promoted as a key element of a recovery program.

In a series of state elections to select delegates to conventions, the degree of shift in popular sentiment was measured. Michigan, which had a plurality of 207,000 for the 18th Amendment in 1919, voted for the 21st Amendment by 547,000; overall, repeal triumphed 3 to 1 (15 million to 4 million). The necessary 35 states ratified the amendment by December 1933, and what Roosevelt described as the “damnable affliction of Prohibition” came to an end (Blocker 1976, p. 242).


While retreating from prohibition enforcement, the federal government retained responsibility to regulate the legitimate production of distilled spirits, wine, and beer and to prevent the illegal production of these products. These functions have been consolidated since 1972 in the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). After repeal, most questions regarding alcohol devolved to the states. Seven continued with prohibition, though 5 of these declared beer to be nonintoxicating; 12 states decided to permit liquor, but only for home consumption; 29 states allowed liquor by the glass. Legislators vowed ritualistically to prevent the return of the saloon and exclude the liquor traffic from political influence.

The Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) laws that the states did adopt were designed in part to curb the most notorious abuses of the pre-Prohibition era. Restrictions were imposed on hours and days of sales in an effort to diminish the bar's seduction of the breadwinner from his domestic obligations. Sunday closings were observed; liquor could no longer be sold on election days: the “tied-house,” blamed for inciting extreme forms of consumption behavior, was banned. Visibility requirements were instituted; in some states they mandated that bars be open to public inspection, in others they kept the spectacle of the drinking act safely hidden from the eyes of children or decent citizens.

These laws were full of conceptual confusion. On one hand, they embodied a ceremonial deference to those Americans sensitive to the morally fraught nature of alcohol use. But on the other, it was precisely this problem-oriented attitude toward alcohol that repeal had undermined. The issues of public sensibility or public morality were inextricably linked to a discredited past; temperance, which once had denoted moderate use, now conjured up the image of prohibitionist fanaticism. The role of the state was to oversee orderly distribution rather than to curtail availability.

A wariness of moral intervention was only one element in the position that the states assumed. Economics was another major factor. The exigencies of the fiscal crisis forced many commonwealths to turn to the beverage industry for help. Between 1933 and 1935, 15 states adopted monopoly systems; these states were broke and in order to stock their chains of stores had to buy on credit from the distillers. In Ohio in 1935 the Department of Liquor Control boasted that “without one cent of capital, the Department faced the problem of purchasing on credit a sufficient amount of liquor to supply Ohioans with safe, palatable, and legal liquor” (Harrison and Laine 1936, p. 119). This dependency created a pattern whereby revenue rather than social control became the guiding concern; indebted to the industry and desperate to generate funds to help finance local government, states found themselves in the position of stimulating demand and participating in what only a few years before was still widely considered “the nefarious trade.”

The alliance between state government and the liquor industry produced revenues that were often earmarked for special purposes; hospitals, schools, drought relief, and mothers' aid all received funds that served to heighten enthusiasm for sales. A trade magazine underscored the industry's own promotion of these benefits (Dobyns 1940, p. 418).

A little child is playing happily in the streets of a big city. With all the strength of a twelve-year-old, he throws the ball against the side of a building. It bounces off his hand on the rebound. Quickly the youth runs after the ball into the middle of the street. Brakes screech wildly. One anguished scream rends the air. Johnny lies unconscious beneath the wheels of a big truck, his two legs broken.

Were it not for alcoholic beverages, Johnny might go through life a helpless cripple. Thanks to the revenue derived from liquor taxes, however, the state has been able to build and maintain a large hospital just for cases like this.

And this is only one of the many splendid causes to which liquor revenue is put. Publicity has been often given in the past to the so-called evils of liquor while the sale has been, and is, attacked vigorously by varying numbers of drys. Small stress, on the other hand, is given to the enormous benefits derived from liquor taxes.

