A Social History of Alcohol

The Spirit of America: A Social History of Alcohol chronicles the role of alcoholic beverages in American life and culture from the earliest Colonial period.

Learn about colorful characters ranging from the well-known hatchet-wielding Carry Nation to the little known but fascinating Izzy Einstein. See how and why alcohol changed from “a good creature of God” to Demon Rum. Learn how Wayne Wheeler developed and perfected pressure politics to a high art to help usher in the Noble Experiment of Prohibition and how others later persuaded the nation to acknowledge its failure.

Eric Burns, host of “Fox News Watch,” has authored a fast moving book that captivates and holds attention. It’s a good example of why the Washington Journalism Review named him one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism. Mr. Burns writes even better than he speaks.

Among its many delights, the book frequently identifies ironies in the story of alcohol They include the facts that

  • Abraham Lincoln observed that “prohibition will work great injury to the cause of temperance” or moderation,
  • many of the major supporters of Prohibition became the major supporters of Repeal,
  • Prohibition didn’t actually outlaw drinking, only the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages,
  • the number of drinking establishments more than doubled in New York City after the imposition of Prohibition,
  • two of the most effective and famous Prohibition agents enjoyed drinking cocktail and beer,
  • the co-sponsor of the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition operated a very large illegal whiskey still on his property, and
  • some of the Anti-Saloon’s anti-alcohol messages were virtually identical to some of those used today by the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program and even by some federal agencies.

Burns clarifies some of the common misperceptions about the effects of Prohibition. For example, he notes that drinking did not increase. What changed was what people drank (often poisonous rotgut), who drank (women in large numbers for the first time), and how they drank (less often but much more heavily).

The book’s flaws are minor. Burns asserts that the Anti-Saloon League doesn’t exist anymore. That may technically be true. However, it is now (combined with the American Temperance League) known as the American Council on Alcohol Problems and actively works to influence public policy on alcohol matters.

Burns also writes that following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor there were no calls for a return to prohibition. Actually, temperance advocates did use the war as an excuse to try to impose prohibition. Their first target was military bases and those in the military, but their efforts were repeatedly rebuffed by both civilian and military leaders. Numerous other efforts to promote prohibition during World War II similarly failed.

Temperance activists have returned more recently in a new guise: promoting Control of Consumption (more accurately called Reduction of Consumption, which is their stated objective). For more, visit Law and Policy.

For more about alcohol in American life and culture, visit Puritans to Prohibition and Prohibition: The Noble Experiment.


  • Burns, Eric. The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004; American Experiences with Alcohol and Resulting Approaches to Reducing Alcohol Problems. In: Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.