Prohibition had cultivated both a growing mistrust and a growing acceptance of state power. It was becoming not only a legal and political mechanism to regulate personal habits and to modify social customs but also a means to impose cultural unity. Whatever dangers it posed to liberty, government regulation was by the 1920s a fact of American life.


Americans during the 1920s were a proud, strong, and self-righteous people tormented by a deep anxiety about the future. They suffered, but did not resolve or even address, the paradox that has repeatedly bewildered the American character: the generosity of American ideas and ideals coupled with the pettiness of the American heart and mind. The end of the Great War and the Paris Peace Conference revealed fundamental differences of attitude and opinion that induced Americans not only to regard Europeans but also their fellow citizens with suspicion. In 1920, the United States was less united than it seemed. Efforts to instill “One Hundred Percent Americanism” had been a practical success. The more than 20 million Americans and immigrants who had come from the nations that joined the Central Powers remained loyal to the United States and supported the American war effort. At the same time, the emphasis on “Americanization” had prompted increasing numbers to turn away from Europe once the war was over. Americans had no desire to continue the alliance with Great Britain and France, and preferred to become isolationists. Populists, Progressives, and socialists alike now opposed American involvement with Europe.

The socialist influence on American politics both before and after the war was negligible. But in one important respect the attitude toward socialism and other radical and foreign ideologies became the defining characteristic of American political, social, and intellectual life during the 1920s. After the war, an anti-socialist, anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant program replaced the anti-German campaign. If Americans during the war had eliminated the teaching of German in schools, forbidden the performance of Wagner’s music, and ceased to recognize dachshunds as a breed, Americans afterward turned to suppressing any instance of political, social, or personal nonconformity, however innocuous. Every unorthodox act or expression was a potential source of disorder and treason.

By taking such measures Americans were determined to protect their society from contamination. The United States has “the only first-class civilization in the world today,” wrote Barton W. Currie in The Ladies’ Home Journal. Although neither an isolationist nor a xenophobe, Currie shared with many Americans the presumption of American superiority. His was not a hopeful declaration about what America could become. It was rather a statement of fact. Only Canada, New Zealand, and Australia rivaled the United States, although they were “outside the realm of free democracy.” The Canadians at least were “typically American in thought and progressiveness.” America stood at the zenith of the world, as Sinclair Lewis’s protagonist George Babbitt might have put it. Currie and most other Americans did not recognize the irony of Lewis’s trope.

For Currie, the United States was different from Europe, not in degree but in kind. The United States was stable and prosperous; Europe was volatile and impoverished. Americans were optimistic and confident; Europeans were cynical and despairing. Currie explained that “the only good thing the world has derived from the Kaiser’s abortive effort to Prussianize two hemispheres is an awakening consciousness through the world that American civilization is infinitely the best so far developed; that relatively it is first-class, while Europe’s is hardly second-class and Asia’s is about fourth to sixth class.” Peoples the world over “would come here by the millions if they could pay their way and jump the immigration barriers.”[1] Most Americans believed that their civilization was fundamentally distinct from the civilization of Europe, and that it was ordained to become ever more so.

The isolationism of the 1920s was thus neither conservative nor reactionary. It was, instead, a manifestation of the unshakeable American belief in progress. “History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford said. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now.”[2] More succinctly, Julius Klein, the Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Hoover Administration, proclaimed that “tradition is the enemy of progress.” According to the poet Carl Sandburg, “the past is a bucket of ashes…. Let the dead be dead.”[3] The 1920s marked the triumph of modernity in both the United States and Europe. But in America modernity was synonymous with progress; in Europe it was not. Unlike Europeans, Americans did not much contemplate the radical departure from established customs, practices, and ideas that modernity represented. In the view of many, perhaps most, Americans—a view not confined to the American cultural and intellectual elite—the cult of progress and the cult modernity were their birthright. The future was their plaything. It belonged to them to do with as they pleased.

At the same time, the isolationism of the 1920s was inconsistent and incomplete. Although Americans may have wished to retreat from world affairs they yet sought to remake the world in the American image by exporting American institutions and values. They promoted the expansion of American business abroad, especially in the Far East. In addition, American investment in foreign enterprises and governments had never been greater than it was during the 1920s, creating an unprecedented financial interdependence between the United States and Europe that the Stock Market crash and the Great Depression made agonizingly plain. Congress may have restricted immigration but wealthy Americans imported boatloads of European artwork, and sometimes brought over entire buildings to be reconstructed stone by stone.