However, the postrepeal rehabilitation of the liquor industry stemmed from more than such putative public service. Not only did the manufacturers of alcohol subsidize indirectly the general welfare, but they also produced a commodity that had become decontaminated. The experience of the 18th Amendment endowed drinking with a new prestige, both social and moral. Consumption was exhibited as a badge of tolerance and civility. Conversely, efforts to regulate availability grew tainted; as Roosevelt had said in his repeal proclamation, the proper interventionist role of the government was limited to “educating every citizen towards temperance.” Responsible individual behavior could be encouraged and even taught, but not imposed or coerced. After Prohibition, the problems associated with alcohol were seen more and more as ones of personal choice or personal disability.

Today the emphasis on individual accountability and the distaste for vigorous governmental action appear more firmly enshrined than ever. Self-care and a corresponding antagonism toward a beneficient “Big Brother” have become tenets of a popular critique of the welfare state. Institutionalized altruism is increasingly perceived as counterproductive, the cause rather than the cure for the ills that afflict us. Overregulation is now a code phrase conjuring up an elaborate set of inept and self-righteous rules, impossible to enforce and corrosive in the sweep of their mandate. Citizens, it follows, are best protected by being left to their own devices. Of course, a basic education for living should be provided. (“Many of the same decision making mechanisms involved in deciding how to use alcohol will be involved in deciding how to drive a car, how to handle finances, when to get married, and how to plan for a future life,” Chafetz writes [1974].) But once such skills have been imparted, then their application depends on free, individual choice.

Health has become conceptualized as a duty: “One has an obligation,” Leon Kass writes, “to preserve one's own good health. The theory of a right to health flies in the face of good sense, serves to undermine personal responsibility, and in addition, places obligation where it cannot help but be unfulfillable.” In this same context, John Knowles groups “sloth, gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy and smoking” together as at-risk behaviors that people select as part of a personal life-style (Crawford 1978, pp. 14–16).

But while powerful, this concept that individuals are held accountable for themselves is still not unchallenged. An important countervailing theoretical perspective has emerged. The environmental movement, the antismoking campaign, the protests against atomic power, and the oil companies all have a collective view of hazards. For example, a growing contention is that pollution is so pervasive that individuals cannot avoid being exposed to its hazards.

The political configurations of this alliance are unclear. However, a concern for the social and physical ecology has already led some groups to develop sophisticated lobbying techniques and mobilize successful and massive campaigns of public education.

Prohibition will certainly never return. Above and beyond the mechanical problems of enforcement, it failed originally because it created no stabilizing vested interests. No reform movement can survive unless it is rooted in new institutions. But while extreme forms of controlling consumption of alcohol are utterly lacking in feasibility, there is the chance that state policy may once again assume a more interventionist role. The boundaries between personal and governmental responsibility constantly shift. Although a mass movement to curb drinking will never reemerge, one can conceive that new, extensive regulation of the liquor industry might be integrated into a paradigm of environmental safeguards and corporate responsibility.

Antialcohol organizing reached its pinnacle of influence during historical periods in which agitation against the plundering of the social and physical landscape was most intense. Efforts to curb drinking emerged from broad reformist sentiment. The relative obscurity today of any alcohol control movement may be deceptive. The conditions are present for a revival of widespread interest in the problems of alcohol. No one can predict if such a resurgence of popular concern will, in fact, develop, but the record of the past suggests that movements once thought safely interred do not always remain in their graves.

A brief review of the shifting attitudes toward cigarette smoking demonstrates how quickly a substance once thought innocuous or even beneficial can be redefined as dangerous and deviant. (The material presented here is a synopsis of Nuehring and Markle 1974, and Markle and Troyer 1979.) Cigarettes were brought back to America in the 1850s by tourists returning from England. Smoking was initially tolerated and even endorsed; rations of cigarettes provided to soliders during the Civil War were regarded as crucial to their well-being. By the 1870s, however, cigar manufacturers, wary of competition, attempted to discredit cigarette smoking. Lurid accusations were made: cigarettes were laced with opium and the paper bleached with arsenic; the content was derived from garbage and packaged by Chinese lepers. Transformed into a vice, cigarette smoking began to be taken up by the temperance movement; pledges against smoking and drinking were often made together by churchgoers. Cigarettes and drinking were attacked as an evil partnership threatening to undermine physical and moral health. Young people were considered especially vulnerable, and delinquency and school failure were often traced directly to indulgence in these dirty and debilitating habits. So widespread was the association between smoking and antisocial behavior that 14 states passed prohibition laws against cigarettes during the period 1895 to 1914.

