We are in a season of centennials of Prohibition-related events, from the 1917 vote by the U.S. Senate to submit the Constitutional Amendment to the state legislatures for ratification, to its eventual repeal in 1933.
I grew up hearing Prohibition dismissed as a doomed, quixotic attempt by over-religious backwoods meddlers to interfere in the private conduct of people whose ingenuity and staying power the reformers had badly underestimated.
But I’m not so sure about that anymore.
For one thing, the longing to free our people from the shackles of substance abuse was not exclusively religious. The 18th Amendment was one of five Progressive amendments passed within a 10-year period. It shared overlapping support with the amendments to enact a federal income tax, and to give women the vote.
Prohibition didn’t outlaw the consumption of alcohol, but its sale. It is analogous to laws against human trafficking, which do not outlaw humans.
The opposition was formidable, beginning with government itself. Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act, which enforced the Constitutional amendment, but the House of Representatives overturned his veto the same day, and the Senate did so on the following day.
Wilson cited arcane technical objections, but the father of the federal income tax almost certainly was alarmed by the revenue impact of Prohibition. At the turn of the 20th Century, the U.S. government drew one third of its income from taxes on liquor.
This was on par with the Romanov monarchs’ treasury in pre-Communist Russia, where about one third of royal treasury came from the pathological alcoholism of the miserable Russian peasantry.
Atheists and Nationalists Oppose Alcoholism
“Death is preferable to selling vodka,” the atheist Vladimir Lenin declared during the Revolution there, which he waged during roughly the same period as the U.S. movement for Prohibition.
Gandhi agreed with Lenin that alcohol was a tool of the ruling class for control over the poor and the colonized. No less than the British opium merchants, alcohol manufacturers worked hand-in- glove with colonial powers to reduce indigenous communities to passive dependency, indifferent to the resulting crime and family destruction. Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism was in part a struggle for sobriety.
“The one thing most deplorable next to Untouchability,” he wrote in 1925, “is the drink curse.” At his urging, the Congress Party adopted alcohol prohibition as a high priority, and it was ultimately written into the first Indian Constitution in 1949.
“From South Africa to Egypt to Istanbul,” Villanova professor Mark Schrad wrote in the Washington Post, “prohibition became synonymous with anti-imperialism and self-determination.”
The hard-drinking British imperialist Winston Churchill didn’t take Prohibition lightly, and wrote in 1929 of his disdain for our combination of moralism and “the rat-trap rigidity of the American Constitution” that produced a gigantic “spectacle at once comic and pathetic.”
Such haughty and cavalier elitism ultimately prevailed over earnest American democracy, with the help of enormous immigrant populations including some of my ancestors.
German-American beer manufacturers could have funded an aggressive resistance to enactment of the Prohibition amendment, but were on their best behavior immediately following World War I. They bided their time and gradually undermined support for the law over the next decade.
Other ethnic groups considered alcohol indispensable to their group identity or personal autonomy, and did their bit to doom the experiment. They abused the liturgical wine exception.
But none of these challenges were insurmountable. The government that had won the Civil War, settled the West, built the Panama Canal and prevailed in World War I could have made Prohibition stick. The failure and ultimate repeal of Prohibition was a failure of will.
Why We Capitulated
Despite remarkable postwar prosperity, Americans were losing confidence in themselves and in their democracy, under siege and ridicule by urban elites. Faculty academics made common cause with artists and entertainers to corrode and discredit traditional American beliefs.
In 1925, the “Monkey Trial” and its newspaper coverage cast doubt on our foundational beliefs in Divine creation. Several mainline Christian denominations have not recovered to this day, and many individuals have slipped into apostasy because they feel that unbelievers have won the argument.
Open repudiation of Christianity is less common than silent apostasy, in which the American believer quietly recedes into apathy and passive acquiescence. This was the air that President Calvin Coolidge breathed during his presidency from 1923 to 1929.
Follow the Money
He told Congress in 1926 that “local authorities, which had always been mainly responsible for the enforcement of law in relation to intoxicating liquor, ought not to seek evasion by attempting to shift the burden wholly upon the Federal agencies. Under the Constitution the states are jointly charged with the nation in providing for the enforcement of the prohibition amendment.”
But the (federal) Bureau of Prohibition, founded in 1920 to enforce the new law, was chronically underfunded even as Coolidge lectured the states. There was too little enthusiasm for enforcement, too little diligence, whether at the state, local or federal level. We said we wanted to end drunkenness, liver failure, wife-beating and family disintegration, but we were bluffing, unwilling to pay the price.
Are We For Real?
Today our bluff has been called again. We say that we want sovereignty and secure national borders. But are we willing to fund enforcement? Deep down, do we have confidence in ourselves, in our national identity, as a people who deserve to have and keep our own country?
We can make American nationhood stick. We can be a nation of laws. But it won’t happen spontaneously. It will have to be enforced, and enforcement will have to be funded.
I hope my descendants won’t look back on American nationhood as a doomed, delusional episode worthy of smirks and chuckles. But it’s not out of the question. Build the wall.