BOOK REVIEW: “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by Daniel Okrent

One of the more fascinating periods in U.S. history is the era bookended by the beginning of the enforcement of the 18th amendment in 1920 to the Constitution and the ratification of the 21st amendment repealing the 18th amendment in 1933.  The 21st amendment still stands as the only amendment to undo a previous amendment.  Daniel Okrent has written an entertaining account of the whole period in “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”.

Okrent starts the book by establishing the history of America as a country well acquainted with alcohol.  The consumption numbers for 18th century America are truly staggering.  As one historian put it, Americans of that time drank “from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn”.  So, it’s not surprising that a movement to outlaw alcohol would take some time and compromises to come to fruition.   The campaign to do so has some very interesting correlations, for example, the women’s suffrage movement was set full activity by women who were part of the “dry” movement frustrated by men not allowing them a voice.  The 19th amendment granting women the vote was supported by most of those in the prohibition movement, because drinking was seen mostly as a male activity and women were counted upon as being a reliable vote for those opposing it.  Additionally, the 16th amendment allowing for the federal government to collect income tax was needed as a precedent to allow the government to make up the revenue that it would lose by eliminating alcohol taxes.

The most compelling figure in the book is that of Wayne Wheels, the head of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL).  Although little known today, Wheeler was one of the most powerful men in the country in the 1920’s.  His ability to control the voting habits of the members of the ASL made it so that few in Congress or the White House were willing to go against his wishes.  The election victories for those with the ASL imprimatur, and the ability to punish by electoral defeat those who crossed him, ensured the loyalty of a majority of Congress. 

Of course, the enactment of Prohibition did nothing to change the desire of people for alcohol.  So, naturally those willing to violate Prohibition for the sake of profit followed immediately thereafter.  The Bronfman fortune was built during Prohibition, including a great deal of profit which was transported through the U.S. (which was legal) for other countries, but somehow “disappeared” on its way.  The patriarch Sam Bronfman claimed some sort of innocence almost to the end.

Detroit, with its proximity to Windsor, figures prominently in the book as one of the “wettest” cities in the U.S. during Prohibition.  The Detroit River could have as many as 1500 boats crossing back and forth delivering bootleg liquor.  Of course, this also led to the formation of the infamous Purple Gang of Detroit, one of many organized crime groups that came into or acquired greater power as a direct result of Prohibition.

Ultimately, this crime, corruption and hypocrisy (finding strong Prohibition supporters smuggling alcohol into the U.S. when returning from foreign vacations was pretty common) that led to the downfall of Prohibition.  A group of industrialist, led by Pierre du Pont, started an organization for repeal.  However, it is of question whether du Pont was more concerned with crime or in reinstating alcohol taxes as a first step to repealing the income tax amendment.  But, as with the enactment of Prohibition, it was the women that really led the nation to repeal.  The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, led by a charismatic Pauline Sabin, brought together 1.3 million members that galvanized the country’s mood.

Okrent has many other interesting notes from this time, with the highlight being the fight over congressional reapportionment after the 1920 census, which didn’t happen until 1929.

This book has continued relevance today as we still have those who would try to enforce their own particular brand of individual morality in the Constitution.  This history should teach us to do so extremely judiciously.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

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