For many of the same reasons that the 18th Amendment was repealed and drinking returned to respectability, smoking also underwent a rehabilitation in public opinion. By 1927, the bans had all been overturned. By the 1930s, cigarettes were grouped with alcohol as aids to economic revival through their provision of important tax revenues. In addition, smoking along with drinking became raised to the status of the normative. Nonsmokers, just like teetotalers, were suspect as antisocial eccentrics.

By the late 1950s, the discovery of the link between cancer and cigarettes began to erode the legitimacy of smoking. But the identification of these risks was incorporated into an assimilative rather than coercive approach. Consumers were to be alerted; once sufficient information was provided, then presumably those smokers, or potential smokers, would abandon or avoid self-destructive behavior. These educative principles underlay congressional hearings held in 1957 on the hazards of smoking, the antismoking curricula adopted by public schools (Florida passed a law in 1965 requiring students be taught “the adverse health effects of cigarette smoking”), and the Federal Communications Commission's decision in 1967 to have warning labels attached to all packages.

Such initial efforts, though targeted at the consumer as opposed to the product, nonetheless aroused the deep concerns of a well-organized and powerful industry. Tobacco is the fifth largest cash crop for the entire United States and is probably the best investment of all farm products. The manufacturers have a lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, which Senator Edward Kennedy called the most effective in all of Washington. Tobacco has significant alliances with other sectors of the economy (for example, the industry contributed $400 million to advertisers in 1977 alone) as well as major links to the federal government. Some $1.3 billion were added to the balance of payments through foreign sales in 1977, and $2.3 billion were paid in excise taxes during the same year.

All of these resources, substantial in terms of both money and political capital, were mobilized to defend the position of the industry. Cigarette manufacturers made strenuous efforts to revamp their image. Companies donated funds to a whole range of worthy civic causes, from book-mobiles in poor areas to the production of documentary films about American Indians. Contributions to cancer and heart disease drives were also made; the Tobacco Institute proclaimed that the industry as a whole was committed to research into tobacco-related health issues, but emphasized that “the answer to this unsolved problem cannot be side-stepped merely because an apparent statistical association has spotlighted a convenient though probably innocent suspect” (Nuehring and Markle 1974, p. 523). Going beyond disclaimers, the industry voluntarily imposed on itself new regulations that restricted appeals to youth.

Despite these defensive maneuvers thrown up by the industry, the antismoking movement, far from being placated, has grown increasingly militant and prohibitionist since the middle 1960s. Changes in rhetoric reflect important shifts in the movement's operating premises. As Markle and Troyer (1979) observe, attacks on smoking have taken on a distinctly coercive quality. Smokers, who before were appealed to as unenlightened, are now regarded as noxious. Their habit, once considered a piece of personal behavior that should be voluntarily shed for the good of the smoker, has been redefined as an invasion of the rights of the nonsmoker that must be aggressively resisted. Gaining strength from a general upsurge in public concern for the environment, the antismoking movement has declared that freedom of choice, i.e., whether to smoke or not, is as spurious a privilege as that invoked by industrialists dumping pollutants into a river. From this sense that the common good necessarily takes precedence over perverse private satisfaction, stringent laws curtailing smoking have begun to be proposed. Federal regulatory agencies have taken positions in support of the movement, and initiatives on the state level have been widespread. In California, a proposition that would have relegated smoking to the confines of private homes was beaten back after the tobacco industry spent $5.6 million to defeat it.

Although a number of parallels between the history of antismoking and antidrinking agitation present themselves, it is not the intention here to enumerate them or to suggest a pattern of rigid correspondence. What must be recognized, however, is that cigarettes once appeared as inviolate to such public discrediting as alcohol now seems to be. The tobacco industry was respectable and politically well connected; smoking was so well accepted in American life that opposition was tantamount to faddism or bigotry. The disintegration of this apparently solid structure of legitimacy resulted from a convergence of forces; growing awareness of the hazards of smoking, rising concern about environmental contaminants, the emergence of a cultural style whereby individual purity (the backpacker, the jogger, the natural-food eater) is defined as the feasible span of self-determination.

