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Dried Up

How nativism and racism shaped the national movement towards Prohibition.

PETER: What, you might ask, makes booze a subject worthy for the Backstory hosts? Well, how’s this for an answer?

JAMES MORONE: If you had to pick the reform that Americans have taken most seriously over a longer period of time, it would have to be stopping drinking. More than civil rights, more than abolition—If you just look at the sheer number of people who took this reform seriously, this is our number one across American history.

BRIAN: This is Jim Morone. Several years back, he published a book called Hellfire Nation. It traces the way ideas about sin have shaped reform movements. We asked Jim to pick up the story of temperance where Ed left off, with Victorian women who got together to fight the ravages of alcohol on home life. Jim said that in the middle of the 19th century, there was another factor in play.

JAMES MORONE: I think the other part of it is—remember what else is happening in the society. This is becoming an era of very high immigration. Immigrants drank. And this was a way of—another way. There are many ways in American history. We know, we can see here today. But this is a fantastic way for people to raise themselves up above these very dubious immigrants from questionable places with poor values.

This was a way of saying American values are truly special. We really are a city on a hill, and we can organize ourselves around these things that really make us good, and distinguish those people in the cities.

PETER: So Jim, you’ve talked about ethnicity as a divide that can emerge in debates about drinking. How about race? How does race figure in the Temperance Movement?

JAMES MORONE: Race is the other really big one. And I think it’s the most overlooked piece of this. And it takes place in the South. The great metaphor, the great trope, turn of the century, is of course the rape narrative. That black men rape white women. And that’s why Jim Crow has to go into effect, has to go into place, to control this group that’s not ready for the kinds of freedoms that America affords males.

Now, there was a basic problem with this, that the black people most people knew didn’t play the part of this rapacious, fearsome black male that’s such an important part of the stereotype. And the missing piece was liquor. If you read the literature coming out of the late 19th century—

BRIAN: Very interesting. Yeah.

JAMES MORONE: —South, over and over again, you see there is descriptions, the black man drinks alcohol. And that is makes him a fiend. In fact, there was a lot of talk about outlawing pictures of women on alcohol bottles because it was said that the black men would see the white woman on the picture, and would go rape the nearest white woman.

It was said that, why was there so much lynching in the South in the 1890s? Alcohol. So there was this great argument that black men under the influence of alcohol, they weren’t like the black guys you knew who were really quite deferential.

BRIAN: And they weren’t worried about the lynch mob being liquored up.

PETER: No, right. [LAUGHS].

BRIAN: They worried about the black man being liquored up.

JAMES MORONE: Very much. Very, very much. But what finally brings this to a head is the Atlanta race riot. This terrible race riot in September 1906. The Atlanta newspapers get guys all jimmied up. Some woman had been assaulted for the third time by a black guy, an unknown black assailant. Probably liquored up. This is in the newspaper articles, if you go back and look at them. And the claim on the sub-headline is, what’s wrong with our men? Can they no longer protect Southern white women?

There is a horrible race riot. Young men ran through the streets, took black men off trains, out of businesses, beat them up, killed an unknown number.

The elites, the progressive elites, now, step in and say, you know, it’s not just the black guys who drink. It’s the white guys. It’s the lower class whites who drink too. The Atlanta race riot pushed everybody over the top and said, we just have to forbid all alcohol in Georgia.

Georgia goes first. And one after another, the Southern states go dry. And they go dry in arguments about race, right as Jim Crow goes into place between 1895 and 1905.

BRIAN: Let me stop you there, because almost everything that the three of us have talked about up till now is a very local story, maybe state level at the most. Yet in the early 20th century, we get a national amendment. We get national Prohibition. Explain to our listeners how we can get from such a historically localistic story to such a powerful use of the national government?

JAMES MORONE: Isn’t that fantastic story? And you can see it happening. If you watch what states go dry. First the whole South goes dry: race. Then the West goes dry, and it’s part the Women’s Movement, and part a way of distinguishing the West from those horrible immigrants in the East.

But there’s a number of problems. One piece is that it was hard to stay dry if there were other states that were wet. So if you, Georgia, went dry, for example, it was very hard to stop the guy up on the hill from ordering a keg of whiskey from Ohio, because interstate commerce is part of the Constitution. So it was impossible to be truly dry under our constitution.

