The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol chronicles the fascinating role of alcoholic beverages in American life and culture. It does so from the earliest Colonial period.
Learn about colorful characters ranging from the well-known hatchet-wielding Carry Nation to the little known but quirky Moe Smith. 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 bring about Prohibition (1920-1933). And how later many persuaded the nation to acknowledge its failure.
Eric Burns of Fox New has authored a fast moving book that captivates and holds attention. The Washington Journalism Review named him one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism for good reason. 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 asserted 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. Discover what it did prohibit.
- The number of drinking venues 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 creating Prohibition operated a very large illegal whiskey still on his property.
- Some of the Anti-Saloon League’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 about drinking was three things. First, what people drank (often poisonous rotgut). Second, who drank (women in large numbers for the first time). And third, 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. It 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. However, their efforts were repeatedly rebuffed by both civilian and military leaders. Many other efforts to promote prohibition during World War II similarly failed.
Temperance activists have returned more recently in a new guise. Sometimes called neo-temperance or neo-prohibitionist, the new temperance movement is active and growing.
In fact, today almost one in five U.S. adults favors making drinking alcohol illegal for everyone. Of any age. For any reason. Or at any time. Period. Not even Prohibition did that.
Resources: Social History of Alcohol
Fahey, D. and Miller, J. Alcohol and Drugs in North America. A Historical Encyclopedia. Boston: Credo, 2015.
Holt, M. Alcohol: a Cultural History. NY: Berg, 2006.
Lender, M. and Martin, J. Drinking in America: a History. NY: Free Press, 1982.