President Coolidge deployed the Marines to Nicaragua and kept them in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, all the while asserting that the United States had no intention of meddling in the domestic politics of other sovereign nations. His ally, the Republican Congressman and Baptist minister Charles A. Eaton of New Jersey, justified the policy by affirming that the United States had no option except to help its neighbors, not for its own profit or glory, not because Americans entertained imperial ambitions, but because the United States was a compassionate big brother to the rest of the world. American motives, Coolidge, Eaton, and their like-minded colleagues reassured the beneficiaries of such largess, were entirely selfless and benevolent.

The United States, of course, rejected membership in the League of Nations, as much because it might hamper the pursuit of American interests abroad as because it might necessitate involvement in another overseas conflict. Coolidge and the Republicans sought to benefit from the economic advantages the United States enjoyed at a minimum cost. Commerce, not war, thus became the impetus and the objective of American foreign policy. The meaningless Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929 renounced war as an instrument of national policy save for purposes of self-defense. Far from ensuring collective security, the agreement was another instance of American optimism. Its impact was almost exclusively psychological, though it did convey a genuine American repugnance at the use of force to settle international disputes.

J. Reuben Clark, the chief legal advisor to the State Department, was the architect of what came to be known as Good Neighbor Policy, which defined American foreign relations in the Western Hemisphere long after Coolidge had left office. In 1928, Clark argued that the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was invalid. The Monroe Doctrine had applied to the intrusion of European powers into the Western Hemisphere. It provided no historical precedent or legal rationale to justify American involvement in the affairs of its neighbors. But the United States could still intercede, often by arming surrogates or imposing economic sanctions, to ensure hemispheric security and peace. During the 1920s, then, the United States did not completely isolate itself from the rest of the world. American leaders instead devised more subtle means of intervention, which enabled them to further American interests and to set the terms of American engagement.


Endowed with abundant natural and material resources, possessing an unrivaled technological sophistication and proficiency, controlling secure borders, and benefiting from a stable government, Americans had long thought that they were not only better off but also better than the rest of the world. They may not have been richer but they were certainly freer than other peoples, or believed themselves to be so. America was not only distinctive; it was also unique among the nations of the earth. Watched over by a benevolent and infallible providence, the destiny of the United States advanced unfettered by the historical restraints that had limited other nations. But because they worshipped at the altar of progress, Americans discovered that they could not keep the world from turning, even perhaps from spinning beyond their control.

Neither Harding nor Coolidge could restore the past, and the American people did not really want them to do so, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. They sought instead to manage the future by ridding the nation of its ills. With the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, the consumption of alcohol remained the one form of oppression that, in the minds of many Americans, most threatened order, liberty, and progress. As it always had, drink, so many Americans feared, encouraged idleness, poverty, and vice. Drunkenness meant the loss of self-control and the end of social order. It was the prime example of a destructive anti-social individualism. Again, as had been the case during the nineteenth century, the crusade against alcohol in the 1910s and 1920s was also linked to nativism and xenophobia. Most of the leading brewers, after all, were German and thus of questionable virtue and loyalty. Their very names exposed their character: Busch, Lieber, Pabst, Ruppert, Schaefer, Schmidt, and Yuengling. Moreover, immigrants who drank to excess could never become trustworthy Americans. Theirs was a corrupting influence that had to be purged. Yet, like isolationism, the prohibition movement was more progressive than it seemed. It marked an effort to purify America, to ensure the continuation of unbroken progress by cleansing the United States of the toxins that sickened the body politic.

Before the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, eighteen states had already enacted laws prohibiting the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcohol, or had granted the local option to cities and counties. A diverse combination of Protestant clergymen, women, including many Progressive feminists such as Jane Addams, advocates of scientific management and industrial efficiency, and big businessmen demanded a federal prohibition law. President William Howard Taft vetoed the Webb-Kenyon Bill that would have made it illegal to transport alcohol across state lines, a decision that earned him the contempt of the Anti-Saloon League as the “huge, beer-swilling Taft.”[4] Congress overrode the president’s veto, and prohibition gained momentum under the Wilson administration. William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s first Secretary of State, served only grape juice at diplomatic functions. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, banned alcohol from the officers’ mess aboard naval vessels. Stewards replaced alcohol with coffee, which sailors called a “cup of Josephus Daniels,” an insulting epithet that, in time, they shortened to a “cup of Joe.”[5] The war itself supplied the final impetus to make prohibition the law of the land. Government programs that asked the American people to sacrifice bread, among other foodstuffs, for the war effort, along with the slogan “Food Will Win the War,” were incompatible with the profligate waste of grain in the manufacture of whiskey and beer.

