Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Daniel Okrent, 2010)

A sober experiment
From January 17, 1920 through December 5, 1933, the United States underwent a nation-wide experiment in using law to curb what many found morally and socially objectionable: the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition involved not just changes in law, and taxation, and law enforcement, and government regulation. It was begun by a Constitutional amendment and ended only when that amendment was repealed. The story of prohibition seems simple, but the fears and dreams of the human heart weave a tangled web even at the best of times, and as with everything else we face in a broken world the story of prohibition is one of both good and bad.

There was reason for concern. The consumption of alcoholic beverages in the American Colonies was remarkable. In 1763 there were 159 commercial distilleries producing rum in New England for consumption there. In the early 19th century, liquor was cheaper to drink than tea.

By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. ‘Staggering’ is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.

The reasons for such excess can be listed. Water was sometimes unsafe. Conditions in many factories were dangerous, the hours long, and the pay minimal, and many workers found a way to forget their plight in drink. Distillers and brewers became enormously wealthy, and quickly found ways to manipulate the political and economic systems in ways to their liking.

Much of the concern about alcoholism was spearheaded by women’s groups who also sought the right to vote, something that muddied the discussion in the public square. The church got involved, with evangelists decrying the effects of booze and crusaders using hatchets to wreck mayhem in saloons. The fact is that much drinking occurred, much alcoholism resulted, and soon the population had divided into warring political factions of “wets” and “drys.”

In Last Call, Daniel Okrent tells the story of Prohibition as it should be told, as a story, full of fascinating characters, singular events, surprising turns, and just enough detail (and footnotes) to make the tale he spins a true history of the period. This is not merely an informative book, it is a fun read, and I found myself reading sections aloud to Margie simply because they were too good to be missed.

There are several reasons why the story Okrent tells is valuable. For one, we live in a period when warring factions once again dominate the political discourse in the public square. Having a chance to reflect on issues, events, and rhetoric from a distance of decades allows us to consider how best to engage the political and social aspects of our lives as citizens. Prohibition is part of our national heritage, a massive experiment that we would be wise to learn from, especially when opposing forces in a culture war today similarly jockey for the power to install the legislative agenda they believe best. Last Call provides us with a lively opportunity to reflect anew on what shape our citizenship should take, especially when our neighbors hold convictions very different from our own. To what extent should my beliefs—whether religious or moral—be assumed to be for the common good? How do we determine the common good, and can we work for it without prostituting our souls? When is compromise on moral concerns in the political and legislative sphere a proper choice, and when does such compromise sell out our deepest values?

The story of Last Call should be of special interest to Christians because of the role our forebears played in Prohibition. I was pleased to read of Christians who cared deeply about the devastation brought by alcoholism in families and lives, and sought ways to bring hope and change through a practical application of the gospel. And I cringed at statements by religious culture warriors who warned of the dire consequences if the wrong people got elected, and how good things would be if their agenda carried the day. Like today, it was an unholy marriage of the gospel and politics, a chimera that continues to seduce people who should know better and need to learn from history.

The questions Last Call implicitly raises for Christians are probably obvious, but they are important. To what extent can legislation solve social and moral issues, and what are the implications that follow? Christian prohibitionists argued that families were being destroyed by alcoholism, and that lives were being lost as people died that should have lived—was this sufficient reason to impose laws that most of their neighbors opposed? Though it is true that a Christian is called to be faithful in the political sphere of life, when does engagement on specific issues become problematic? Prohibition was successful in one way in that after it was repealed Americans drank less. Does this make the Christian support for it acceptable?

In 1926 Rabbi Morris Lazaron polled fellow members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to gauge their attitudes regarding Prohibition and to learn something about sentiment in their communities. There was a wide range of personal opinion among the 122 who responded, wrote historian Marni Davis, but “nearly every rabbi, from every region, asserted that only two groups seemed to favor Prohibition: evangelical Christians and bootleggers.”

