I’m reading Last Call by Daniel Okrent, an interesting history of the rise of the prohibitionist movement in the 19th century, its culmination in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the inevitable (and gratifying) failure of the once-popular effort to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The book is of special interest to me not only because of my strong thirst for bourbon, red wine, microbrews, port, gin and, in a pinch, Sterno squeezed through a handkerchief, but also because I’ve long believed that, with all due respect to the folks obsessed by the Civil War/War Between the States/War to Fuel All Overwrought Historical Novels, Prohibition was the defining moment in terms of a shift in the relationship between individuals and the state in this country.
Among the interesting details supplied by Okrent’s book is the degree to which prohibitionism intermingled with, energized, and was powered by connections with other “reform” movements. Specifically, the early “temperance” movement overlapped with abolitionism, then developed major ties to the women’s suffrage movement — to the point that it’s credited with making early feminism politically viable. Religious fundamentalism, unsurprisingly, played a huge role along the way — prohibitionism was overtly a Protestant-Christian eruption, with the Anti-Saloon League calling itself “the church in action against the saloon.” Nativism, of course, figured in the movement against alcohol, with reaction to hard-drinking Catholic and Jewish immigrants (the myth possibly not out-stripping the reality) fueling much of the desire to ban saloons, beer, booze and fun; Frances Willard, long-time leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, favored immigration restrictions on “the scum of the Old World.”
What is new to me (though it makes sense) was the degree to which then-new brands of ideological collectivism played a role. Willard, who often referred (approvingly) to her followers as “Protestant nuns,” was not by any means the only prohibitionist to identify as a “Christian socialist.” The WCTU and the Prohibition Party endorsed a grab-bag of statist policies, including nationalization of major industries.
Prohibitionists, by and large, didn’t seem to be huge fans of sex, either. No surprise, really.
Basically, aside from women’s suffrage (abolitionists may have often been anti-alcohol, but they prevailed on their on merits), prohibitionism was a major player up in a mutually reinforcing whirlwind of statism and intolerance that has done vast damage to the cause of personal freedom and limited government in the United States. Several seemingly unrelated political/cultural tendencies gained energy from one another and went on to transform the country in very important ways.
I haven’t finished Last Call, but it’s already worthy of recommendation. And it will, almost certainly, drive you to drink.