In a debate that lasted fewer than three days, Congress adopted the Eighteenth Amendment, which forbade the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicants (defined as any beverage containing 0.5 percent alcohol) throughout the United States. By January 16, 1919, the mandatory thirty-six states had ratified it. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League drafted the legislation that activated prohibition, which was named for Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who supervised its passage. Although Wilson vetoed the bill on a technicality because it also covered wartime prohibition, the Volstead Act became law in 1920, assigning initial responsibility for enforcement to the Treasury Department.[6]

Advocates of prohibition expected it to improve national morality, enhance industrial productivity, reduce crime, and eradicate corruption. “The virtue of the country asserts itself at the polls in the election of officials who are in sympathy with the enforcement of the law,” intoned William Jennings Bryan, while Secretary Daniels simply pronounced “the saloon as dead as slavery.”[7] Resistance to the law and defiance of the Constitution soon disabused Americans of their utopian illusions. John F. Kramer, the first head of the enforcement division in the Treasury Department, vowed that the law “would be obeyed in cities, large and small, and in villages, and where it is not obeyed it will be enforced.”[8] But fiscal conservatism helped to undermine Kramer’s efforts, for Congress had allocated his agency a budget of only $2 million. Local communities resisted national administration of their neighborhood saloons and political clubs. Resourceful criminals sought to profit from the illegal manufacture, transport, and sale of liquor. Young men and women also defied the law to establish the refinement and independence of their generation. “The virtue of the country” did not often prevail.

Like the exclusion of illegal narcotics in our time, efforts to implement the Volstead Act proved futile. Unless the national government utilized its manpower and resources to the fullest possible extent, it had no hope of prevailing against widespread and coordinated resistance. The “wets” made a mockery of prohibition by distilling their own “bathtub gin” or fermenting their own wine. Importers (such as my maternal grandfather) smuggled whiskey into the United States across the vast unpatrolled borders with Canada or Mexico or along the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to New Jersey. From the perspective of these rumrunners and bootleggers, God had endowed America with 18,700 miles of coastline and boundaries, every inch of which represented an opportunity to elude detection and arrest. At the height of its effectiveness, the Treasury Department employed only 3,000 federal prohibition agents. Even the most resolute and tenacious could not be everywhere at once.[9] Estimates suggest that eighty percent of illegal liquor shipments entering the United States through Canada and Mexico reached their destinations. The most important consequence of prohibition was thus to encourage a general disdain for the law and to strengthen the organized crime syndicates, such as the prototypical gang that Johnny Torrio and Al Capone operated in Chicago, that quickly established control over the illegal liquor traffic. In 1927, the Torrio-Capone organization grossed $60 million from the sale of beer and whiskey, compared to only $25 million from gambling, and $10 million each from prostitution and protection.

Yet, the diversion of alcohol intended for industrial and commercial use was the principal source of illicit liquor sold in the United States during prohibition. Between ten and fifteen million gallons of alcohol obtained from hair dye, shoe polish, cosmetics, and paint were transformed into drink. Others consumed wood or grain alcohol, corn mash, and moonshine made from methanol or ethanol, using potatoes as the feedstock. Those who were poorer and more desperate often turned to Jamaica Ginger, or Jake, a patent medicine with a high alcoholic content. The Treasury Department ordered the manufacturers to change the formula. Instead, they added industrial chemicals designed to make plastics soft and pliable but that rendered the presence of alcohol undetectable. The reconstituted Jake paralyzed many customers, depriving thousands of the use of their hands and feet. In “Alcohol and Jake Blues,” the Delta blues guitarist Tommy Johnson sang: “I drink so much Jake, till it done give me the limber leg / If I don’t quit drinking it every morning, sure gonna kill me dead.” Like others who could not buy Jake, wood or grain alcohol, corn mash, or moonshine, Tommy Johnson also consumed “Canned Heat,” the denatured alcohol extracted from Sterno. In 1929, Johnson, by that time a hopeless alcoholic, lamented his addiction in “Canned Heat Blues:” “Crying mama, mama, mama, crying, canned heat is killing me / Believe to my soul, Lord, it gonna kill me dead.” Throughout the 1920s, physicians and coroners dealt with increasing numbers of impoverished men and women, white and black, who had died from drinking Canned Heat. The substance of last resort was alcorub, or rubbing alcohol (isopropyl), which was more lethal than either Jamaica Ginger or Canned Heat. Strained through a slice of bread and mixed with Coca-Cola to make Soda Pop Moon, rubbing alcohol could be drunk. Instead of drinking it, users more commonly inhaled it, often to hold at bay the delirium tremens. Again, Johnson recounted in “Canned Heat Blues:” “Crying canned heat mama sure Lord killing me / Takes alcorub to take these canned heat blues.”[10]

