Prohibition: a movement of prudish laughter or just revolution …
NOTNow that cool pastors are drinking craft beer, the erstwhile obsession of American Protestants with banning alcohol may seem downright odd. Or maybe just picturesque? Was the nation’s brief experience with Prohibition an example of unamused church people going on a rampage, one of the last gasps of an excessive Puritan superego?
That’s what the real villains of the story would have you think, or at least that’s what Mark Lawrence Schrad argues in his new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. Addressing the widespread perception that temperance movements were intended only to “moralize the ‘you shall not do'”, he proclaims that they were, on the contrary, “a progressive shield for the marginalized, suffering and oppressed peoples for defend against future exploitation. “
Basically, in Schrad’s account, the ban was never about raining down on the parade of the individual drinker. Rather, it was a tactic to fight predatory alcohol traffickers and the empires that benefited from their infamous work. It is only because capitalists and imperialists have so often prevailed in these struggles, suggests Schrad, that we remember temperance activists as prudish killjoys rather than virtuous revolutionaries.
American historians have tended to reinforce these misconceptions, Schrad argues, because they have generally not viewed American temperance movements in a larger global context. Of course, it is not easy to do. For Schrad, that meant looking for leads in 70 different archives housed in 17 different countries and scattered across five continents. But the fruit of this hard work is enormous: a story that, as the subtitle promises, is truly global.
One of its central themes is that alcohol, and in particular distilled liquor, functioned as a powerful tool of empire. This was largely because the sale of spirits filled the coffers of the ruling class. In Tsarist Russia, Schrad observes, “the vodka monopoly was the greatest source of imperial finance.” But alcohol was more than just a money generator. It also facilitated what he calls the “alcohol-submission” of the peoples of the world, many of whom had never been exposed to “industrial spirits.” Wherever distilled alcohol was introduced, epidemics of poisoning and drug addiction followed, making entire societies ripe for conquest. In this sense, “colonialism in Africa, Asia and North America was achieved with bottles as much as bullets,” says Schrad.
It is no wonder that all over the world temperance and anti-imperialist activism have so often been embodied. In the years leading up to the Irish Famine, Father Theobald Matthew walked the countryside and collected 5.5 million temperance pledges, creating a movement that became closely associated with the struggle for independence in Ireland. Ireland. At the start of the 20th century in Russia, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks urged the masses to refrain from consuming vodka in order to starve the tax system. South Africans voiced their objections to colonial rule in the 1920s and 1930s by boycotting breweries, while in India, for Hindu and Muslim dissidents of the British Raj, “abstinence has become synonymous with patriotism.”
Notably, Schrad continues, the United States was no exception to this global rule. Here, too, the temperance movements were not animated by stern theologians and stern church matrons, but by staunch defenders of the poor and oppressed. Indigenous leaders led the charge, with the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes, for example, agreeing to “cooperate to suppress the sale of strong drinks.” Abolitionists, women’s rights activists, social evangelists and many others were also committed to the cause. Indeed, Frederick Douglass’ phrase, “All great reforms go hand in hand,” is one of Schrad’s favorite mantras. He supports this claim by pointing to temperance credentials not only of Douglass, but also of people like William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln. “They are the heroes of American history, not its villains,” says Schrad.
There is no doubt that he is right. Break the liquor machine ‘The provocative reframing of temperance and prohibition as “part of a long-term grassroots movement to strengthen international standards for human rights, human dignity and human equality” represents a compelling challenge to wisdom. conventional. It should change the way historians think and write on these topics in the future. But we wish Schrad hadn’t just returned an unsatisfactory script. What if temperance activists were neither heroes nor villains, but rather finite, fallible humans, fighting for what they considered to be right, even when caught – in a way they didn’t. not fully recognize – in a deeper social sin?
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source images: WikiMedia Commons
One of the great tragedies in American history is that, regardless of Douglass’ lofty aspirations, all great reforms have not actually went together. There is some evidence of this in Schrad’s book, despite his claims to the contrary. In a chapter on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), he explains how the leaders of the organization sought to combat the racism so prevalent among its white grassroots members, and also how the leadership of the WCTU was. even barely sheltered. Longtime President Frances Willard loved to brag about her abolitionist heritage and “do it all” reform philosophy; but while championing the causes of women’s suffrage and labor reform, she refused to support Ida B. Wells’ courageous campaign to mobilize white Christians against the scourge of lynching.
Willard’s failures on this front were not unique. Another hero of Schrad’s temperance, William Jennings Bryan – or the “great commoner,” as he liked to be called – was a staunch defender of white farmers and workers in his country, and a fierce critic of American imperialism. abroad. But when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, Bryan declared him “unhappy to say the least.”
Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the great theorists of the social gospel, provides yet another example. As Schrad points out, in addition to advocating temperance, Rauschenbusch has written extensively on the threat of a spiraling economic inequality. Yet he said next to nothing about the rising tide of mob violence and anti-black racism. As he reflected in the last decade of his life, “the problem of the two races of the South struck me as so tragic, so intractable, that I have never yet dared to discuss it in public.”
A bold argument
The problem is not only that many temperance reformers were not heroism when it came to other causes. It was also that the struggle for temperance itself was morally more complex than Schrad allows. There was an undeniable synergy, on the one hand, between campaigns against “the power of alcohol” and others targeting Catholics, immigrants and work radicals. The Germans who participated in the Chicago Lager Beer Riot of 1855 – sparked by a Nativist mayor’s decision to close taverns on Sundays and increase liquor license fees – felt it viscerally. , but the perspective of working-class immigrants like them is largely absent from Schrad’s Narrative.
It is also missing the important ways in which the weight of temperance activism has fallen not only on “the man who sells” but also on countless ordinary people. The height of temperance reform was, not by chance, also the height of “scientific charity,” whose proponents often viewed anyone who frequented the saloon as unworthy of material help.
The sedans themselves were more complicated than Schrad suggests. Abandoning the suggestion that they might have had redeeming characteristics, he insists that they must be understood as “a real scourge on the local community”. At times, its description is very similar to what one might find in a late 19th century temperance pamphlet. “They were dark and smoky,” Schrad writes, “with overflowing spittoons and sticky floors.”
The sedans were certainly not above reproach. Yet historians have found overwhelming evidence that they have served a wide variety of social roles, not all of which were objectionable. They were places for the exchange of information and debates on public issues; where immigrants created a space they could call their own; and where the poor found refuge away from the streets, a free lunch to fill their stomachs, and sometimes even access to prohibitively expensive technologies like the telephone. Schrad is a political scientist and, in his introduction, he specifies that Break the liquor machine is “not a history book” but rather “a book of comparative politics”. His treatment of the sedan is one of the points where it shows.
But Schrad’s disciplinary expertise is also the source of extraordinary insight. Traveling the world and assimilating vast evidence along the way, he makes a bold argument, one that historians will count on for years to come. This book also deserves a wider audience. It’s a fun read, thanks to Schrad’s eye for colorful figures such as William “Pussyfoot” Johnson, who lost one of his eyes while on a mission preaching the Gospel of Temperance. in England. During a scuffle between law enforcement and students – who, as you might expect, weren’t too enthusiastic about his message – a stone hit him in the face. He was good-natured afterwards, telling a group of remorseful students who visited him in the hospital, “You had a great time; I had a good time. I have no complaints. But if you really want to have fun, step into the game against the human race’s greatest enemy – drink.
Well done to a book that offers a new and more precise sense of this game, including what exactly was at stake and why so many millions of people have dedicated their lives to playing.
Heath W. Carter is Associate Professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Union Made: Workers and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.