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Kevin P. Dincher
Last Call:  The Alcoholic Republic and Prohibition

Ships bringing Puritans from England carried more wine and beer than water.  In the early Republic, “Americans
drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn” (W. J. Rorabaugh,
The Alcoholic Republic: An American
Tradition
).  Johnny Appleseed’s trees produced apples that were barely edible—but which made a very drinkable
fermented cider and made Johnny very popular with settlers moving west.  In the 1830s, Americans consumed three
times as much alcohol per capita as they do today – and by the 1830’s, the temperance movement was an established
and growing feature of the religious and political landscape.  “By 1875 fully one-third of federal revenues came from
the beer keg and the whiskey bottle, a proportion that would increase in the years ahead and that would come to be
described by a temperance leader in 1913, not inaccurately, as “a bribe on the public conscience.” (Daniel Okrent,
Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition)

Prohibition

On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution killed the nation’s 5th largest industry by banning
the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol nationwide. The origins, history and impact of Prohibition in
America make for a complex story.  Progressives and suffragists made common cause with the Ku Klux Klan—which
in turn supported a woman's right to vote—to pass Prohibition.  Champions of the people, such as the liberal
Democrat Al Smith, fought side-by-side with conservative plutocrats like Pierre du Pont for its repeal.  In the end,
Prohibition did make a dent in American drinking—at the cost of hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries from
bad bootleg alcohol, the making of organized crime in this country and a corrosive soaking in hypocrisy.


Topics Covered

  • The Constitution and the Volstead Act
  • Alcohol and the Early Republic
  • Religion’s Call to “Temperance”
  • Alcohol and Post Civil War America
  • Alcohol:  Political Litmus Test
  • The Prohibition Era and Afterwards
Course Materials and Additional Resources
(Available when class is in session)