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Clif's Book World

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Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition - Daniel Okrent To many alive today, prohibition is best remembered as depicted in movies of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Well, there's a lot more to it than that. There was a long history leading up to the era, and then bringing it to an end is an interesting story too.

I found the history of alcohol consumption in the U.S. to be of particular interest. See the following link to a graph showing the history of U.S. Alcohol Consumption:
LINK: U.S. Alcohol Consumption
After looking at the above graph one might wonder if our founding fathers were drunk. Up until 1839 Americans were drinking about three times the alcohol that is currently consumed per capita. This book suggests that the primary reason for the drop off after 1839 was the shift to drinking beer rather than distilled liquor due largely to German immigrants, and to the beginning of the Washingtonian Movement (proponents of temperance but not necessarily prohibition).

Another reason for high alcohol consumption then was cheap prices and abundant supply for distilled liquors. The abundant supply was caused by the farmers out west (beyond the Appalachian Mountain Range) having plenty of grain but nobody to sell it to. There was no economical way to transport the grain to eastern markets at a time before canals, developed roads and river boats. Converting a wagon load of grain into a couple jugs of liquor made shipment of a marketable product back east much more feasible. Thus there was a surplus of liquor which resulted in low prices.

Those of you who remember your American history lessons will recall President Washington's problems with the Whiskey Rebellion. That was caused by the Federal Government taxing the whiskey being brought over the mountains from the west. Alexander Hamilton justified the whiskey tax as being fair because it was a commodity that was purchased by almost everybody.

It took an incredible confluence of interests to permit the passage of the 18th Amendment. Many today may forget that it was not just a law, it was actually a part of the Constitution. Getting an amendment added to the Constitution is not an easy thing to do. Then once it's passed, getting the amendment removed is just as difficult as passage was in the first place. This books tells the history of how this all happened.

Some things I learned from this book:
1. Reapportionment as called for in the Constitution following each census did not take place following the 1920 Census until 1929. Why the delay? Everyone knew that reapportionment was going to reduce the influence of western rural states that just happened to be the strongest supporters of Prohibition.
2. Prohibition supporters included some strange bed-fellows ranging from northern progressives to the Klu Klux Klan. (The Klu Klux Klan had significant growth of members in the northern states during this era because of its anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant positions.)
3. If you were a supporter of Prohibition in 1920 you most likely were White Anglo-Saxon Protestant living in a rural part of the country.
4. If you were opposed to Prohibition in 1920 you were likely to be Catholic, of Irish or Italian ancestry, a first or second generation immigrant, and living in an urban area.
5. The Prohibition movement was a significant cause for the initiation of the income tax in the United States. It was needed to make up the difference from the lost revenue from taxing booze.

The failure of prohibition is perhaps an indication of the folly of trying to legislate morality against the will of a large portion of the population. There are still plenty of people around who still want to do it today in other ways.