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The Noble Experiment

The Prohibition years in America

Created date

November 22nd, 2011

Humorist Will Rogers once mused, Prohibition is better than no liquor at all. The phrase, while brief, nonetheless cuts to the heart of what was arguably the greatest legislative failure in American history a law that could never work. To many, the very idea of a constitutional amendment that outlawed the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages defied logic. But amazingly, politicians and reformers used enough clout and sleight of hand to prevail, thus beginning a 13-year dry spell that would pit forced morality against natural appetites. This legislative gaffe, which has masqueraded under the guise of various monikers like the Volstead Act and the Noble Experiment, is the subject of New York Times bestselling author Daniel Okrent s latest book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner, 2011). For nearly five years, the story of Prohibition took the former managing editor of LIFE magazine on a whirlwind research tour that led from Los Angeles, Calif., to London, England, producing the equivalent of 11,000 note cards, all to explain how Americans could pass such a law and keep it in effect for over ten years. A lot of things surprised me throughout the writing of this book, Okrent recalls. When I started working on it, my mind was full of the pop culture imagery associated with Prohibition the flappers, gangsters, and speakeasies featured in 80 years worth of Hollywood movies. Then as I got deeper into it, I found a highly complex history that goes back long before the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919.

Drinking nation

America was a drinking nation from the start. In 1810, the U.S. boasted an astounding 14,000 distilleries; by 1830, American adults gulped down, per person, seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. Campaigns against drinking emerged around the same time, some of them as preposterous as their 20th century culmination. It s with the Industrial Revolution that we see the beginnings of public opposition to alcohol, says Okrent. Temperance supporters distaste for drinkers came from seeing men getting incredibly plowed to flee the misery of numbing factory work and harsh frontier farm life. Nineteenth century non-drinkers ranged from those who signed personal pledges of lifelong abstinence to demagogues like Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler, who was perfectly willing to foist his teatotaling beliefs on the nation. Pleas to drop the bottle carried over into the 1900s, eventually giving rise to the Constitution s 18th Amendment and 13 years of gross hypocrisy and corruption. Indeed, while lecturing at Yale Law School, former President William Howard Taft prophetically declared that the business of manufacturing alcohol would go out of the hands of law abiding [citizens], and into those of the quasi-criminal class. Prohibition was destined to fail because people like Wayne Wheeler were simply unbending in their demands, notes Okrent. Had they allowed beer and wine, the law may have had a chance. As it was, it forbade everything, passing the control of liquor to criminals and making alcohol taboo, which only tempted people to drink.

Do as I say

In reality, Prohibition was little more than a toehold of power for politicians and reformers, addressing few if any of the problems they promised to solve and creating new troubles in the process. Dry officials who pledged to fight a war against booze often pocketed money from those who illegally traded in it; with one congressman, according to Okrent, banking $115,000 on a $7,500 annual salary. And though alcohol-related deaths may have dropped, gangland killings skyrocketed. Chicago alone racked up 215 mob murders in three years. Perhaps the single worst thing about Prohibition, says Okrent, was the hypocrisy. It s stunning the number of elected officials who ardently campaigned for Prohibition and yet continued to drink; people who maintained that it was not really to keep themselves from drinking but rather the poor, the blacks, and the immigrants. The law ultimately fell, amongst other things, to the government s need for tax revenue during the Depression; still, that doesn t mean that we ve learned our lesson. It s hard to ignore the obvious parallels between the prohibition of alcohol and modern laws against recreational and even medicinal drugs such as marijuana. As Okrent points out, laws that tell people what they can t do will always be points of contention, especially when they aim to govern human cravings. Abraham Lincoln observed that moral legislation of this sort goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man s appetite and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes. His words ring as true in our day as they did in his.