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Smashed stereotypes or revisionist reveries?

Why judge prohibitionists by their words when we can judge them by their actions?

Artillery Row Books

Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition by Mark Lawrence Schrad

It still comes as a surprise to some people that Prohibition was one of the flagship policies of the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, alongside women’s suffrage, income tax and anti-imperialism. The idea of a fundamentalist Christian Left is as alien to modern readers as the idea of Progressive eugenics, but both flourished in the USA in the decades leading up to the First World War.

Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, Mark Lawrence Schrad (Oxford University Press Inc, £26.99)

This is no secret. While it is easy to imagine Prohibition being enabled by killjoy conservatives, almost every book on the subject written in my lifetime has given due credit to Bible-thumping progressives. As Mark Schrad notes in this controversial new history of Prohibition, it is even acknowledged on Wikipedia.

Smashing the Liquor Machine does not seek to downplay the role of Progressives, nor does it dismiss their prohibitionism as a mistake. On the contrary, Schrad argues that Prohibition was a righteous cause that has been maligned and misunderstood by generations of historians. It was seen as a social justice issue at the time and, he says, it should be recognised as such today. It was not, he claims, an act of coercive paternalism enforced on the Wets by the Drys, but a “progressive shield for marginalised, suffering and oppressed peoples to defend themselves from further exploitation”.

Central to his thesis is the claim that prohibitionists were not illiberal because they never sought to stop people drinking; they merely wished to destroy the “exploitative liquor traffic” and, above all, the saloon. For Schrad, this is a crucial distinction because, he argues, restricting commercial activity was not viewed through the prism of liberty at the time and should not be viewed as such today. The crusade was not against drinking but against “predatory capitalism, of which the liquor traffic was the most insidious example”.

He leans on three facts to make this case. Firstly, the biggest prohibitionist pressure group of the era was called the Anti-Saloon League rather than, say, the Anti-Alcohol League. Secondly, temperance activists talked endlessly about the evils of the “liquor traffic” and the “liquor trust”. Thirdly, neither the 18th Amendment nor the Volstead Act which was enacted to enforce it banned the possession or consumption of alcohol.

All this is true. Prohibitionists talked obsessively about the evils of the drinks industry, a habit which Schrad has picked up in the course of his research (I lost track of the number of times he uses the words “exploitative” and “predatory” to describe it). They often said that their real enemy was the alcohol industry, and Schrad implores us to take them at their word. But taking people at their word is not always good advice, especially for historians studying fanatical single-issue pressure groups who repeatedly used the “bait and switch” technique on the public.

The freedom to sell and the freedom to buy are indivisible

“We do not say that a man shall not drink,” said Richmond P. Hobson when he presented his prohibition amendment to the House of Representatives in December 1914. “We do not say that man shall not have or make liquor in his own home for his own use.” Perhaps he meant it. After all, his amendment to the constitution proposed only that the “manufacture for sale, transportation for sale, importation for sale and exportation for sale” of intoxicating liquors be “forever prohibited”. The amendment failed, but by 1917 the Anti-Saloon League was in a far stronger position. With victory in sight, their new text — which became the 18th Amendment — deleted every mention of the phrase “for sale” and simply banned “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors”. Aside from a carve-out for American farmers which permitted the fermentation of cider and “other fruit juices” for personal use, the home production of alcohol was made illegal.

Consumption and possession remained legal, but it is doubtful whether the 18th Amendment would have been ratified had the Anti-Saloon League pushed their luck any further. In any case, a ban on consumption was hardly necessary. The freedom to sell and the freedom to buy are indivisible. Few Americans had the skills, resources or floor space to brew their own beer and distill their own whiskey, even if it had been legal. In practice, their freedom to consume relied on the drinks industry’s freedom to sell. Schrad’s history ends in 1920 just as Prohibition comes into force so he never has to deal with the fall out, but it should be noted that the Anti-Saloon League managed to get a de facto ban on the purchasing and possession of alcohol in 1929 when the Jones Act made it a felony to fail to report the sale of alcohol; in other words, the buyer had to turn himself in.

Why should we judge prohibitionists by their words when we can judge them by their actions? If, as Schrad argues, Prohibition was really about “regulating capitalist excesses” and “opposing exploitation and profit”, why was home-brewing banned? If the Anti-Saloon League was only concerned with saloons, why didn’t the 18th Amendment simply ban saloons and allow alcohol to be sold in shops and restaurants? If prohibitionists did not object to people drinking in the privacy of their own home, why did they fight so hard for the Webb-Kenyon Act which banned the interstate sale of alcohol by mail order? Schrad insists that the latter was not “some nefarious attempt to erode individual liberty to drink” but that is exactly what it was.

When asked why he robbed banks, the Prohibition-era criminal Willie Sutton is reputed to have said “because that’s where the money is”. Prohibitionists went after the saloons because that’s where the alcohol was. They went after the booze industry because it made booze. The whole point of “smashing the liquor machine” was to stop people drinking liquor. Enforced sobriety was not an unfortunate side effect of Prohibition. It was the whole point.

Prohibitionist broadsides against the liquor traffic were not purely rhetorical. The Drys genuinely hated the drinks industry and you did not need to be a teetotaller to deplore the way some saloons operated. But the rhetoric served another purpose. If left-wingers believed, as Schrad does, that “the actual battle lines of prohibition weren’t between religion and drink, but capitalist profits versus the common good”, it was obvious whose side they should be on. In the same way that modern public health activists shout about “Big Tobacco” and “Big Soda” when campaigning for lifestyle regulation, fury at the liquor barons helped obscure the reality that it was their fellow citizens who were the quarry. The campaign for Prohibition showed how easy it is to get people to sacrifice liberty if they believe that faceless corporations will suffer more.

