DANIEL OKRENT LAST CALL PDF

Detroit, the day before Prohibition. From Walter P. Thus began the era of Prohibition, a nearly year orgy of lawbreaking unparalleled in our history. The 18th Amendment was a rarity in that it limited the rights of the individual rather than the activities of the government, thereby guaranteeing a hostile reception.

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Detroit, the day before Prohibition. From Walter P. Thus began the era of Prohibition, a nearly year orgy of lawbreaking unparalleled in our history. The 18th Amendment was a rarity in that it limited the rights of the individual rather than the activities of the government, thereby guaranteeing a hostile reception.

As such, it holds the distinction of being the only constitutional amendment ever to be repealed. Which leads one to ask: How did this happen in the first place? Why would Americans curtail their precious right to drink? Okrent, the author of four previous books and the first public editor of The New York Times, views Prohibition as one skirmish in a larger war waged by small-town white Protestants who felt besieged by the forces of change then sweeping their nation — a theory first proposed by the historian Richard Hofstadter more than five decades ago.

Though much has been written about Prohibition since then, Okrent offers a remarkably original account, showing how its proponents combined the nativist fears of many Americans with legitimate concerns about the evils of alcohol to mold a movement powerful enough to amend the United States Constitution. Americans have always been a hard-drinking, freedom-loving lot. George Washington had a still on his farm. James Madison downed a pint of whiskey a day, a common practice at a time when liquor was safer than water and cheaper than tea.

But alcohol consumption rose dramatically in the 19th century, as new immigrants flooded American cities. Before long, beer had become king. Momentum, he notes, depended on both a keen understanding of the political process and a ruthless approach to elected officials, who either joined the cause or found themselves under endless assault.

Knowing that alcohol taxes accounted for about one-third of all federal revenue, temperance leaders campaigned successfully for a federal income tax to make up the difference. And when America entered World War I in , they helped fan the flames of anti-German hysteria by accusing the Busch family and other brewers of harboring sympathies for the kaiser a charge, not entirely untrue, that turned beer drinking into a disloyal act.

Much of the illegal liquor had a foul taste, leading to the introduction of mixed drinks with tonic water and ginger ale. And the lure of the speakeasy, with its dance floor and powder room, led to the sexual integration of the all-male drinking culture. Huge fortunes were made and multiplied, Okrent says, perhaps the biggest by Sam Bronfman, who bought Joseph E. Millions of otherwise honest citizens routinely flouted the law. Thousands more were poisoned by cheap homemade brews. Government revenues plummeted, while official corruption ran wild.

Ruthless local gangs, led by small-time hoodlums like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, formed syndicates that modernized criminal activity throughout the United States. Yet in some respects the experiment was a success. Prohibition did cut down on drinking and alcohol-related illnesses.

Equally important, its repeal in did not inspire a prolonged national bender, as many had feared. Indeed, alcohol consumption has actually declined over the years, with Americans drinking less today than they did in the first years of the 20th century. We get hints, but little more, that Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor.

Okrent resists the chance to link Prohibition to the current political scene. But the comparisons are tempting, to say the least. About a century ago, a group of determined activists mobilized to confront the moral decay they claimed was destroying their country. Their public demon was alcohol, but their real enemy was an alien culture reflected by city dwellers, recent immigrants and educated elites. Always a minority, the forces of Prohibition drove the political agenda by concentrating relentlessly on their goal, voting in lockstep on a single issue and threatening politicians who did not sufficiently back their demands.

They triumphed because they faced no organized opposition. Americans were too distracted — perhaps too busy drinking — to notice what they had lost.

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