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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Biography and History

So there they were, an oddly diverse team of drys composed of the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Industrial Workers of the World, Baptist and Methodist puritans, progressives such as Jane Addams and Upton Sinclair, and millionaire businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford — all united in the unholy cause of denying others a right that had been historically enjoyed throughout all of Christendom. Although members of that group had little in common, they were kept masterfully united by one Wayne Wheeler, a Washington-based lobbyist for the all-powerful Anti-Saloon League (ASL).

Okrent makes the case that Wheeler may have been the most effective lobbyist ever to have stalked the halls of Congress. Although few today have heard of him, he was famous — or, to “wets,” infamous — at the time for having almost single-handedly orchestrated the passage of the 18th Amendment and dictated the terms of the Volstead Act (which authorized the federal government to enforce the amendment). Wheeler was nothing if not devoted to Prohibition. He was a one-issue man, and his day and night obsession with his noble cause doubtless contributed to his early death at age 57. For two decades, he held sway over the majority of senators and representatives, supporting the dry ones, punishing the few wets who dared to oppose his cause, and intimidating the majority of those who were wet in their private behavior into either silence or, more commonly, hypocritical support of Prohibition.

In addition to politicians on both sides of the aisle, prominent drys included circus man P.T. Barnum, suffragette Susan B. Anthony, perennial presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan, John Harvey Kellogg (of cornflakes fame), and such reformed dipsomaniacs as prizefighter John L. Sullivan and novelist Jack London. Reliably arrayed against that formidable lineup were the editors of most big-city papers, journalist H.L. Mencken, lawyer Clarence Darrow, Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, and the nondrinking Theodore Roosevelt (who nonetheless called the Prohibitionist movement “egotistical lunacy”). For the better part of the decades-long struggle, these disorganized wets proved no match for the Wheeler-led drys.

In fact, the ultimate repeal of Prohibition had far less to do with wet opposition than with the public’s growing perception that the consequences of the act were, in Okrent’s words, “hypocrisy, greed, murderous criminality, official corruption.” There was a positive side: a decrease in consumption of alcohol, particularly among the less well-to-do and small-town residents. But drinking actually increased in most big cities, mainly among the more affluent and, particularly, among middle-class women. Prior to the enactment of Prohibition, women did not drink in bars, and most did not even imbibe at home with friends and family. But making liquor illicit made it fashionable for the ladies to match their gentlemen shot for shot, glass for glass, and we can thank Prohibition for such cultural innovations as coed cocktail parties and “powder rooms” in saloons. By the end of the era, there were some 32,000 illegal hooch joints in New York City alone, almost all of them openly selling the stuff, and alcohol abuse had become as much of a problem for women as for men.

Perversely, by 1926 total sales of bootleg booze exceeded the entire dollar amount of the U.S. federal budget. For the Prohibition era as a whole, U.S. brewers and distillers actually ended up making money, most vintners survived, and a number of industries thrived — including the physicians who legally prescribed “medicinal Jack Daniels,” the “drugstores” that fulfilled those prescriptions (Walgreen Company grew from 20 to 525 stores during the era), and especially the speakeasies and distributors (aka bootleggers) that purveyed illegal stuff. Canadian distillers and the federal treasury in Ottawa were the happy beneficiaries of alcohol sales banned south of the border. The losers were the U.S. government and taxpayers. Prior to Prohibition, taxes on the bottle had amounted to 30 percent of all federal revenue.

 
 
 
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