In his important study of the passage and repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Daniel Okrent identified the powerful political coalition that worked successfully in the two decades leading to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment:
[F]ive distinct, if occasionally overlapping, components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists. Adherents of each group may have been opposed to alcohol for its own sake, but used the Prohibition impulse to advance ideologies and causes that had little to do with it.
Racism was unashamedly blatant. According to Okrent, “it was a familiar characterization, and its reach extended beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. Frances Willard herself [a leading progressive advocate of temperance] had adopted the imagery, asserting that ‘the grogshot is the Negro’s center of power. Better whiskey and more of it is the rallying cry of dark faced mobs.’” Both Prohibition and the suffrage amendment had been “linked in the holy advocacy of politicians who regarded both as expressions of moral virtue” (like William Jennings Bryan), and “had become politically welded to one another, not because of moral congruence,” but because of political convenience. With the nation at war with Imperial Germany, populists and nativists joined in moral condemnation of the beer-drinking culture of German-Americans, yet another component of the coalition that carried the Amendment to ratification.
What is all too conspicuous in the coalition supporting the Eighteenth Amendment is not only blatant racism against people of color, but also a racism of ethnic hatred against German-Americans and the more recent immigrants to the United States—the so-called “hyphenated Americanism” against which Theodore Roosevelt inveighed. These groups did not share either the religion (Catholic Italian-Americans and Jews) or the drinking habits of the dominant American Protestant majority that felt increasingly at threat. In effect, the drinking habits of these Americans became a proxy for American racism and religious intolerance, in a way that echoes and anticipates what the Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman acknowledged as the basis for Nixon’s War on Crime: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black . . . but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt these communities.”
This essay is part of a discussion about the Eighteenth Amendment with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics and Parliamentarian, Princeton University. Read the full discussion here.
The Eighteenth Amendment did not, in my judgment, arise from a sober secular reflection on how to deal with the harms of alcohol abuse, which it may have aggravated, but from sectarian and highly idiosyncratic perfectionist Protestant ideals. America, a nation of immigrants, remains, as our contemporary politics shows, vulnerable to sometimes irrational fear of new immigrants of different ethnicities or religions from the dominant majority.
America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was at a vulnerable transitional moment away from the anti-racism of the Reconstruction Amendments to an increasingly racist culture (importantly supported both by American politicians and by the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)) attracted for this reason to European models of racist imperialism to its own version of imperialism. The North and South, which had fought a civil war ultimately over slavery and the cultural racism that rationalized it, buried its enduring ethical meaning as white men found common ground in racist imperialist ventures abroad. The suggestion that the solution to civil war in a democracy is war abroad is as old as Athena’s patriarchal advice to democratic Athens in Aeschylus’s The Oresteia:
Never pluck the heart of the battle cock
And plant it in our people—intestine war
seething against themselves. Let our wars
rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy
our powerful lust for fame. But as for the bird
that fights at home—my curse on civil war.
It was this increasingly racist and imperialistic American culture that supported our entering a European war among competing European imperialisms, World War I, which most Americans of that period probably did not want to fight and which, disastrously, set the stage for the even more catastrophic World War II. Those who resisted the unpopular war (which Wilson, as a presidential candidate, had promised not to enter) had already been unjustly prosecuted in violation of what we now regard as our better traditions of free speech; the Prohibition Amendment further demonized them by racializing and indeed criminalizing their ways of life, including the role beer and wine played in their ways of life. The dominance of such fear-ridden irrationalism in support of the Eighteenth Amendment—over any secular concern with how more effectively to lower the harms from alcohol abuse—discredits its normative legitimacy.
Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010).
Richard F. Hamm, Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
Edward J. Renehan Jr., The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017).
Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
David A. J. Richards Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law, New York University School of Law.