‘You People Were Thirsty’

David Strom

By David Strom

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Scribner, New York. 2010, 468pp.

SAN DIEGO — On a warm day in July of 1966, two magazine journalists writing about the liquor industry and Prohibition wondered what Sam Bronfman’s role was during the Prohibition era. Most of the time when Sam answered that sort of question, he would dodge it. Over the thirty or more years since the repeal of the 18th Amendment, so far the only amendment ever repealed, Sam would articulate one of his stock answers like explaining that it wasn’t illegal to drink, sell or make whiskey in Canada. But for some odd reason of his own, possibly because so many years had passed since the end of Prohibition, or because he was now in his seventies, or because he was surrounded at home by the comfort of wealth, possessions and family, he seemed a little more relaxed and with a bit more candor answered, “You people were thirsty.”

Today, looking backwards, it seems like a “no brainer” that Prohibition would die in this country. Yet the Eighteenth Amendment was passed and went into effect on January 17, 1920. Why? How? And how did it become undone? All of these questions and so many more are answered in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

Many of our “Founding Fathers” were drinkers, some of them even heavy drinkers. “Washington kept a still on his farm, John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider, and Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for drink extended beyond his renowned collection of wines to encompass rye whiskey made from his own crops. James Madison consumed a pint of whiskey daily.”

Some thought we could become a “nation of sots.” By 1830, adults, per person were guzzling an amazing seven gallons of pure alcohol. That is three times the amount that the average American drinks today!

With so much drinking taking place and the problem of alcoholism so common, it is not difficult to understand that a movement toward moderation or even prohibition would arise. Lincoln spoke at a temperance meeting in 1842. For him the word meant moderation. For the Washingtonian Movement it meant abstinence. These ideas marched together.

Many progressive women joined the suffrage and abolition movements. These women also believed “…that the most urgent reasons for women to want to vote in the mid-1800’s were alcohol related: They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them. To do all these things they needed to change the laws that consigned married women to the status of chattel.” To do this, they needed the vote.

Like today, anti-immigrant sentiment fueled many fires. Prohibition stoked the coals of hatred of the immigrant. Progressives, like Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, urged Congress to keep out “the scum of the old world.” The Irish were considered too wet for the conservative Protestant majority. Also, other ethnics entering from Italy, Romania, Hungary and Poland were polluting the country with drink and dirty city “ward bossism” politics.

The Germans were singled out for hatred by Prohibitionists-the drys. Many of the largest breweries were owned by Germans like: the Pabst family, and the Busch family. They were considered unpatriotic and favored the enemy, Germany. These German Americans had to tread lightly (litely) and openly demonstrate their allegiance to America during our struggle against the enemy during World War I by buying large amounts of Liberty Bonds.

The growth of the Prohibition movement fanned the flames of the long active nativist anti-Semitic movement. Jews were alien immigrants crowding into the cities and pushing foreign ideas i.e. socialism, unionism, Zionism and of course capitalism. (Didn’t they own the banks? Just ask Henry Ford and the Dearborn Independent newspaper.). Oh, and yes, they owned the distilleries.

The KKK also aligned itself on the righteous side of the drys. While the Civil War had ended, it wasn’t over in the minds of many Klansmen. Blacks needed to stay in their place and drinking added to their some “uppity-ness” to their character. Almost like children and non-citizens, they needed to be taken care of.

The industrial owners thought passage of a Prohibition amendment would increase workers production. With less time lost to drunkenness on the job, it could earn industrial capitalists greater profits, the bottom line of the capitalist system.

With such a variety and diverse groups supporting prohibition, the country seemed ready for Prohibition. Did it work?

Ninety plus years later we know it didn’t. We knew by January 17, 1920, the day after it became law that Prohibition failed. The “bootlegging…industry was an industry custom-made for immigrants. It was a quick turnover business that had no entrenched establishment, required little capital, demanded no particular training, and could exploit ready markets within the various ethnic communities before branching out into society at large.” A historian sympathetic to immigrants said Prohibition created “dazzling opportunities” for the children of the immigrant slums.

The Volstead Act, the Congressional law interpreting the 18th amendment, allowed for the usage of sacramental wine for religious ceremonies of Jews and Catholics. “They had been nearly unanimous in their opposition to Prohibition.” So sacramental wine for thirsty congregants flowed.

In parts of the Jewish community, “fake rabbis” appeared with almost non-existent congregations. If you grew a long beard, had an accent and wore dark clothing, to the unsuspecting (or suspecting but didn’t care officialdom) you were a rabbi entitled to have ceremonial wine for your congregation.

Today we don’t remember the leaders of the movement that gave us the hated 18th amendment. The rabbis and Catholic clergy that legitimately used wine in their respective religious services are long forgotten. But we do remember some of the gangsters that the era spawned: Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and others. Hollywood movies, television series, books and games has glamorized them into “larger than life” beings.

Around such a controversial amendment it is no wonder that myths emerged. One myth about the involvement of Joseph P. Kennedy in the bootlegging industry is just a myth. While it is has existed a long time, it is a myth.

Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is informative, a page-turner, easily digested, and a well-documented argument to the nation’s experiment with how to, and how not to, satisfy the people’s thirst. He is also quoted in the Ken Burns series on Prohibition on PBS television.

After reading this book a question arises: Is the outlawing of illegal drugs working today?

Strom is a San Diego-based freelance writer.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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