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chesterton on prohibition As early as 1921, during his first visit to the United States, Chesterton had been horrified by the rise of Federal and corporate power and the consequent destruction of small government and small business. In an interview with a Boston newspaper he alluded to the chasm between the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the reality of modern-day America in terms that today’s Tea Partiers would no doubt endorse:

Were Patrick Henry to return to earth and look around on the vast economic order of the day, he might revise his observation and merely say ‘Give me death’—the alternative being manifestly impossible under modern conditions.[1]

It should be noted that this interview was given during the early days of Prohibition, itself a theft of liberty exceeding anything that Patrick Henry experienced at the hands of the British. Compare, for example, the theft of liberty implied by excessive taxation on tea with the theft of liberty implied by an absolute ban on fermented and distilled beverages. What would the Founding Fathers have thought of an overbearing government that passed such a law? And how does such a law look from a European perspective? From the latter perspective, it is indeed ironic, especially in the light of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, that the United States has an unhealthy affinity with Islam in its insistence, even today, on treating wines, ales and spirits as drugs and not as drinks. Alcohol, it should be remembered, is an Arabic word. Wine is not “alcohol” any more than milk is “calcium” or “protein”. A thing is not defined by one of its ingredients but by what it is in its wholeness. Jesus Christ did not change water into alcohol! And while we’re on the subject of Christ’s first miracle, woe betide anyone who seeks to reverse the miracle of Cana by turning the wine back into water!

Considering that both of Chesterton’s visits to the United States were during the period of Prohibition, it is not surprising that the Chestertonian perspective was brought to bear on the subject:

The great problem [re: Prohibition] is that we mix up the cause and the effect. There are two kinds of drinking. If a man is happy he drinks to express his happiness. That is good drinking. Then there is the case of the man who is so unhappy that he drinks in the search of happiness. You do not get at the root by stopping his drink. To get at the root you must change the industrial system that makes him unhappy. It is not only to have a more even distribution of wealth, though that would do much. In addition we must bring back old customs, dances, songs, beliefs: the things that kept man happy before modern industry was born.[2]

Chesterton seems to be saying that the problem of drunkenness in the slums is not the drink but the slums. If people are drinking to escape the hell in which they’re living, the solution is not to ban the drink but to banish the hell. Pace Chesterton, however, it must be conceded that alcoholics, as distinct from healthy drinkers, are not interested in the drink but in the drug to be found within the drink. For such people the drug is the hell from which they need to escape. Nonetheless, fermented beverages should not be banned because some people are alcoholics any more than sugar should be banned because some people are obese. Chesterton sums up the whole problem succinctly in his book, Heretics, published in 1905:

A new morality has burst upon us with some violence in connection with the problem of strong drink; and enthusiasts in the matter range from the man who is violently thrown out at 12:30, to the lady who smashes American bars with an axe. In these discussions it is almost always felt that one very wise and moderate position is to say that wine or such stuff should only be drunk as a medicine. With this I should venture to disagree with a peculiar ferocity. The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine … The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules—a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy.[3]

Chesterton’s view is clearly that of Christendom, of Christian Europe, as it was clearly the view of Christ Himself when He performed His miracle at the wedding feast. It is not the view of Mohammed nor, it seems, is it the view of a certain Puritan strain in America. In these things, it would appear that the space between the Prohibitionist tea-table and the Christian inn is indeed wider than the Atlantic.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Boston Evening Transcript, January 12, 1921

2. Boston American, February 12, 1921

3. G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, New York: John Lane Company, 1905, pp. 102-104

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7 replies to this post
  1. But we must not place the blame for sin (drunkenness) on the environment (e.g., the slums).

    The Pharisees of Jesus’ time placed the blamed for sin on the environment [re their ritual washings after they had been out in the marketplace], and Our Lord reminded them that sin comes from their own corrupt hearts.

    Likewise, the progressives of Chesterson’s time blamed the environment for sin. They placed the blame for drunkenness on fermented beverages. Is Chesterson blaming the slums for drunkenness?

    If I live in the slums, it is my job to find a way out of for my children – as some single moms actually did!

  2. @Publius Huldah — Chesterton is blaming the slums — or more specifically, low wages, dehumanizing work (when it can be found), and poor living conditions for unhappiness. Unhappiness, he claims, constitutes a temptation to drink in the wrong way, as it constitutes a temptation to many other sins. “For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them.” That fits the teetotaler industrialist as well as the Pharisee.

  3. First of the last chapter in Proverbs tells how those in authority should for go wine and strong drink lest they forget…and leave it for poor souls who could use it for a time. Earlier in the same book it warns of abuse. Thank you, Linda Eaton

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