More thoughts on Prohibition

A recent post was devoted to the topic of Prohibition. Distant and long ago as it seems, this topic appears to still be of considerable interest, and I would like to add some thoughts and perspectives provided by historian Paul Johnson in his ambitious and exceptional book “Modern Times”, which includes a chapter on the 1920s that Johnson entitled The Last Arcadia.

Johnson links American societal and political discourses on race and immigration to the notion that most early 20th-century Americans thought of their country as the last Arcadia, “an innocent and quasi-Utopian refuge from the cumulative follies and wickedness of the corrupt world beyond her ocean-girded shores.”  There was heated debate about immigration, and many rejected the notion of a “melting pot”, subscribing instead to an ethnic pecking order that placed the Anglo-Saxon “race” supremely above all others, with Northern (but not Eastern or Southern)  Europeans reluctantly included in that select group with only slightly lesser status. Thus Will Hays, as Warren Harding’s campaign manager, proudly summed up the candidate’s lineage as “the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish and Dutch.”

Prohibition, with its moralistic and repressive overtones, was part of an attempt to keep or make Arcadia/America pure,  in that it was clearly directed at the “notorious drinking habits” of immigrant working men. America’s entry into World War I gave a further, enormous impetus to a patriotic xenophobia, which was used to justify varieties of repression, racism and a drive against nonconformity. Not coincidentally, the “Red Scares” of the era focused on Eastern and Southern European immigrants who were easily caricatured as low-lifes or, worse, as anarchists.

Johnson, however, contrasts the popular, demagogic, progressive forces originating mainly from the American heartland (Kansas was the first state to go “dry”, and Midwestern progressive icon William Jennings Bryan was at one point presented with a giant silver loving-cup for his prodigious efforts in support of the Volstead Act) with East Coast elites grounded in social conservatism and market economics. These forces were at best ambivalent about Prohibition. Thus, Prohibition remained an ineffectual compromise that lacked the ruthless means of enforcement. Successive presidents refused to recommend the appropriations necessary for effective enforcement. The repressive intent of Prohibition came up against, and ultimately was defeated by, the founding principles of individual freedom and freedom of enterprise, both of which so very strongly rooted in American society.

Enforcement turned out to be nearly impossible, even under reforming mayors and governors. At the request of “dry” (and progressive) Pennsylvania governor Pinchot, Coolidge had in 1924 dispatched General Smedley Butler of the US Marine Corps to head the Philadelphia police; he quit after less than two years on the job, saying the job was “a waste of time.” Most of the time, over most of the country, the law was openly defied, so that H.L. Mencken could claim that “there is absolutely no place in which any man who desires to drink alcohol cannot get it.” Coolidge, sensing the problem posed by this, wisely commented, “Any law that inspires disrespect for other laws -the good laws- is a bad law.”

In the end, the progressive experiment of Prohibition failed, and more than that, it fully defeated its purpose: it can safely be said that the enormous profits generated by bootlegging operations provided funding for the other activities of big, organized crime, such as prostitution, racketeering and, above all, gambling. Far from “Americanizing” minorities, Prohibition served to reinforce minority characteristics through specific patterns of crime among Italians, Jews, Irish and, not least, among blacks.

Johnson concludes that Prohibition was an unnecessary tragedy – America’s entrepeneurial market system was then and later quite capable of absorbing and ultimately homogenizing diverse racial and ethnic groups. The fear expressed by many that masses of aliens would bring radical politics was unfounded; on the contrary, these people had been fleeing closed societies in search of a free one, voting with their feet for a market economy. Perhaps there is a lesson for our times and our immigration discourse as well?

Read more on Prohibition h e r e and h e r e.

One thought on “More thoughts on Prohibition

  1. Pingback: Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink – Coolidge and Prohibition « Kai's Coolidge Blog

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