Prohibition's Lessons

We Americans celebrate a rich history. Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln are honored with special days. But some signal events seem to be greeted with embarrassed silence. 1999 marks the 80th anniversary of Prohibition, but we hear little about this anniversary.

This silence is lamentable. My home state of Maine recently joined seven other states in removing the penalties for the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In addition, as one scans the op-ed pages of major newspapers, there is at least some evidence that the consensus on harsh treatment of those who use recreational drugs is beginning to erode. This might be an especially propitious moment to take a close look at the political and social dynamics that underlay our earlier experiment with a punitive approach to alcohol. More than just a transient phenomenon, Prohibition was the archetype of a politics of personal reform that has been the hallmark -- and bane -- of our culture.

In the colonial era, upper middle class citizens attempted to limit drinking to those they considered "respected and responsible citizens." That category carried with it both ethnic and class connotations. Drunkards were condemned to jail or required to wear the scarlet D. Yet even in an era when such draconian punishment was seldom challenged and personal privacy often violated, overall success rates seem to have been minimal. One historian has labeled late 18th and early 19th century America "the alcoholic republic."

By the end of the 19th century, two great preoccupations defined the nation's leadership, industrial growth and sobriety. The late 19th and early 20th century temperance movement fused these concerns. The immigrants who migrated to the industrial east and midwest also brought with them a different work ethic. Work was important to Italian and Polish cigar makers, potters, and coopers, but was to be kept within the bounds of holidays, family time, and the pleasures of social drinking.

The social drinking of immigrant Americans soon became a target of an unlikely coalition of rural Protestants, industrialists, and many Progressive era leaders. Rural Americans felt both threatened and bypassed by rapid industrial growth, and the life style of immigrants came to symbolize those threats. Business leaders were interested in industrial efficiency and progressives sought labor "peace." Alcohol consumption became a favorite theme for all. Temperance campaigns portrayed risk not only to the individuals involved but to the whole social order. Foreignness, laziness, disease were all seen as one piece and crystallized in demon rum. The loss of health and lives to slums, poverty wages, and workplace exhaustion were seldom addressed. Nor did the role of poverty and work life in intensifying patterns of alcohol escape receive any attention.

World War I, with its extraordinary demands on the whole population, converted a social movement into a Constitutional crisis. As University of California/San Diego historian Michael Parrish puts it, Prohibition in practice symbolized "the political and cultural victory of small towns over big cities, of evangelical and pietistic Protestants over Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews; of old stock Anglo-Saxons over newer immigrants, and finally, of rich over poor.''

As in all war, those with other values and lifestyles are the enemy, and our most basic civil liberties become expendable. Federal agents broke into homes, offices, and garages without search warrants. In 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that police did not need a warrant to search a car if they had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained alcohol.

Many urban areas fought back. The mayors of Chicago and New York were openly "wet." As Parrish remarks, perhaps the greatest irony lay in the wealth Prohibition brought to some of those whose lives and values were attacked. A two billion dollar industry "was delivered into the hands of an underworld dominated by second generation Italians, Jews, and Irish, who faced far less discrimination in this line of work than in the more reputable middle class professions.''

This earlier episode of our continuing cultural wars raises important questions. Some argue that the war succeeded because the drinking habits of Americans changed permanently after Prohibition. But for many, beer and wine, not without their problems, replaced hard liquor. Parrish points out that greater affluence and changing status expectations seem to have played more of a role in the transformation.

The costs of this war were enormous and some remain with us today. Many workingmen continued to drink, but often suffered from lower quality and more dangerous concoctions. The mob gained a firm foundation in American life, violence became endemic, and civil liberties were severely damaged.

Anyone would be hard put to deny that abuse of alcohol remains not only a grave problem but a far more serious one for us than in much of Western Europe. Worse still, drugs of one sort or another remain both a prevalent fact of American life and a centerpiece in our politics.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the ways we have often make legitimate concerns about public health into wars against those who don't meet our everyday expectations or are simply different from us. The first casualty of war is measured response, careful attention to the kind and degree of threat, and responsiveness to individual circumstances. We forget these lessons at our peril.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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