Opponents of prohibition argued that the law, apart from being an insufferable expansion of government power and sinister violation of constitutional rights, did little more than produce two new classes of criminals: those who drank illegal liquor and those who quenched their thirst. In this instance, crime did pay. The illegal traffic generated annual returns of $2 billion. Enforcement of the law initially cost $6 million a year, and increased dramatically over time. Meanwhile, the federal and state governments lost $500 million in annual tax revenues. Some states, such as New York, defied the law. In 1923, the New York State legislature repealed the enabling statutes that implemented the Volstead Act. By 1931, four other states, Wisconsin, Montana, Nevada, and Illinois, had done the same. Still others transferred the burden of funding and administering the law entirely to the federal government, which more often than not resulted in haphazard and careless enforcement. The corruption of public officials, mayors, chiefs of police, district attorneys, and judges as well as agents of the Treasury Department itself, further weakened regulation, while the allure of illegality made enforcement a game if not a joke. Without offering any substantive recommendations, the Wickersham Commission, chaired by former attorney general George Wickersham, advised President Hoover in 1931 that the economic and social costs of prohibition far exceeded the benefits.[11]

At the same time, popular support for prohibition had begun to erode. The legal consumption of alcohol seemed less menacing to society than the warfare that criminal mobs conducted in the streets of American cities. To many Americans, gun manufacturers and undertakers were the principal beneficiaries of prohibition. If anything, politics were less decent and more venal. Unemployment and poverty had not disappeared. Hoover despised alcohol. But even he yielded to reality and changing public opinion. He endorsed repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment shortly before leaving office in 1932.[12]

With equal fervor, millions of Americans deemed prohibition the essence of individual morality and social order. The evangelist Billy Sunday exclaimed that “whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell.” The Reverend Sunday and others who shared his convictions accepted, even welcomed, such draconian measures as warrantless searches, prosecutions that violated the double-jeopardy protections of the Fifth Amendment, and physical coercion if they worked to preserve American virtue and righteousness. “I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the liquor traffic,” Sunday pledged to his audiences. “I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command. I shall ask no quarter from that gang, and they shall get none from me.”[13] Some states enacted Sunday’s view into law. Indiana imposed a sentence of between thirty days to six months in jail for a first violation. Even having a private drink at home with a friend or giving liquor as a gift were actions subject to prosecution. In Michigan, a fourth offense brought a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Moral progress was difficult, painful, and expensive. To better their country and redeem their lives, American citizens should willingly endure any hardship and pay any price. But the advocates of prohibition were neither stupid nor heartless reactionaries. In at least one important respect, they were as much the humane, democratic idealists as any of their more liberal reform-minded contemporaries. To them, the unfortunate drinker, powerless over alcohol, was as much the victim of economic maltreatment and social injustice as he was of his own sinful frailties. The Reverend John Haynes Holmes justified the Volstead Act because, as he said, the availability of liquor invited “a deliberate exploitation of the weak by the strong.”[14] The prohibitionists sought to defend such unfortunates from an economic system, a set of cultural norms, and a congeries of social expectations and practices that had failed them.


Attacked and supported with equal vehemence, prohibition blurred the distinctions between liberalism and conservatism. Perhaps not as surprising as it may seem, despite the widespread support that prohibition received throughout the South, the conservative Alabama Senator Oscar Underwood condemned the Eighteenth Amendment because it “compelled men to live their lives in the mold prescribed by the power of government.”[15] More surprisingly, the liberal journalist Walter Lippmann agreed. Writing in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Lippmann invoked the constitutional theories of John C. Calhoun to challenge prohibition. The nullification of an objectionable law, Lippmann asserted, was “a normal and traditional American method of circumventing the inflexibility of the Constitution.” With all possibility of reform and amendment foreclosed, and the Constitution in “conflict with the living needs of the nation,” the only resort was to change the Constitution by disobeying it and then by getting the Supreme Court to endorse the noncompliance. “If liquor is legalized in the States which desire it,” Lippmann opined, “all that is necessary to make it constitutional is for the Supreme Court, bowing to public opinion to find by proper reasoning that the states are not violating the Eighteenth Amendment. Then they will not be violating it…. The Constitution, thank heavens, means whatever a living Supreme Court says it means.”[16] It is not too much to say that men as different Americans as Underwood and Lippmann looked on the constitutional right to drink as being important as the constitutional right to vote.

