Book Review: Last Call

On January 16, 1919 the eighteenth amendment was embedded into the United States Constitution. The Volstead Act, named after Andrew Volstead, was the enabling legislation for Prohibition, which for better or worse, changed the way Americans live. On a political level, it fundamentally redefined the role of the federal government. Daniel Okrent’s marvelous book, Last Call, explores this fascinating time in American history in exquisite detail. According to Okrent, “In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure”.

Okrent spends a bit of time informing us of the relationship some famous individuals throughout history have had with alcohol.  For example, Alexander Hamilton cared enough for liquor that he considered it an all-but essential component of a democracy. James Madison consumed a pint of whiskey daily. Andrew Mellon drank (while Prohibition was in effect) and didn’t apologize for it. Winston Churchill considered Prohibition both comic and pathetic. Ernest Hemingway said that “a man doesn’t exist until he is drunk.” And George Washington once said, “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.”

The idea of imposing legislative teetotalism on the unwilling has roots dating back to the temperance movement; it was transformed in the 1840’s into a more formal movement. Vermont, in 1882, was the first state to pass a compulsory temperance education law; by 1901, compulsory temperance education was on the books of every state in the nation. Not surprisingly, Okrent reminds us, this “education” was full of mythology. Students were taught a host of nonsensical information. For instance, that the majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy and that when alcohol passes down the throat it burns off the skin, leaving it bare and burning.

Many special interest groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and religious organizations had a role to play in the Prohibition movement. Individually, characters such as Billy Sunday, Wayne Wheeler and Carrie Nation banded together to popularize the idea of Prohibition despite the fact that the public at large really didn’t support the idea. During the 1890’s, the terms “wet” and “dry” came into general use as informal jargon related to ones views on alcohol consumption.

The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was the leading organization lobbying for prohibition in the United States. One of the leagues most famous champions was John D. Rockefeller; he personally matched 10 percent of whatever finances the league was able to raise from other sources. Rockefeller and his ASL cohorts weren’t the only ones who thought saloons were contributing to the decline of humanity. According to historian James H. Timberlake, the social Darwinist camp also saw the same degradation and filth in America’s saloons as the ASL, but they regarded it as a virtue. They believed that, “Alcohol, by killing off generation after generation of the unfit, was acting as a progressive factor in natural selection and improving the race”.

Ironically, the only people who seemed to favor Prohibition were evangelical Christians and bootleggers.  According to Okrent, Prohibition fostered widespread corruption and huge profitability for bootleggers. Alphonse Capone, arguably the most famous gangster in United States history, had an interesting cultural observation: “When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality”.

The 27th President of the United States and later the 10th Chief Justice of the United States, William Taft made an excellent point in regards to virtuous citizenship surrounding the Prohibition debate: citizens who only obey laws that they endorse are willing to govern, but not be governed, in other words, they are willing to destroy the rule of law. Dry advocate Wayne Wheeler countered those who opposed the law because it was hard to enforce.  He claimed, “The very fact that the law is difficult to enforce is the clearest proof of the need of its existence.”

It’s interesting to note that the city of San Francisco officially declared a distaste for Prohibition in the movements infancy. I speculate that the cities progressive reputation was initially formed during this period of history. When a federal judge declined to give a jail sentence to an Italian man from Mission Street, the judge proclaimed, “wine is as necessary as coffee to the average American and tea to the average Englishman”.

One of Prohibition’s least likely advocates was novelist Jack London, who once claimed that the fact he lived to be twenty-one years old was a miracle. Eight years after London’s death H.L. Mencken saw virtue in London’s taste for alcohol by claiming that alcohol made him.  In other words, as Mencken put it, “London, sober, would have written nothing worth reading”.

It’s interesting to note that in 1910 the federal government was drawing more than 71 percent of all internal revenue, and more than 30 percent of federal revenue overall from the bottle and keg. When the Great Depression arrived it brought massive unemployment, diminishing respect for the federal government, a collapse in federal tax collections and a widespread disdain for the Republican Party; the idea for repeal was brewing stronger than ever. At the time of Prohibition’s death not a single amendment had ever been repealed in the 140 years of constitutional history in the United States. The irony of repeal was that across most of the country made it became much harder, not easier, to get booze. It’s worth noting that delusional Mississippi politicians kept the state legally dry until 1966.

The “speakeasy”, Okrent reminds us, was the substitute for the saloon, it was a catchall term in Prohibition America that denoted any place where one could buy booze. Speakeasy liquor could have been anything from single-malt Scotch to diluted embalming fluid. One nasty side effect of Prohibition was the emergence of low-grade bootlegged products. Bootleggers tampered with industrial alcohol by adding wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and other toxic compounds; reports of paralysis and death from this type of alcohol were common headlines in the newspapers. An especially toxic drink was “Jamaican Ginger,” aka “Jake.” It was notorious for attacking the nerves in the hands and feet, giving victims an odd walk aptly called the “Jake Walk” or “Jake Leg.”

In the end, Prohibition proved that the U.S. could not legislate personal morality. One can’t help but draw parallels to the marijuana debate stirring in modern times. I think intelligent American’s will look back in one hundred years and laugh at our current drug laws.  Another phenomenon that came about thanks to Prohibition was the “booze cruise” and we can also thank Prohibition for the advent of NASCAR.  “Of Prohibition’s manifold gifts to American Posterity,” writes Okrent, “few were of greater value than its enrichment of the language. The Dictionary of American Slang, published in 1960, listed more colloquial synonyms for “drunk” than for any other word; most of them originated in the 1920’s.”

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2 Comments on “Book Review: Last Call”

  1. Robbie says:

    While the sentiment of alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition might be the same, the two cannot seriously be equated from a historical point of view. The use of alcohol was deeply ingrained in American culture from the country’s earliest days, as your post aptly points out. The use of recreational drugs like marijuana only became widely used within the last 50 years or so.

    Additionally, alcohol prohibition was merely an anomaly in its history as a widely used recreational drug. Other drugs became widespread over the last century despite being outlawed soon after their discovery or popularization.

    I point this out not to say that our current prohibition laws aren’t absurd — they plainly are — only to suggest that they are the result of an accident of history.

    If James Madison and Ben Franklin had passed the bong instead of the pint glass, this discussion would be moot.

  2. Greg Linster says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Robbie. I agree with you that marijuana and alcohol are generally viewed in different camps from a cultural and historical perspective. As your comment aptly points out, the taboo surrounding certain drugs is merely an accident of history.

    If marijuana were legalized I really don’t think we’d see a huge uptick in the number of users. The people who want to use it are already doing so; it’s not difficult to come by in the slightest, or so I hear. Ironically, it would probably become harder to get if it were legalized.


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