The same constellation of elements may not coalesce in precisely the same way to form a revived antiliquor movement. We must be aware, nonetheless, that cycles of organized opposition to smoking and drinking have coincided, and that in the past, many of the same impulses inspired both. The times today are volatile, and one can easily imagine that “moral athleticism”—the term Gusfield applied to the temperance movement—could once again have a broad appeal.


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Warner and Rossett (1975), in their article “The Effects of Drinking on Off-Spring,” revive a theory that postrepeal reaction rendered out of vogue. They observed that the moralizing tone of pre-Prohibition temperance writers caused Americans to discount previous work on parental drinking. They go on to say that recent renewed interest in the effect of maternal alcohol on offspring is an example of a common phenomenon—that of an old and unfashionable idea being restored to respectability.

Fetal alcohol syndrome, noted as the result of the gin epidemic in London (1720–1750), caused physicians to appeal to Parliament for control of the liquor industry; spirits were identified as a cause of “weak, feeble and distempered children” (Warner and Rossett 1975, p. 1396). Lyman Beecher, who as early as the 1820s in the United States saw liquor as a race poison, wrote: “The free and universal use of intoxicating liquors for a few centuries cannot fail to bring down our race from the majestic, athletic forms of our Fathers, to the similitude of a despicable and puny race of men” (pp. 1401–1402). In July 1979, the concept of drink-induced mental defects was given lurid endorsement in a television news magazine feature on fetal alcohol syndrome.


Harry Elmer Barnes's book Prohibition Versus Civilization (1932) is an especially rich compendium of diatribe and invective. Among the central propositions he presented were:

The sense of the invidious at the root of the prohibitionist sentiment. “It is a common and natural trait,” he argued “to hate those who are able to enjoy the good things of life from which we are excluded. The austere Puritans of modern vintage, usually cold, undeveloped, and desiccated personalities, shrink before the joyous intimacy promoted by even mild alcoholic indulgence. But we can hardly hate with good conscience things which we approve, even though we cannot enjoy or possess them. To allow the satisfying sentiment of envy and hatred full bloom we must find that the things denied us are bad and wicked. This saves us from the withering effects of overt and uncompensated envy and puts us in a frame of mind to go out and take these damnable things from our more fortunate contemporaries” (p. 32).

Prohibition as a hypocritical deceit. “A man may desire to cover up dubious economic transactions, hard bargains with widows on mortgages, cruelty in the domestic circle, sex delinquency, and what not. He finds a stern attitude towards drink a splendid alibi and an effective means of securing approval of the good people in the community” (p. 33).

Barnes also creates a rouges' gallery of “health cranks,” “sadistic abnormals,” “commercial evangelists,” “designing capitalists bent on the realization of ‘Fordismus,'” “racists,” and “boot-leggers and racketeers” (p. 37).


Sinclair's impugnings in Prohibition: The Era of Excess (1962) are often remarkably similar to the tales of horror told by antiprohibitionists in the 1920s: “With a terrible faith in equality,” he observes, “the prohibitionists often wanted to suppress in society the sins they found in themselves” (pp. 26–27). He quotes G. K. Chesterton approvingly: “When the Puritan or the modern Christian finds that his right hand offends him he not only cuts it off but sends an executioner with a chopper all down the street, chopping off the hands of all the men, women and children in the town. Then he has a curious feeling of comradeship and of everyone being comfortably together.” Sinclair goes on: “It was in this wish to extend their own repression to all society that the drys felt themselves most free from their constant inward struggle. Indeed, they defended their attacks on the personal liberty of other men by stating that they were bringing these men liberty for the first time.

… Of course, in reality, the drys were trying to bring personal liberty to themselves, by externalizing their anguished struggles against their own weaknesses in their battle to reform the weaknesses of others. The conflict between conscience and lust, between superego and id, was transferred by the drys from their own bodies to the body politic of all America; and, in the ecstasy of that paranoia which Freud saw in all of us, they would have involved the whole earth” (pp. 26–27).


