Although whiskey often was a safer drink than water, Americans, particularly men, drank too much. Women's Prohibition sentiments fueled the movement for women's rights -- rights to hold property independent of drunken husbands; to divorce those husbands; to vote for politicians who would close saloons. So the United States Brewers' Association officially opposed women's suffrage.
Women campaigning for sobriety did not intend to give rise to the income tax, plea bargaining, a nationwide crime syndicate, Las Vegas, NASCAR (country boys outrunning government agents), a redefined role for the federal government and a privacy right -- the "right to be let alone" -- that eventually was extended to abortion rights. But they did.
By 1900, per capita consumption of alcohol was similar to today's, but mere temperance was insufficient for the likes of Carrie Nation. She was "six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache," and she wanted Prohibition. It was produced by the sophisticated tenacity of the Anti-Saloon League, which at its peak was spending the equivalent of 50 million of today's dollars annually. Okrent calls it "the mightiest pressure group in the nation's history." It even prevented redistricting after the 1920 Census, the first census to reveal that America's urban -- and most wet -- population was a majority.
Before the 18th Amendment could make drink illegal, the 16th Amendment had to make the income tax legal. It was needed because by 1910 alcohol taxes were 30 percent of federal revenue.
Workmen's compensation laws gave employers an interest in abstemious workers. Writes Okrent, Asa Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Co., saw "opportunity on the other side of the dry rainbow." World War I anti-German fever fueled the desire to punish brewers with names such as Busch, Pabst, Blatz and Schlitz. And President Woodrow Wilson's progressivism became a wartime justification for what Okrent calls "the federal government's sudden leap into countless aspects of American life," including drink.
And so Prohibition came. Sort of. Briefly.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
From last week's Washington Post column: