After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the Unites States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.- 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
For those that enjoy the relaxing pleasures that the moderate (and occasionally slightly more than moderate) consumption of alcoholic beverages afford, few words can seem more cruel and unjust than the above. For those that lived through the dark years of Prohibition, however, those words were an unfortunate reality that denied them one of life’s simple pleasures.
Or did it? Reading Daniel Okrent’s insightful Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, it’s abundantly clear that during most of prohibition, getting a drink at a speakeasy or buying a bottle to enjoy at home might have cost more than it did before prohibition became reality, but by no means was it a difficult endeavor.
To be sure, Prohibition was the greatest social experiment ever attempted. It was also a colossal failure, and the only amendment to the US Constitution to ever be repealed. In his book, Okrent touches upon the reasons why Prohibition was doomed from the start, and why it was widely ignored while it was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933.
The author begins his dissertation with the origins of the prohibition movement in the 19th century, tracking the roots back to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and such larger than life teetotalers as Carrie Nation.
From there, Okrent traces the emerging forces that catapulted the prohibition movement to a fully ratified amendment to the constitution in the early decades of the 20th century. He adeptly ties this to the progressive era reforms (such as the income tax that replaced the revenue that alcohol would no longer bring in) that helped to foster it. The author even posits that the advent of World War I, with it’s emerging anti-German sentiment, helped sour opinion on the American brewing industry, chock full as it was with German immigrants.
Okrent explores the widespread flaunting of the law while it was in force, touching upon the major organized crime elements that replaced the legal alcohol distribution network. Corruption of public figures was widespread, and the public’s relentless thirst for alcohol (it wasn’t technically illegal to drink it during most of prohibition) doomed the measure from the start. We see the repeal movement and it’s eventual success detailed as well.
I found Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition to be almost impossible to put down. Okrent’s talent with the printed word is readily apparent in his impeccably formed prose. His research is thorough, and the reader will learn more than a few things about the dark years of Prohibition. The author’s razor sharp wit helps push things along at just the right points, too.
A highly recommended read, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is a thorough and entertaining history of the prohibition years and a warning against the pitfalls of overzealous social engineering.