But I think all of that would not have been enough to get us, I don’t think, to probation if one last thing hadn’t fallen into place: World War I. World War I was the Prohibitionist’s dream. Because all of a sudden, there was this great noble cause that the United States had plunged into. Our armies were different, remember. They were going to be the great Christian armies.

There’s a fascinating—if you ever want to do some fascinating reading, look at the graduation addresses in 1917 and 1918, as the college presidents and the speakers look at the boys who are going to be the officers in the American army. At Brown, the president turned to the audience and says, the same thing they said at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, “Can we do less? Can we do less than these boys that we’re sending over to be a Christian army?”

And as one of the presidents put it, “patriotism must mean Prohibition.” Now the forces of the West, who lived in the Northeast, had a huge burden. They had to not only defend drinking and immigrants, they had to say why they were resisting the great Christian army. And it was in war fervor, and in this sort of fervor of being the great Christian nation, that Prohibition goes over the top, and actually becomes the law.

PETER: Well, Jim, the caricature of Prohibition, particularly during its national phase, that it was an absurd attempt of rural people to impose their values on the country, and it was a colossal failure, leading to the gangsters, and all of the crime of the Depression years, and so forth. Giving us a balanced view, getting beyond the black and white, as you say, how would you evaluate, in a more sympathetic way, the experiment with Prohibition?

JAMES MORONE: The media lived in the big Eastern cities. And they were so sarcastic. You’ve described it well. I think it was one of the New York papers who would do the little trick of sending reporters to big cities with a stopwatch, and asking them to time themselves how long it took them to get out in a strange city off the train and in a saloon drinking.


And basically, the message was, if you couldn’t do it in 10 minutes, you were an idiot. And usually, it was a lot less than 10 minutes. So from that, we get an image that’s not false. Cities were awash with both alcohol, and because it was a banned substance, crime.

In rural America, however, this is a great reform. It’s our reform, is the way rural people saw it. And they believed in this reform enormously. For the first time, they really felt the touch of federal government as a kind of spiritual cause. People like to say that the New Deal is the father of big government. That’s nonsense. The father of the government is Prohibition. And it won over people in the heartland from coast to coast, who really believed, this was the government trying to do something really quite noble.

We now believe that we got back to the rate of drinking that existed in America in 1915—really before World War I begins—we got back to that rate of drinking in 1971. So in that sense, people would say, yeah, not only was Prohibition successful in stopping people from drinking, people actually found it pretty good. It’s a tale of two Americas, as so many stories are, isn’t it?

PETER: But Jim, taking the long view, we certainly drink a lot less than Americans did during the early republic. And you could say that Prohibition initiated a period of concern about public health in the broadest sense of the term. And the changes have been enduring ones.


BRIAN: And that the national government remained quite active in those issues from that point on.

JAMES MORONE: Well, all those things you just said are absolutely right on. And to add to Brian’s last point, one thing that was very interesting during all this was that we had to decide what the Constitution said about the federal government going in there and getting this involved in people’s lives.

Fourth Amendment law, Fourth Amendment says that people must be secure in their personal property and themselves, that the government cannot do search and seizure. Fourth Amendment law gets rewritten around Prohibition. May you wiretap someone’s house? Is that the same thing as breaking in and rifling through their papers?

You see a known bootlegger driving back to Detroit from Windsor, Ontario. You’re a cop. You turn around, and you give chase, you stop him, you rip his seats out, what’s there? Of course, cases of booze. Well, was that a legal stop or not? Cars were relatively new.

So all the rules and regulations that we now use in our drug wars went into effect during Prohibition. So the echo of Prohibition lives on.

PETER: Yeah, for better or worse. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES MORONE: Oh, Brian and Peter, lots of fun. And thank you for having me on.

PETER: That’s Jim Morone. He’s a Political Science Professor at Brown University. You can listen to a longer version of our conversation on our website,


MAN: [SINGING] Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey made me lose my happy home. When I left home this morning, I promised I would think. To stay real straight and sober, I swore I wouldn’t drink.