Does it matter who agrees with us?
I wish I had space to repeat some of the stories Okrent tells in Last Call. Of how under Prohibition doctors were allowed to prescribe alcoholic beverages for patients, and the way that boosted the practices of physicians. Or how obscure pharmacies became chains filling the avalanche of prescriptions. One example involves a man named Charles Walgreen. In 1916 he owned nine stores, which grew to 20 in 1920, when Prohibition began. Over the next decade his empire expanded to 525 stores, a success the Walgreen family has since credited to the introduction of the milk shake. Or the story of the flotilla of ships that set anchor just outside the territorial waters of the U.S., awaiting the flood of smaller vessels that would quickly arrive to buy the crates filling every nook and cranny below deck. “In many places,” Okrent records, “nightfall unveiled a constellation of ship’s lights so dense, recalled a captain who serviced vessels anchored off Highland Light on Cape Cod, ‘you would think it was a city out there.’” Or the story of how evangelicals decided—against both biblical and historical evidence—that communion should be with bread and grape juice, not wine, and how a Methodist named Dr. Thomas Welch went on to become a very wealthy man. Or the story of the rise of rampant corruption, bootleggers, and smuggling handled by ever-more violent mobsters. Or the story of how before Prohibition the federal government was funded by the tax on alcoholic beverages, so Prohibition also introduced the income tax. Or the story of how in reality politicians tended to be “wet-drys” or “dry-wets” depending on their districts.

One more story: The town of Virginia lies on the Iron Range of Minnesota, about 250 miles north of where I am typing this at Toad Hall in Rochester, MN. The Range was settled by immigrants willing to work in the iron mines, and has long been known as a place where drinking is both popular and problematic. When Prohibition was introduced, an exception was made in the law for families to ferment some fruit juice for their own use, since that had long been a standard way to preserve fruit between autumn harvests. One of the results of this exception was that vineyards in California would ship train loads of grapes to cities across the nation for this purpose. The amounts were remarkable. In 1919, for example, 9,300 carloads were shipped to New York, and in 1928 the number had increased to above 27,000. Even small communities ordered carloads, and because the quality of the grapes shipped out varied considerably, the good citizens of Virginia, MN sent their grocer to the San Joaquin Valley in California each autumn to make certain their shipment was acceptable. The grocer found he liked California and the grape business, and by the end of Prohibition decided to move his family there. The grocer’s name was Oscar Mondavi, whose oldest son Robert continued on in the new family business after Oscar’s death.

I recommend Last Call. Okrent tells his story well, and the story is worth reading. The story of Prohibition is about a true problem and a false solution, where somehow it is imagined that law can cure the deepest issues of the human heart. This is not the proper role for law and so is bound to fail, but decades later we still wonder how to translate our concerns into legislation for the common good.

The Scriptures call us to a much higher standard, one so high it is impossible to maintain without a holy-spirited infusion of grace. The ancient Hebrew psalmist praises God for his good gifts, which include, “wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalms 104:15). Make no mistake here. It is wrong to dismiss the good gifts of God even when their abuse is abhorrent and destructive. Alcoholism is a great scourge, but the misuse of something is not a sufficient reason for its disuse. This is why the abuse of alcohol is condemned in Scripture while at the same time wine is depicted as a sign of God’s blessing and of joy (Deuteronomy 7:12-13; Psalm 104:13-15), and a symbol of the messianic kingdom (Isaiah 25:6; 55:1; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:14; Zechariah 10:7). It is not just the taste of wine that matters then, to the Christian, but the delight that results when alcohol helps take the hard edge off the toil and disappointment we face in a broken world, a foretaste (no pun intended) of the unbroken joys of service in the kingdom to come. As with all God’s good gifts, though, this can be abused and so excess is forbidden the people of God. “And do not get drunk with wine,” St Paul says, “for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18 echoing Isaiah 29:9). So we accept God’s good gifts and live enjoying them but within their proper limits.

As in every aspect of life, Christian faithfulness cannot and must not be reduced to a formula. It is a walk by faith, seeking creative ways to promote human flourishing in a world seldom given to moderation. The story of Prohibition in Last Call provides another opportunity to reflect on just what this might look like—and what it might not.


Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent (New York, NY: Scribner; 2010) 376 pp + appendix, notes, sources, & index.