Our annual list of holiday gift suggestions from distinguished readers and writers.
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In My Time, by Dick Cheney.
The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, by Victor Davis Hanson (Anchor).
Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith (Random House).
Memoirs of the Civil War, by Ulysses S. Grant.
Donald Rumsfeld was the secretary of defense under George W. Bush. He is the author of Known and Unknown: A Memoir (Sentinel Books).
WAS THERE MORE to 1920s-era Prohibition than moonshiners, gangsters, flappers, and priggish churchmen, suffused by hypocrisy? According to Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner), by Daniel Okrent, there was indeed. The book also inspired the recent three-part PBS series on Prohibition, which prominently featured interviews with Okrent.
America’s 13-year experiment in banning alcohol sales is rarely remembered except to be spoofed. But the anti-booze 18th Amendment to the Constitution represented the apotheosis of one of America’s most politically successful reform movements. Okrent tells the story better than most, though, like the PBS series, he still leaves a few holes.
Early and 19th-century America was drenched in liquor, the average early citizen assuming shockingly large amounts of alcohol per capita. Partly all the drinking reflected the lack of fully safe other drinks, partly it was a remedy for the ills and aches not yet addressed by modern medicine, and partly it was linked to the hardy masculinity of frontier life. Early 19th-century revivalists inveighed against it. Other reformers joined low-church Protestants to advocate temperance in reaction to drunken abusive husbands, the corruptions of saloons linked to gambling and prostitution, and the hazards of alcoholism in a newly industrialized society. Abraham Lincoln once joined a temperance society and was in fact abstinent most of his adult life, possibly in reaction to an alcoholic father.
Moral reform movements, closely linked to Methodists and Baptists who made abstinence central to church discipline, first enrolled converts to temperance and then stigmatized saloons and their patrons as not fit for polite society. According to the new late-19th-century small-town piety, decent people did not mix with saloon culture. Women, as beacons of the church and frequent victims of drunken husbands who lost the farm gambling at the saloon, became temperance movement leaders. Socially and politically active women also joined the emerging movement for woman’s suffrage. Moral reformers eventually decided that only legislation could protect the vulnerable from the saloon’s temptations. Towns, counties, and states began to ban liquor sales, briefly before the Civil War, and then with more permanence late in the century.
Votes for women were seen as key to getting votes for Prohibition. When state prohibitions failed to work seamlessly, temperance activists decreed that only national Prohibition, enacted into the Constitution, could reform and protect America. To free the government from reliance on liquor sales taxes, an income tax constitutional amendment, enacted in 1913, also became central to the movement. Largely rooted in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, the temperance movement was partly responding to the rising immigrant population from southern and eastern Europe, many of them Catholics and Jews who were feared to be morally reprobate. Amplified by World War I, beer-drinking Germans, especially their wealthy brewers, were likewise suspect. Business leaders backed Prohibition as the cure for workplace drunkenness. Progressives embraced Prohibition as central to uplifting the working man. Black leaders saw Prohibition as vital to the moral progress of blacks only a few decades out of slavery.
The Anti-Saloon League, backed by thousands of Methodist and Baptist clergy, emerged as one of America’s most successful political machines, realizing that politics could be controlled by one-issue voters even if only a small percentage of the population. Soon it became nearly impossible for Republicans or Democrats outside the large cities to defy the League, which uncompromisingly demanded “bone-dry” laws. Both houses of Congress approved the Prohibition Amendment in 1917 by the requisite two-thirds vote. Senate moderates approved contingent on a seven-year deadline for ratification among the states.
But it flew through state legislatures in barely a year. No major presidential candidate ever enthusiastically supported Prohibition, though President Warren Harding, despite his own personal habits, typically did whatever the Anti-Saloon League asked. Despite the ease of passage, neither Congress nor the states ever voted sufficient funds for enforcement. Most Americans complied with the new law, and total alcohol consumption dropped dramatically, even as a growing minority defied it. Law-abiding imbibers had stocked up on liquor before Prohibition began in 1920, or went on off-shore booze cruises, or quietly produced their own liquor at home. Legal exemption of wine sales for ecclesial purposes enriched many rising vineyards, with the apparent blessing of Catholic and Jewish clerics. Of course, organized crime thrived during Prohibition, and many large cities, especially New York, barely pretended to enforce.
Political parties tried to avoid openly discussing Prohibition. Okrent claims the 1924 Democratic Party’s infamous debate over whether to condemn the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was actually a proxy for debate over Prohibition, which is maybe an exaggeration. The 1928 Democratic nomination of openly “wet” Al Smith created a typhoon of cultural and political warfare. His liquor stance, Catholicism, ties to Tammany Hall, and heavy New York accent, shocking to many Americans in the new radio age, made him a pariah to Protestant Middle America. He lost in a landslide, with even several Southern states voting Republican for the first time since Reconstruction.