Smashing the Liquor Machine is a rebuttal to almost every history book written about prohibition, but it particularly feels like a riposte to Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol (2016). McGirr emphasised the disproportionate suffering of ethnic minorities and urban immigrants under Prohibition and drew parallels with the war on drugs. Schrad, by contrast, emphasises the role of ethnic minorities in bringing Prohibition about. He focuses on Black and Native American prohibitionists who have often been overlooked and searches beyond the USA to discover prohibitionist movements in India, Russia, southern Africa and beyond. He makes it clear that prohibitionism was not the preserve of gammon-faced evangelists in Kansas but was endorsed by a range of public figures including Gandhi, Lenin and Tolstoy.

This is a valuable contribution to the literature and bolsters his argument that Prohibition was not a howl of rage by angry WASPs against modernity. As it happens, I share Schrad’s scepticism about the overly simplistic sociological theories of Joseph Gusfield, who argued that Prohibition was a “symbolic crusade” between rural Protestants and city-dwelling immigrants. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the religious dimension in the USA. The movement began with women praying in saloons. It was led first by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and then by the Anti-Saloon League (popularly known as “the church in action”). It was supported by the YMCA, YMWA, Salvation Army and many other Christian organisations. Schrad does a fine job of highlighting prohibitionists from more diverse backgrounds and he makes an interesting argument about the role of temperance in fighting colonialism, but his approach sidelines the white Protestant reformers who were more representative of the Anti-Saloon League’s rank and file.

Even the more open-minded prohibitionists were happy to exploit the prejudices of others

Richmond P. Hobson, for example, was one of the most famous anti-alcohol campaigners of his day but is barely mentioned in this book. Almost as famous was the baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday who receives just two mentions despite the Anti-Saloon League saying in 1913 that the “liquor interests hate Billy Sunday as they hate no other man”. The dour and corrupt Bishop James Cannon, who served as the Anti-Saloon League’s chief legislative lobbyist, is mentioned in passing three times. The only white, male, American prohibitionist who features heavily is the charismatic William “Pussyfoot” Johnson. Johnson was an important figure in the international temperance movement, but getting Prohibition over the line in the USA was the work of less sympathetic characters who are pushed to the periphery of this book, leaving the impression that the typical prohibitionist was less Methodist, less white and more in tune with the politics of modern day liberals than she was.

Racism and xenophobia were endemic a century ago, and we should not judge our ancestors by our own standards. Nevertheless, Schrad is too quick to ignore and downplay the Social Darwinism of many Progressives. Even the more open-minded prohibitionists were happy to exploit the prejudices of others, whether stirring up fears about black drunkards in the Deep South or fuelling hatred of the Hun after 1914 to turn the public against America’s German brewers. Schrad claims that neither phenomenon was significant. Contemporary Anti-Saloon League cartoons tell a different story.

At times, the revisionism goes too far. Schrad claims the prohibitionists were given a helping hand in the late 19th century by emerging medical science, which debunked “long-standing myths about purported benefits of moderate alcohol consumption” and which identified health risks which have since been “substantiated by volumes of peer-reviewed research”. Central to this was the WCTU’s Mary Hanchett Hunt who set up the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in order to, as Schrad puts it, “publicise new scientific investigations into the harms of alcohol” and “encourage their teaching as part of public-school physiology courses”.

This is absurdly generous. Hunt was a fraudulent monomaniac who used the WCTU’s political muscle to put sensationalist pseudo-science on the school syllabus for decades while syphoning money off into a secret bank account to pay her mortgage. By the late 19th century, “temperance instruction” was mandatory in all federal schools, and Hunt used her power as de facto censor to create what she called “trained haters of alcohol”. It is thanks to her that generations of school children were taught that most beer drinkers die of dropsy, that alcohol burns the skin, is instantly addictive and is poisonous in any quantity. Needless to say, such claims are not supported by modern science, unlike the benefits of moderate drinking which have indeed been corroborated by “volumes of peer-reviewed research”.

The scandal of single-issue fanatics embedding lies in school textbooks for half a century is barely hinted at by Schrad, who concedes only that “unsound temperance propaganda” may have been counterproductive to the cause while insisting that there was “breathless hyperbole on both sides”. “Scientific temperance wasn’t some connivance of Victorian Bible-thumpers looking to legislate morality,” Schrad writes. In Hunt’s hands, that is exactly what it was.

Schrad is neither a teetotaller nor a prohibitionist. His objection is to “predatory liquor capitalism”, and he seems to favour a state-run alcohol industry. I don’t share that view. Having been happily “exploited” by the “liquor machine” for the last thirty years, I have no great desire to “smash” it. As I am not a socialist, the knowledge that Trotsky supported prohibition does not warm me to the cause. I do not see Prohibition as “a liberation movement from economic exploitation”, as Schrad calls it. I think he is on firmer ground when he says, two pages earlier, that the “prohibition movement was based upon a deep-seated desire to get rid of whiskey”.

Despite strongly disagreeing with its central premise, I greatly enjoyed this book. Schrad is a gifted historian and a fine story teller. His research on the temperance movements of Europe and the British Empire, which make up half the book, is original and valuable. If nothing else, it is refreshing to hear the story told from the prohibitionists’ perspective. Many of them truly believed it was a movement of liberation. No one ever sees themselves as the bad guys.

What is missing from the story is the lesson that should never be forgotten, that the prohibitionists were wrong, that the desire to drink alcohol did not disappear with the abolition of the industry, that millions of Americans went out of their way to be “exploited” by the insurgent liquor traffic that emerged under Prohibition, and that this industry was more “predatory” than the one it had replaced.

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