Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, has worn many hats in his career: veteran magazine editor, author, New York Times public editor, and founder of Rotisserie League Baseball. His new book, Last Call, tells the story of how a nation with a history of heavy drinking enacted a ban on the sale of alcohol that lasted nearly 13 years. Okrent made several appearances in Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball and will appear in Burns’s upcoming documentary on Prohibition. He spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Daniel Gross about Last Call. A podcast of their conversation can be heard here.
This is really an amazing chapter in our history—this period from 1920 to 1933. It’s bizarre to think that in effect the Constitution banned the sale of alcohol in this country.
I wanted to call the book How the Hell Did That Happen?, because it was so damn improbable. There are only two things in the Constitution that ever limited the rights of citizens. The 18th Amendment, in effect for nearly 14 years, said you couldn’t get liquor, and the 13th Amendment said you couldn’t own slaves. The notion that these two things were balanced as equal is really kind of stunning.
Especially when you consider the importance of alcohol in American history.
The boat that John Winthrop came over on to the Massachusetts Bay Colony had more beer than water in the hold. George Washington gave each member of the Continental Army four ounces of liquor a day. John Adams drank hard cider for breakfast. James Madison had a pint a day. This country really liked its drinking.
And yet a nation of boozers turns into a nation that won’t tolerate alcohol being sold. As you tell it, Prohibition was a function of powerful social movements—not just religious opposition.
Of all the social movements, the one that was critical to Prohibition was the suffrage movement. They really were direct siblings and went into the Constitution virtually together. Women in the 19th century had almost no legal or property rights. Their husbands would go off to the saloon, drink away the family money, come home, and beat the wife and mistreat the kids. And there was real reason for there to be a temperance movement, to rise up against this and particularly to protect women and children.
You call Wayne Bidwell Wheeler “the genius behind the Prohibition movement.” Who was he?
Wheeler helped found the Anti-Saloon League, in 1893. And their first effort was to go state by state. We’ll get a law here. We’ll get a law there. He was an extremely effective, absolutely sincere, somewhat ruthless, and indefatigable political manipulator who realized that if you control the margins, you could create a majority. So if you had 10 percent of the people in a given district, if you could deliver those 10 percent to one candidate or another based on their position on Prohibition, you could win elections, and in fact take over Congress, which he did in the 1916 election.
You write that another constitutional amendment—the 16th Amendment, which passed in 1913 and provided for an income tax—helped spur Prohibition.
In 1913, when the income tax amendment is passed, things suddenly change. The federal government up until that point got as much as 40 percent of its annual revenue from the excise tax on alcohol. After the income tax was passed, reformers realized there was a replacement for the revenue that came from taxing alcohol, and they started to push for a constitutional amendment.
At the time, beer was becoming a major industry. Didn’t the beer and spirits industry fight back?
They shot themselves in the foot. What they really fought more than anything else was suffrage, because they knew that women would vote against the saloon. And the more public they were about fighting suffrage, the more it guaranteed that women would vote against the saloon because it was very clear what the brewers were up to. In World War I the Anti-Saloon League was able to paint the brewers as the tools of the kaiser, because they had names like Pabst, Blatz, and Anheuser-Busch. And that almost guaranteed the ratification of the prohibition amendment. It was ratified in 1919, to go into effect one year later on Jan. 16, 1920.
So Prohibition is a kind of case study of how you change political events on the ground. But what practical impact did it have?
It had an enormous practical impact. In the very beginning, people did start to drink less. People believed in obeying the law and they figured [alcohol] would be hard to get. However, within a couple of years, in any large city, particularly the cities that were along the coast or on the Canadian border, if you wanted liquor it was very, very easy to get.
And there were all sorts of exemptions put into place. Tell us about a few of them.
The first exemption is that anything that you owned at the time of Prohibition, if it was in your house, you could keep it and you could continue to drink it. There was never a prescription against drinking. Which is why people like Mary Pickford’s mother, Charlotte Hennessy, who was also Pickford’s manager, she, before Prohibition began, bought a liquor store and moved its entire contents to her basement so she’d always have it. There were exemptions for farmers to preserve their fruit juices, which was a euphemism for “to make hard apple cider for their own use.” And then sacramental wine—wine used for religious purposes—was a real racket. George de Latour, the founder of Beaulieu Vineyard in California, he became a zillionaire because of this. He got what’s called an ecclesiastical approbation from the Catholic Church to provide altar wines, the wines for Communion. By 1923, he was making altar wines in the following varieties: cabernet sauvignon, muscatel, sherry. There were 13 different varieties. And then you could get alcohol for medicinal purposes. It was possible to get a prescription for three bucks from virtually any physician who wanted the three bucks in his pocket. Take it to your local pharmacy and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. The Walgreens drugstore chain in Chicago, they had 20 stores in 1920. After a decade of Prohibition, they had 525.
So almost as soon as it’s enacted, Prohibition is being undermined through these exemptions, through smuggling, through lax enforcement. And at some point it pivots toward just sort of ignoring it to promoting repeal.
There were two forces at work. One was a recognition that this simply wasn’t working. And there were some genuinely motivated people who felt that this had destroyed respect for law and order. It had created crime syndicates and a lot of government corruption. Then in 1929 when the market crashes and incomes started going down, the government collected no capital-gains tax for four years and the income tax plummeted. Then people began to realize that legalizing and then taxing alcohol would be a good revenue source. The huge movement to end Prohibition was financed overwhelmingly by the Du Pont family of Delaware, who thought that if they could start taxing beer again they could get rid of the income tax.
Bring this up to the present a little bit. There are products that are addictive or seen as bad for health or morality that we tax, like cigarettes. And we ban other substances like marijuana, albeit with exemptions for medicinal purposes. What conclusions can we draw from your study of Prohibition on these types of issues?
The obvious one is that you can’t legislate against human appetite effectively. What’s interesting to me, among many interesting things, is that it became harder to get a drink after the end of Prohibition than it had been during Prohibition. During Prohibition, you didn’t have a liquor license to lose. So suddenly, drinking in fact goes down, and it is contained. And I think that the same case could be made about marijuana. In a lot of states there’s no law about driving stoned, nor is there a Breathalyzer test that is carried in every squad car. But if we legalize marijuana, you can bet there would be such laws and such enforcement means.
With Emily James