The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State

  • By Lisa McGirr
  • W.W. Norton and Co.
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Eric C. Schneider
  • November 25, 2015

An historian of conservatism explores the U.S.' ill-conceived period of forced teetotaling.

What is the origin of our powerful national state? Some scholars have found it in the Progressive Era, when the federal government safeguarded consumers from corporate malfeasance through food and drug safety regulations, provided the first “mothers’ pensions,” and broke up over-weaning corporate monopolies. Others argue for the New Deal reforms under Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership that created old age and unemployment insurance, regulated industrial production, and ensured workers’ rights to organize. Taking a different tack, Lisa McGirr, an historian of American conservatism, locates the origin of the modern state in the expansion of policing powers needed to enforce Prohibition.

There is an irony here, since Prohibition was fundamentally a construction of the conservative religious right. The ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the male evangelical Protestant preachers, the Anti-Saloon League, and the frequently rural and small town middle class, joined by urban elites who favored working class sobriety, imposed their cultural values on what they saw as a distressingly diverse immigrant and working class majority.  

Their victory proved short-lived as both Prohibition and the invasive policing it demanded engendered a backlash. Immigrant Americans and African Americans (at least in the North) registered to vote in ever larger numbers and realigned their politics with Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats.

Beer, McGirr argues, was as important as a collapsing capitalism in forging a New Deal majority that made repeal one of its first orders of business. Legal beer sales resumed, but Prohibition’s bequest to the future was an invigorated federal police — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — and a more capacious federal penitentiary system.

McGirr’s book wears its thesis lightly. This is not to say that there is insufficient evidence for it, but rather that McGirr does not let her evidence get in the way of telling a good story. McGirr’s sprightly narrative introduces us to Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, who donned various disguises to talk their way into New York’s speakeasies to make arrests; to “citizen warriors,” such as Seth Young, who enlisted the Ku Klux Klan to supplement the enforcement efforts of federal authorities; to rural moonshiners who took advantage of Prohibition to enter a market economy; and to socialites who indulged in a culture of nightclubbing and imbibing that permanently transformed the nature of bourgeois leisure.

Selective enforcement, McGirr shows, ensured that inhabitants of poor communities, both black and white, who felt the brunt of Prohibitionist policing and bootleggers’ violence, were also more likely to be jailed than politically-connected members of organized crime or middle class bon vivants.

McGirr rightly links the war on alcohol and the war on drugs with the rise of the “penal state,” but her focus on Prohibition limits the development of this argument. Movements to criminalize alcohol and drugs emerged in the same era, sometimes with the same actors, and shared the same overblown rhetoric connecting alcohol/drug use to criminality and disfavored ethnic and racial minorities. Federal policing in both sectors faced similar problems with corruption and abuse of power, and drugs and alcohol were connected in the underground economy as illegal entrepreneurs shifted between the two product lines. After the 1930s these histories diverged.  

Alcohol prohibition was widely acknowledged as a failed experiment and repeal had powerful allies, while drug users remained social deviants who aroused little sympathy. They began to fill jails and penitentiaries after the post-WW II restoration of international smuggling routes that made heroin more available.

Given the expansion of drug policing, especially in the 1950s, McGirr could have made a more direct connection between both prohibition movements and the rise of the modern penal state. Instead she opts to leap from the Prohibition era to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the modern drug war, making her argument about the penal state more tenuous than it might have been.

All good history is as much about the present as it is about the past. McGirr invites readers to hear in our own era the echoes of conflict over the prohibition of intoxicants, over the role of moral entrepreneurs in imposing a single cultural standard on a multicultural society, over the costs of xenophobia, over state policing of private behavior, and over the abuses of state power. While much of the material on Prohibition will seem familiar to those knowledgeable about its history, the argument is novel, and for readers not well versed in Prohibition and its aftermath, The War on Alcohol is a terrific introduction as well as a terrific read.

Eric C. Schneider is an historian at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches in the Urban Studies program. He is the author of three books on American urban and social history, including most recently, Smack: Heroin and the American City.  

comments powered by Disqus