For more than a decade, Americans debated the right to drink and the right to curtail the perils of drinking with an indistinguishable passion. Alternately considered both an affirmation and a denial of democratic ideals, prohibition divided the American people with an intensity that rivaled the controversy over slavery. The editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Herbert Agar, thought that prohibition signaled the imprudence of popular democracy. Most voters, Agar reasoned, were unqualified to determine their own interests. They ought to forfeit the right to vote. To salvage democratic government, democracy itself had to be restricted.[17]

Similarly, H.L. Mencken understood prohibition as yet another instance of the “green fury of the mob” (163) that was transforming America in a moral wasteland. “Democracy,” Mencken insisted, “may be defined as a device for releasing this hatred born of envy, and for giving it the force and dignity of the law.” No scheme more fully revealed the vile character of democracy, what Menken referred to as the “democratic pestilence,” than prohibition. Manipulating the prejudices and emotions of the ignorant rabble, the prohibitionists were animated by “sadism.” According to Mencken’s diagnosis, zealous teetotalers sought:

to inflict inconvenience, discomfort, and, whenever possible, disgrace upon the persons they hate—which is to say, upon everyone who is free from their barbarous theological superstitions, and is having a better time in the world than they are. They cannot stop the use of alcohol not even appreciably diminish it, but they can badger and annoy everyone who seeks to use it decently, and they can fill the jails with men taken for purely artificial offenses, and they can get satisfaction thereby for the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy.[18]

To Mencken’s relief, such labors had come to nothing. The so-called Noble Experiment had failed. But its proponents had nonetheless inflicted serious and, in all probability, lasting damage on American society. The prohibitionists had guaranteed a millennium but crime, scandal, poverty, and disease remained unabated. To add insult to injury, even drunkenness had worsened.[19] Prohibition, Mencken concluded, had done nothing except add to the sum of evils afflicting the world.

Unlike Agar and Mencken, others, such as the sociologist Harry S. Warner, contended that prohibition had revitalized democracy. Warner observed that prohibition:

did not reach the stage of prohibitory law by the route of stampede in the year of a national political campaign. The road that it took, the experimenting that accompanied it, and the heavy opposition encountered made of it something more fundamental than the many issues expressed or exploited in the skillfully worded platforms drawn up to win these quadrennial battles for votes. And this movement against alcoholic drink and the traffic behind it, legal and illegal, will be decided finally by education and discussion rather than by such campaigns, however much politics may be associated with it in the various steps to a final decision.[20]

The Volstead Act, in Warner’s analysis, met all the criteria of wholesome democratic practice. It had stood the test of time. It was based on long public deliberation. It won the support of a decisive majority, since, as he reminded Americans, forty-six of forty-eight states had ratified the Eighteen Amendment. Democratic vigor had prevailed over elitist depravity. For Warner, prohibition marked the triumph of the people over the interests, the weak over the strong, David over Goliath.

He was not alone. In astonishingly querulous and radical language given the usual tenor of the magazine, Barton W. Currie, editor of The Ladies Home Journal, associated the struggle over prohibition with a more extensive class conflict. Currie denounced the “rum rights of the rich” procured at the expense of common decency and the common good. “The prosperous millions in our population,” he complained, “have been giving an alarming exhibition of soft morals and selfish indulgence that invites anarchy and revolution.” The “fashionable rich” cared nothing for the welfare of their fellow citizens or the future of the country, but demanded their cocktails as “an inalienable class privilege” no matter the consequences of satisfying their “alcoholic needs.” Currie spared no vitriol in reproving them. “The prohibition embroilment,” he warned, “is shaping its course as an inevitable class issue.” In pursuit of their “personal festivities and gala entertainments,” the affluent had become their own legislators and jurists, contemptuously dismissing “this interfering and sumptuary prohibition law.” Prohibition was, at last, the victory of those whom Roy A. Haynes had identified in Prohibition Inside Out, also published in 1923, as the little people of the world over the greedy criminals and their dissolute patrons.[21]

To whatever extent prohibition may have been an exercise in democracy, the vexing question remained about whether it advanced personal freedom or imposed social control. Warner affirmed that freedom from drink, even if accomplished through political and legal compulsion, was far more beneficial to Americans than leaving them a choice. Prohibition sustained individual liberty, releasing men and women from the illusion of freedom that drinking produced. Alcohol was the opiate of the masses. It stupefied them and prepared them to accept their bondage without protest or complaint. Some liberties sanctioned in the past, Warner persisted, had become outdated and harmful to society. No one in the twentieth century, for example, would consider the right to own slaves as an acceptable expression of individual freedom. The abolition of slavery had not only changed but also improved the world. Far from being conservative, reactionary, or merely nostalgic, Warner’s effort to vindicate prohibition was progressive. Once the United States had eliminated alcohol, Warner imagined the emergence of a new order of civilization and the advent of a new era in history.