For another account of the commercial role liquor played in the dealings of fur traders and other merchants with North American Indians, see MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969). These authors also argue that the Indian tribes had no exceptional natural urge toward drunkenness or alcohol consumption.


Rorabaugh (1979, p. 144) notes: “During the early nineteenth century, a sizable number of Americans for the first time began to drink to excess by themselves. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking in which periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation. It was necessary to devise a name for this new pattern of drinking, and during these years the terms ‘spree' and ‘frolic' came into popular usage.”


Krout (1925) quotes from an exchange between two rival journals in 1842. The editor of The Essex Washingtonian had suggested that if the Washingtonians prevailed, then the church-based temperance movement would be “blown to the moon.” The Journal of the American Temperance Movement responded: “In the late extraordinary reformation of drunkards, a subject of thankfulness, however transient, but more especially when resulting as it has in thousands of cases of permanent sobriety, a deep sympathy was felt for this unfortunate class—prejudiced against religion … by long absence from the Sabbath's influence and by subjection to the vile and debasing principles of the bar-room and dram-shop. To induce them to sign the pledge, these prejudices, it was supposed, must be consulted. The wharf, the markethouse, the public hall, rather than the church, must be the place of meeting. … In the prevalence of pure Washingtonianism, the reformation of drunkards and the relief of the miserable, every philanthropist, every patriot, and Christian ought to rejoice, but when the unprincipled improve a temperance meeting to revile the Clergy, the Churches or the Magistracy, they should receive the withering rebuke of every virtuous citizen” (pp. 203–204).


The connection has often been observed between loss, change, and the anxiety, depression, and nostalgia they provoke and the use of alcohol. Clark (1976) comments on the “guilt-ridden but sentimental reverence” for a mythological past that is reflected in the songs of the early 1800s: “Home Sweet Home,” “Old Oaken Bucket.” The names of whiskies also conjure up wistful remembrance: “Old Grand-Dad,” “Southern Comfort” (p. 29).

The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous recalls drinking at a tavern in the 1920s. His account is infused with a sense of loss and longing: “The warm, friendly smell of wet sawdust, stilled beer and whiskey … the feeling of being at home, the feeling for the men. In later years, I would think of that and nothing else. I wanted it again.” Jack London also wrote about drinking in a saloon as an experience laden with emotion: “A newsboy on the street, a sailor, a miner, a wanderer in far-off lands, always where men come together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and days, always they came together over alcohol. The saloon was the place of congregation. Men gathered to it as primitive men gathered about the fire at the mouth of the cave” (London 1913, pp. 6–7).

The maternal, caretaking ambience of the tavern and saloon to which this testimony alludes supports the thesis that a high consumption level of alcohol is correlated with punishment or deprivation of dependency needs. Bacon et al. (1965, p. 43) found that “frequent drunkenness or high consumption, or both, tend to occur in cultures where needs for dependence are deprived or punished, both in childhood and in adult life, and where a high degree of responsible, independent, and achieving behavior are required.”


Durkheim (1972) was one of the most profound and most deeply pessimistic diagnosticians of “the malady of infiniteness which torments our age. … For men to see before him boundless, free, and open space, he must have lost sight of the moral barrier which under normal conditions would cut off his view. He no longer feels those moral forces that restrain him and limit his horizon. … The notion of the infinite, then, appears only at those times when moral discipline has lost its ascendency over wants; it is a sign of the attrition that occurs during periods when the moral system which has prevailed for centuries is shaken” (p. 174).

The individual could not cure himself of his morbid insatiability; “since the individual has no way of limiting [his passions], this must necessarily be accomplished by some force outside him. A regulative force must play the same role for moral needs which the organism plays for physical needs” (p. 176).


