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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Daniel Okrent was the first public editor of “The New York Times.” In his new book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” he tells the fascinating and often-overlooked story of Prohibition. Despite being one of the most important issues in the country for decades and a dominant force in our nation’s politics, the history of Prohibition is little known to most Americans.

It is almost impossible to understate how monumental the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” was. It was a massive social, political and financial reform almost on the level of women’s suffrage or the civil rights movement. Passing the 18th Amendment required a massive grassroots movement over decades, a huge change in public opinion, one of the most powerful pressure groups in American political history, the destruction of one of the major industries in the nation and a radical change in how we financed our government.

At the birth of this nation, we were a country awash in alcohol. In 1830, an American adult on average consumed the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per week. In 1910, just nine years before the ratification of the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919, the excise tax on alcohol accounted for more than 30 percent of all federal revenue. The alcohol industry was the fifth largest in the country.

“Last Call” explains how the country went from a nation that loved to drink to one that wrote Prohibition into its core governing document. How did two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures vote to destroy one of the country’s largest industries? Much of the credit goes to the Anti-Saloon League and its brilliant head lobbyist, Wayne B. Wheeler. Wheeler was one of the most powerful lobbyists ever. With his single-minded focus on Prohibition, he was able to strike terror into Senators, dictate to Presidents and hold the balance of power in both political parties.

Wheeler was a master of cut-throat realpolitik and created the political “litmus test.” The ASL judged candidates purely on the issue of Prohibition, and the ASL controlled dedicated blocs of single-issue voters that could swing elections at all levels across the country. By strategically controlling a minority of voters, the ASL became the deciding force in many elections.

To achieve the 18th Amendment, Prohibitionists became a major force pushing for women’s right to vote and passage of the 16th Amendment, creating the income tax. (The tax was the only funding source that could make up for the huge loss of government revenue that would result from making alcohol illegal.) To achieve his goals, Wheeler had to turn enemies into unlikely allies. Evangelical Christians, progressives, industrialists, women’s groups, the Ku Klux Klan and labor unions all unified behind ending the evils of alcohol.

Yet, for the visionaries who thought Prohibition would lead to a dry future, the noble experiment was a complete failure. Okrent documents how liquor continued to flow through the country in every imaginable way. It was smuggled in from Canada and the Caribbean, sold as legal “medicine,” brewed at home from malt syrup or bricks of grape extract, and made from repurposed industrial products. The difference, though, is that the products were now tax free and the profits went to criminals. And boy, were there profits. Some believed the annual sale of bootleg liquor was equal in size to the entire federal budget.

With all that money, Prohibition fueled corruption on an almost unimaginable scale, with the rise of violent and powerful criminal syndicates. A group of extremely wealthy upper-class individuals bankrolled by Pierre du Pont led the fight for its repeal, with the hope that taxation of alcohol would result in the end of the income tax on du Pont’s vast personal fortune. The nation saw the 18th Amendment as completely unworkable, corrupt and ripe with hypocrisy, and repealed it after just 14 years with the ratification of the 21st Amendment. A mere 10 years before the ratification of the amendments, both appeared to be near-impossible tasks. Yet in only 14 years, Americans experienced the impossible twice.

To anyone interested in bare-knuckle politics or massive grassroots social and political movements, there is probably no better case study than the rise and fall of Prohibition.

To get a good sense of “Last Call,” read Okrent’s excellent article in last month’s “Smithsonian” magazine, Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps.