IN ALMOST EVERY RESPECT IMAGINABLE, Prohibition was a failure. It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights. It fostered a culture of bribery, blackmail, and official corruption. It also maimed and murdered, its excesses apparent in deaths by poison, by the brutality of ill-trained, improperly supervised enforcement officers, and by unfortunate proximity to mob gun battles. One could rightfully replace our prevailing images of Prohibition—flappers kicking up their heels in nightclubs, say, or lawmen swinging axes at barrels of impounded beer—with different visions: maybe the bloated bodies of the hijacked rumrunners washing up on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, their eyes gouged out and their hands and faces scoured by acid. Or perhaps the crippled men of Wichita, their lives devastated by the nerve-destroying chemicals suspended in a thirty-five-cent bottle of Jake.
But in one critical respect Prohibition was an unquestioned success: as a direct result of its fourteen-year reign, Americans drank less. In fact, they continued to drink less for decades afterward. Back in the first years of the twentieth century, before most state laws limiting access to alcohol were enacted, average consumption of pure alcohol ran to 2.6 gallons per adult per year—the rough equivalent of 32 fifths of 80-proof liquor, or 520 twelve-ounce bottles of beer. Judging by the most carefully assembled evidence, that quantity was slashed by more than 70 percent during the first few years of national Prohibition. It started to climb as American thirsts adjusted to the new regime, but even Repeal did not open the spigots: the pre-Prohibition per capita peak of 2.6 gallons was not again attained until 1973. (It stayed that high only until the mid-1980s, when it began to drop again, to current levels of roughly 2.2 gallons per person per year.) In The Thin Man, released in the summer of 1934, William Powell and Myrna Loy have thirty-three drinks between them, or more than one every three minutes (including a few tossed off at breakfast). In real life, as Morris Markey explained in The New Yorker, it was rather different. “I went over to the Ambassador Hotel one afternoon for cocktails,” Markey wrote just two weeks after Repeal. “We were four men, all told. We sat there for three hours, and drank three cocktails each—one an hour. And all of us remarked how impossible such temperance would be in any speakeasy we have ever known. In the speakeasies there was always a tension, a pressure to drink and keep on drinking, even after appetite had faded completely.”
In the surprisingly slow growth of post-Prohibition drinking lay the central irony of Repeal: across most of the country, the Twenty-first Amendment made it harder, not easier, to get a drink. During the latter stages of Prohibition, especially in the big cities or near the coasts or adjacent to the Canadian border, little effort was required to obtain a drink, a bottle, or in some places even a shipment of liquid contraband, few questions asked. What was formally illegal was necessarily unregulated, as if it didn’t exist. “Remember the old days before Prohibition,” a comic asked, “when you couldn’t buy a drink on Sunday?”
But Repeal changed that, replacing the almost-anything-goes ethos with a series of state-by-state codes, regulations, and enforcement procedures. Now there were closing hours and age limits and Sunday blue laws, as well as a collection of geographic proscriptions that kept bars or package stores distant from schools, churches, or hospitals. State licensing requirements forced legal sellers to live by the code, and in many instances statutes created penalties for buyers as well. Just as Prohibition did not prohibit, making drink legal did not make drink entirely available.
IN ENACTING THEIR OWN dry laws some states encouraged a hybrid drinking culture incorporating Prohibition’s pieties, Repeal’s realities, and a bizarre set of signifiers specifically their own. The Jack Daniel’s distillery operation that had fled Tennessee for St. Louis returned home in 1938—to a dry county; they could make the stuff in Lynchburg, but no one could buy it there. Mississippi remained legally dry until 1966, providing the outstanding example of official self-delusion. Liquor sales were outlawed, but for years a 10 percent tax on illegal sales remained in place, which encouraged the state to encourage lawbreaking. In 1950 William Faulkner defended the prevailing rules, urging his fellow Mississippians not to disrupt “the long and happy marriage between dry voters and illicit sellers, for which our fair state supplies one of the last sanctuaries and strongholds.” Willie Morris, in his memoir North Toward Home, recalled a Yazoo City bootlegger’s campaign slogan when liquor law revision made the ballot: “For the sake of my family, vote dry!”
But even if states didn’t want to stop the flow of booze, the second clause of the Twenty-first Amendment allowed them to employ the liquor laws for unrelated purposes.* In some states officials kept nude acts out of nightclubs and bars, not because they had authority over public nudity but because the clause, as interpreted by the courts, established that they had authority over what went on in places that served alcohol. In New York officials used similar powers to keep Billie Holiday from performing in the city’s cabarets after her conviction on drug charges.
REPEAL PRODUCED WINNERS and losers in many crannies of American life distant from the alcohol industry. Already pummeled by the Depression, Harlem nightclubs catering to a downtown clientele lost their illicit appeal, and the stylish crowds stopped traveling uptown in ermine and pearls. Intercoastal “booze cruises” disappeared altogether by 1938. On the other hand, the “cruise to nowhere” begat every passenger liner that departs a U.S. port for, say, a luxurious journey to the Caribbean and back. Country boys who had made their living racing souped-up cars ahead of revenue agents on the back roads of the South soon found people were willing to pay to watch them race—hence the birth of NASCAR. Then there were losers who realized that some new ideas and new energy could make them winners again. After his friend Franklin Roosevelt assured him that Prohibition was about to end, the governor general of the Bahamas issued a new challenge to his executive council: “Well, gentlemen, it amounts to this—if we can’t take the liquor to the Americans, we must bring the Americans to the liquor.” Thus, the Bahamian tourism industry—helped along by the Royal Bank of Canada, which had used the rum trade, a Bahamian commentator wrote, to establish a foothold in the Caribbean that stretched “all the way from Montreal to Belize.”
The fate of individuals or businesses or national economies aside, Prohibition’s most enduring legacy is probably its robust versatility as an example or a remonstration. The wholesale enactment of national criminal laws during Prohibition gave rise to post-Repeal federal statutes addressing kidnapping and bank robbery; on the other hand, the manifest failures of federal Prohibition enforcement enabled the states to hold on to most of their authority over the enforcement and administration of criminal law. Because Prohibition proved the nation could not legislate personal morality, advocates for the legalization of drugs have been able to draw a direct parallel to their own argument. And in the 1950s southern politicians who only belatedly discovered that Prohibition was a pretty bad idea made cynical use of a similar line of reasoning. Because the failures of the Volstead Act had established that the moral code of one region could not be imposed on another, they argued, school integration was at least folly and likely catastrophic.
In the end, though, the single indisputable lesson of Prohibition might have been the one offered by Sam Bronfman on a fine summer day in 1966. He was talking with two magazine journalists visiting Belvedere, his estate in Tarrytown, New York. Preparing an article about Bronfman’s dominance of the American liquor industry, the journalists wanted to know about his activities during the dry years. For decades Bronfman had deployed a ready stock of autopilot evasions. It wasn’t illegal in Canada (which, if one took into account customs and tax laws, wasn’t true). Seagram’s never sold directly to bootleggers (this was, in fact, true: Seagram’s sold to agencies wholly owned by the Bronfman family that sold directly to bootleggers). He had never seen any proof that the goods his family had shipped actually ended up in the United States (not necessarily false, but entirely specious).
But on this July day, surrounded by his leather-bound books and the fine art on his walls, in the comfort of his terraced garden with its expansive view over the Hudson, fresh and relaxed in shorts and a sport shirt after a swim in the pool, seventy-seven-year-old Sam Bronfman was, in his late-life eminence, calm and confident enough to indulge in a bout of candor. There was really only one explanation for what happened during Prohibition, he said: “You people were thirsty.”
* The clause reads, “The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.”