Warner appreciated that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the need for social order. It was impossible to confine the excesses of drink to the individual alone. The family, community, and nation were aggrieved by the drunkard’s improvidence. A human being was not an autonomous creature. There existed an extensive web of associations that connected men and women to one another in various capacities: as father, mother, neighbor, worker, citizen, and so on. Like slavery, unreserved individualism had become a thing of the past, an impediment to progress. It had no place in such an intricate network of social relations. A sociologist, Warner seems never to have recognized that, in the modern world, the biblical injunction to be your brother’s keeper required the ominous growth of state power.


The antidemocratic tendencies inherent in prohibition contributed to its demise. The prohibitionists themselves, on the contrary, ascribed waning popular support to the exaggerations of a deceptive propaganda campaign that wealthy businessmen and their political allies had organized and financed.[22] In their minds, the failure of prohibition was not the result of an insurgent democracy. It was a feat of advertising and public relations. Although these allegations contained many elements of the conspiracy theories of which Americans, then as now, are so fond, it was not without merit.

Seventy-five percent of the contributions that the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) received in 1929 came from only fifty-two donors.[23] Their number included the Du Pont brothers, Pierre, Irénée, and Lamont; John J. Raskob, an executive at both the DuPont Corporation and General Motors; Charles H. Sabin, chairman of the Guaranty Trust of New York; Fred Pabst; Jacob Ruppert; Fred Anheuser; and August A. Busch. In a letter dated March 24, 1928 and addressed to William P. Smith, the director of the AAPA, Pierre Du Pont announced that “the prohibition movement has failed in its original aim and has become both a nuisance and a menace.”[24] The advocates of prohibition intimated that men such as Du Pont and the others who supported the AAPA had duped the public. They were not intent to safeguard freedom or to expand democracy. They were, instead, resolved to save themselves hundreds of millions of dollars by substituting a liquor tax for the corporate and income tax. Their paeans to democracy had been a ruse. The Twenty-First Amendment thus was a more negligible expression of popular democracy, and offered more substantive reinforcement of unrestrained private enterprise, than it may at first have appeared.

Repeal was also no more effective in solving the problems of poverty and crime than prohibition had been. In 1934, the year in which prohibition ended, Deets Pickett, a spokesman for the Methodist Board of Temperance, commented that “we come now face to face with the original problem, which is not Prohibition, but alcohol.”[25] Despite the pretense, rage, despotism, and hysteria that so often informed the prohibitionist crusade, rescinding the Eighteenth Amendment ended the attempt to prevent drunkenness without suggesting an alternative. Prohibitionists may have denounced and neglected the individual alcoholic, but they did view alcoholism as a matter of public health and tried to address the problem, albeit with a cumbersome and inept deterrent. In so doing, they made public welfare the responsibility of the state, an obligation that had formerly been the province of charities and churches.[26]

Prohibition brought the greatest transfer of power to the national government since Reconstruction.[27] Even so ardent a prohibitionist as Herbert Hoover admitted in 1921 that “the crushing of the liquor trade without a cent of compensation, with scarcely even a discussion of it, does not bear out the notion that we [Americans] give property rights any headway over human rights.”[28] But Hoover could also not deny that such actions violated the hallowed concept of private property, that prohibition constituted the foremost legal confiscation of private property since the abolition of slavery.

In Olmstead v. United States (277 U.S. 438), the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to uphold the right of the government to monitor the telephone conversations of private individuals to ascertain whether they were engaged in criminal activity.[29] Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Howard Taft resolved that in gathering evidence of the defendant’s guilt, the government had conducted no search or seizure, lawful or unlawful. He interpreted the Fourth Amendment to apply only to material premises and property. As such, the government could not violate the defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment “unless there has been an official search of his person, or such a seizure of his papers or his tangible material effects, or an actual physical invasion of his house ‘or curtilage’ for the purpose of making a seizure.” No constitutional restriction precluded the use at trial of such evidence, however unethically obtained.[30]

In his dissenting opinion, Louis Brandeis emphasized the technological innovations that permitted the government to intrude on the privacy of its citizens, often without their knowledge, to say nothing of their consent. It was the violation of a person’s “indefeasible right to personal security, personal liberty and private property” that constituted the most perilous encroachment on freedom. To safeguard not only home and property but also, and more important, thought, idea, and belief, the Founding Fathers had “conferred, as against Government, the right to be let alone,” which Brandeis considered “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”[31] Brandeis reasoned that the government must never be permitted to intrude into situations in which individuals had the expectation of privacy.

The right of privacy was not, in Brandeis’s judgment, limited to the search of a dwelling or an office, any more than it was confined to the seizure of tangible property. His definition of the right to privacy was conceptual and constituted the essence of liberty itself. According to Brandeis’s jurisprudence, the Volstead Act was at odds with the Fourth Amendment. The right to privacy, the “right to be let alone,” extended in his mind to all aspects of life, no matter where an alleged violation had occurred.[32]

Liberals and conservatives alike objected to what seemed a flagrant violation of privacy that the Olmstead case exposed. Prohibition had cultivated both a growing mistrust and a growing acceptance of state power. It was not only becoming a legal and political mechanism to regulate personal habits and to modify social customs, but, as Lynn Dumenil has shown, it was also becoming the means “to impose cultural unity on an increasingly heterogeneous and complex society.”[33] Whatever dangers it posed to liberty, government regulation was by the 1920s a fact of American life. The theory and practice of federalism were forever changed; the administrative state was now an unalterable reality. No longer did public debate focus on whether government regulation was legitimate, but what the nature and extent of such regulation ought to be.[34]

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[1] Barton W. Currie, “The Only First-Class Civilization,” The Ladies’ Home Journal 40 (August 1923), 24, 63.

[2] Ford is quoted in Roger Butterfield, “Henry Ford, the Wayside Inn, and the Problem of ‘History is Bunk,’” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 77 (1965), 53-66. The original quotation appeared in an interview that Ford gave to Charles N. Wheeler published in The Chicago Tribute, May 25, 1916. Ford was a complex, even enigmatic, man who also commemorated the past. Two recent biographies explore the inconsistencies of his outlook. See Richard Snow, I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford (New York, 2013) and especially Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York, 2006).

[3] Julius Klein is quoted in Paul A. Carter, Another Part of the Twenties (New York, 1977), 137. See Carl Sandburg, “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” (1922).

[4] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010), 282.

[5] Lee Craig, Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013), 245; see also 438, notes 97-98.

[6] The history of Prohibition has drawn considerable scholarly attention and popular interest. Although it offers an outdated, one-dimensional, strained, and exaggerated portrait of the movement as a rural phenomenon, see Andrew Sinclair, The Age of Excess: A Social History of the Prohibition Movement (Boston, 1962). To cite but one example, Sinclair enlists Emily Dickenson among the opponents of Prohibition because she once wrote approvingly of an “intoxicated bee.” Richard H. Hamm, Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1995) discusses the historical background of prohibition. Among the earliest histories of prohibition as a national phenomenon is John Timberlake, Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920 (Cambridge, MA, 1963). More recent studies include John Kobler, Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 1973); Thomas M. Coffee, The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America, 1920-1933 (New York, 1975); Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York, 1976); Edward Behr, Thirteen Years that Changed America (New York, 1996); Anne-Marie Szymanski, Pathways to Prohibition: Radicals, Moderates, and Social Movement Outcomes (Durham, NC, 2003). Journalist Daniel Orkent’s Last Call provides a useful narrative history. Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA, 2007), which reveals the complex struggle over prohibition in urban politics, is a welcome corrective to Sinclair’s book. Kristi Anderson, The Creation of a Democratic Majority, 1928-1936 (Chicago, 1979) and David Burner, The Politics of Provincialism: The Democratic Party in Transition, 1918-1932 (New York, 1967) chart the divisive influence of prohibition on the Democratic Party.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, “His Government and His Law,” in In His Image (New York, 1922), 229. Daniels is quoted in Helen Marie Clarke, Over PJ Clarke’s Bar: Tales from New York City’s Famous Saloon (New York, 2012), 76

[8] Quoted in Nathan Miller, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (New York, 2003), 101.

[9] See Glen Jeansonne, Transformation & Reaction: America, 1921-1945 (New York, 1994), 58.

[10] See Debra DeSalvo, The Language of the Blues (New York, 2006), 90-91, 32-33, 1-3; Jeansonne, Transformation & Reaction, 59.

[11] National Commission in Law Observance and Enforcement (NCLOE), A Report of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement Relative to the Facts as to the Enforcement, the Benefits, and the Abuses under the Prohibition Laws, both Before and Since the Adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, 71st Congress, 3rd Session, House Document No. 77 (Washington, D.C. 1931).

[12] On the increasing unpopularity and eventual repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, see David Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition, 2nd ed. (Kent, OH, 2000) and Kenneth Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition (New York, 1996).

[13] Billy Sunday, “Booze, or Get on the Water Wagon,” typescript (1917), William Morton Smith Library, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. See also Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids, MI, 1991), 112-13; John Fea, “The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down: Prohibition and Sunday’s Chicago Crusade of 1918,” Illinois Historical Journal 87/4 (Winter 1994), 242-58; Robert F. Martin, Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society (Bloomington, IN, 2002), 111-15; William G. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (Chicago, 1955), 180-84.

[14] Debate on Prohibition: Clarence Darrow, Negative; John Haynes Holmes, Affirmative (Girard, KS, 1924), 26.

[15] Oscar W. Underwood, Shifting Sands of Party Politics (New York, 1928), 376. See also Paul A. Carter, “The Campaign of 1928 Re-Examined: A Study in Political Folklore,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 46/4 (Summer 1963), 263-72. For a general analysis of the subject, see Sean Beienburg, Prohibition, the Constitution, and States’ Rights (Chicago, 2019).

[16] Walter Lippmann, “Our Predicament Under the Eighteenth Amendment,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine (December 1926), 51-55, the quoted passages appear on pp. 55-56.

[17] Herbert Agar, “Prohibition and Democracy: A Plea for Limiting the Suffrage,” English Review 52 (May 1931), 556-66.

[18] H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy (London, 1927), 163-65, 174. Mencken’s phrase “democratic pestilence” appears in Treatise on the Gods, (New York, 1930), 296.

[19] The Wickersham Committee agreed that the consumption of alcohol had increased during Prohibition. See NCLOE Report, 22.

[20] Harry S. Warner, “Prohibition—A Step in Process,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political Science Vol.163/No. 1 (September 1, 1932), 155-162. The quoted passage appears on p. 155. See also Warner, Prohibition, An Adventure in Freedom (Westerville, OH, 1928), 57-77, 85-88, 103-23.

[21] Barton W. Currie, “Soft Morals,” The Ladies’ Home Journal 40 (March 1923) 32, 154. See Roy A. Haynes, Prohibition Inside Out (New York, 1923).

[22] Proponents of repeal, of course, had similar complaints. Speaking before the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, the women’s equivalent of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, on April 14, 1931, Cecelia C. Casserly said that “we are working against a highly-organized, well-financed body of Drys who have made it their business to obtain control of key positions in our whole system of government.” Casserly’s address is quoted in Carter, Another Part of the Twenties, 96. For a portrait of this remarkable woman, see Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, “Cecelia C. Casserly stood up for women’s rights, helped the sick, fought Prohibition,” in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 6, 1916. On the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, see Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition and Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition.

[23] Deets Pickett, Temperance and the Changing Liquor Situation (New York, 1934), 15.

[24] Lobby Investigations: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, United States Senate, 71st Congress, 2nd Session, Pursuant to Senate Resolution 20 (Washington, D.C., 1929), IV, 4236. See also Fletcher Dobyns, The Amazing Story of Repeal: An Exposé of Propaganda (Chicago, 1940).

[25] Pickett, Temperance and the Changing Liquor Situation, 21.

[26] See Paul A. Carter, “Prohibition and Democracy: The Noble Experiment Reassessed,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 56/3 (Spring 1973), 189-201.

[27] Robert Post, “Federalism, Positive Law, and the Emergence of the Administrative State: Prohibition in the Taft Court Era,” William & Mary Law Review 48 (October 2006), 181.

[28] Herbert Hoover, American Individualism and the Challenge to Liberty (West Branch, IW, 1989; originally published in 1922), 47. See also Joan Hoff-Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (Boston, 1975), 87, 160 and Paul D. Moreno, The American State from the Civil War to the New Deal: The Twilight of Constitutionalism and the Triumph of Progressivism (Cambridge, UK, 2013), 203.

[29] For a thorough and insightful analysis of the Olmstead decision and the historical context in which the Supreme Court adjudicated the case, see Anna Leslie Krouse, “Eavesdropping on History: Olmstead v. U.S. and the Emergence of Privacy Jurisprudence during Prohibition,” unpublished Master’s Thesis, Department of History, The College of William and Mary (2011), Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects at W&M ScholarWorks. See also Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington (Seattle, 1965), 161-78; Behr, Thirteen Years that Changed America, 137-39, 221; Kobler, Ardent Spirits, 327-32.

[30] Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 455; see also Krouse, “Eavesdropping on History,” 55-56.

[31] Olmstead v. U.S., 474-75; see also Krouse, “Eavesdropping on History,” 57-59.

[32] In Katz v. U.S. 389 U.S. 347, adjudicated in 1967, the Supreme Court applied Brandeis’s interpretation of privacy to overturn Olmstead. See Krouse, “Eavesdropping on History,” 60.

[33] Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York, 1995), 226.

[34] See Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (New York, 2015).

The featured image is “Bums Drinking” (1903) by Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872–1930) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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