“For the privilege of breaking the law, saloons delivered to the politicians both money and votes. Money, of course, was needed to finance elections and to satisfy the politicians' more personal needs. The method of collecting this graft and the amount saloons were required to pay varied from place to place. In New York City, for example, a saloon paid $5 a month for Sunday openings, $25 a month for harboring prostitutes, and $25 a month for permitting gambling. These fees were collected by a Tammany wardman who later divided the money with those higher up. The patrolman got his graft from the local retail liquor dealers association, supported by a monthly contribution of about $6.50 from each saloon” (Timberlake 1963, p. 112).

“ An extreme example of the power of the saloon in politics was furnished by Louisville in 1905. In an election that year, the local city machine defeated a reform movement only by dint of faithful work on the part of its saloon allies. On election day nearly a hundred bartenders and saloonkeepers were qualified as election officials, and at least 4,500 fraudulent votes were cast, of which 4,000 were registered as residing in the upper rooms of saloons. Voting places in ten precincts were moved, nine of them to the rear of some saloon, and in each of these ten precincts the voters were found to have cast their ballots in alphabetical order. With the help of police, dozens of reformers serving as election watchers were thrown out of the polling places, and some were knocked down, clubbed, and beaten” (Timberlake 1963, p. 113).


In testimony before the Wickersham Commission, Whiting Williams concluded: “Very much of the misconception with respect to the liquor problem comes from the fact that most of the people who are writing and talking about the prohibition problem most actively are people who, in the nature of things, have never had contact with the liquor problem in its earlier pre-prohibition days, and who, therefore, unduly are impressed with the changes with respect to drinking that they see on their own level; their own level, however, representing an extremely small proportion of the population.”

“ The great mass, who, I think, are enormously more involved in the whole problem, of course, in the nature of things, are not articulate and are not writing in the newspapers” (Sinclair 1962, p. 249).


H. A. Overstreet, one of the pioneers of the advertising industry and an early master of epistemological self-righteousness, helped make popular the view that being “ill-liberal” was tantamount to insanity. “A man,” he wrote, “may be angrily against racial equality, public housing, the TVA, financial and technical aid to backward countries, organized labor, and the preaching of social rather than salvational religion. … Such people may appear ‘normal' in the sense they may be able to hold a job and otherwise maintain their status as members of society; but they are, as we now recognize, well along the road to mental illness” (Van den Haag 1975, p. 123).


In The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair (1956) takes the opposite tack; “The Communists use liquor as a sort of Geiger-counter, probing for the weaknesses of men and women. They have used it to gain recruits, they have used it to steal a nation's most guarded secrets” (p. 123).


Felix Frankfurter declared that “if the process by which this Amendment came into the Constitution is open to question, one can hardly dare contemplate the moral justification of some of the other amendments, or of the Constitution itself. Whether we like it or not, the 18th Amendment is!” (Frankfurter 1923, p. 193).


Historians have debated the extent to which the Great Depression and New Deal constitute a fundamental break or turning point in the American experience. Degler has written that “as the Civil War represented a watershed in American thought, so the depression and its New Deal marked the crossing of a divide from which, it would seem, there could be no turning back.” Louis Hacker uses the description of “the Third American Revolution,” and Hofstader argues that a “drastic new departure in the history of American reformism” was set in motion after 1929. On the other hand, Richard Kirkendall cautions against exaggerating the extent to which the changes produced during this period should be construed as a “divide,” and emphasizes instead the important continuity with the past that the decade of the 1930s still maintained (Braeman et al. 1964, pp. 146, 148, et passim).

But whether one holds with Kirkendall that the Great Depression simply accelerated “the rise of a collectivistic or organizational type of capitalism evident since the third quarter of the 19th century,” or whether one is persuaded that some more fundamental cleavage took place, it seems clear that economic collapse did require people to take stock of a whole range of traditional beliefs and values. In the New Deal's pragmatic approach to reconstruction, and in the corresponding advent of the “guarantor state,” the bulwarks of Prohibition disintegrated. The ideal of individual abstinence came to be perceived as wrongheaded and even cruel, an artifact of a discredited ideological system. As Gusfield puts it, “The Great Depression dissolved the magic power of the old symbols. …” (Braeman et al. 1968, p. 305); the sources for public disorder and misery so obviously transcended personal indulgence that the struggle against drink took on an almost antedeluvian irrelevance.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK216414


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