In 1920, Joseph Simmons, a 40-year-old failed minister and founder of the second Ku Klux Klan, signed a contract with the Southern Publicity Association. The public relations group based in Atlanta had built a reputation by fund-raising for the Anti-Saloon League, one of the nation’s leading temperance organizations. The Klan had flourished during Reconstruction, faded after the turn of the 20th century, and was memorialized in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic film on the imagined gallantry of the Lost Cause, The Birth of a Nation. It was revived in the 1920s by Simmons, who used the publicity firm’s ties to local ministers and small-town politicians, to sign up thousands of dues-paying Klan members. As he traveled through the South and Midwest, Simmons pledged to free small towns of bootleggers, and promised to restore “patriarchal white Protestant cultural values in public life.” The Klan’s anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, white supremacist agenda fit neatly with Prohibition, and Klan leaders presented themselves as an arm of government, restoring order in communities disturbed by industrialization and the arrival of European immigrants, along with the violence and law-breaking linked to the nation’s ban on alcohol. Claiming to protect white families and white womanhood, Klan mobs murdered immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and black Americans, and attracted two to five million members by the mid-1920s. A powerful army of white citizen-enforcers, the Klan used torture, threats, and lynching to promote its political program. “Prohibition,” writes Lisa McGirr, explains why the Klan “snowballed” in the twenties. In Simmons, she finds a racist huckster, a garrulous self-promoter, adeptly playing on white Americans’ groundless fears and government’s silent sanction of extra-legal racial violence. It is an old game, exploding every generation or two in American politics, and too easily forgotten.
The Klan was part of a “powerful phalanx” of extra-governmental groups seeking to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, passed in 1920 and banning the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The groups formed a broad-based coalition that attacked bootleggers, saloons, small-town drunks, Catholic immigrants, and any politician who challenged the law. Klan members worked alongside the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other voluntary organizations. Those groups were not known to apply the Klan’s methods, but the WCTU and the League’s obvious refusal to repudiate Klan violence “spoke volumes about the complicity of many members.” Most were evangelical Protestants; most sought to strengthen an imagined Christian nation, which, they feared, was threatened by immigrants, communists, and bootleggers. Even after the amendment was repealed in 1933, the coalition remained: an unruly amalgam of elite white Protestants, working-class evangelicals, nativist bigots and racist dog-whistlers. Largely forgotten from the battles over Prohibition, McGirr argues, is “the first massive entry of the Christian Right … into national politics.”
White officials and elite Americans already associated the poor, immigrants and black Americans with criminality; Prohibition’s selective enforcement merely confirmed their prejudice.
Once gone, most Americans saw the Eighteenth Amendment as a sanctimonious blip in the rear-view mirror. Even most historians treat Prohibition as an eruption of America’s Protestant prudishness, a bizarre divergence from the serious politics of the American century. The speakeasies, flappers, gangsters and G-men of the 1920s were entertaining, but hardly the stuff of world-changing political life. Those views are deeply mistaken as McGirr demonstrates in her remarkable recent study, America’s War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. McGirr is a professor of history at Harvard who a decade and a half ago published a crucial scholarly study of the rise of the religious right in post-war American politics, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, (2002, Princeton University Press). With that book, she tracked the expanding influence of evangelical churches and anti-tax campaigns in post-war Southern California. As the title of her new book suggests, she is again interested in the ideological struggle over the expansion of state power and the origins and activism of the religious right, though this time, more than in her previous book, McGirr is charting the internal growth of a regulatory or, implicitly, police state. The New Deal gave Americans a weak welfare state; Prohibition, she argues, produced a strong and enduring police state.
Prohibition had a long and, in many respects, noble history. From the mid-19th century when Maine passed the nation’s first liquor ban, temperance advocates argued that alcohol destroyed families, leading working-class men, in particular, to squander meager earnings in saloons and drunkenly abuse wives and children. Nineteenth-century temperance campaigns were often led by elite Protestant women, giving white women a path into politics. Many women temperance fighters gained training in public speaking and political organizing, skills which would be useful in suffrage campaigns. The six-foot Kentucky-born Carrie Nation, famous for using a hatchet to attack small-town taverns, embodied the puritanical vein running through the temperance movement, but many reformers simply sought to help their poorer, immigrant sisters struggling against the weight of rapid industrialization. Though directing public attention away from real policies for alleviating poverty-like raising wages or regulating working conditions-temperance advocates were, at their best, well-intentioned social reformers.
By 1920, when the amendment passed, the noble experiment took darker, more dangerous features. The law gave rise to a new criminal class, the bootleggers, liquor-runners, and mobsters whose mugshots ran in newspapers and shoot-outs were featured in film. “For the first time,” McGirr writes, “crime became a national problem and a national obsession.” In cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, local enforcement rapidly created a new “criminal” population. Chicago Mayor William Dever’s “zero-tolerance” policy, for example, more than doubled the number of cases in the city’s district courts between 1923 and 1924. Large fines and jail time ranging from one to ten years might result from an alcohol-related conviction. Before 1920, policing was largely local; most crimes were violations of municipal or state laws. Enforcement “radically expanded the surveillance arm of the police” at all levels. Prohibition produced a new, muscular federal arm of the criminal justice system. Federal agents raided homes and businesses. By 1929, the Prohibition Bureau, the federal agency charged with enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, had a budget of $15 million (more than $200 million in today’s dollars). Federal spending created the nation’s “first significant national police force.” Nationally, law enforcement expenditures jumped nearly fivefold between 1920 and 1930. Crime and rapidly expanding state power were the most visible results of Prohibition.
Even after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, the coalition remained: an unruly amalgam of elite white Protestants, working-class evangelicals, nativist bigots and racist dog-whistlers. Largely forgotten from the battles over Prohibition, McGirr argues, is “the first massive entry of the Christian Right … into national politics.”
Enforcement varied from region to region, and by race, ethnicity and class of the offender. New enforcement mechanisms generated new inequalities before the law. Hardest hit, not surprisingly, were the poor and people of color. The glamorous elite sipped cocktails in New York’s Cotton Club or Chicago’s Plantation Club; poor whites, Mexican immigrants, and African Americans were jailed for bootlegging. McGirr cites several studies showing that working-class households were the targets of police action at significantly higher rates that the houses of the well-off. While small-time rural bootleggers paid for their crime with years in federal prisons, large-scale commercial producers were left to generate huge illegal profits. White officials and elite Americans already associated the poor, immigrants and black Americans with criminality; Prohibition’s selective enforcement merely confirmed their prejudice.
McGirr’s most startling and incisive claim is that Prohibition birthed a state bent on mass surveillance and mass incarceration. In the mid-twenties, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, converted public alarm over mob violence into a justification for the massive growth of his agency, legitimizing the surveillance and infiltration of private organizations from the Klan to the Communist Party. Hoover, McGirr writes, established a professional, “bureaucratic national crime-fighting apparatus.” The war on alcohol intersected and re-enforced a nascent war on narcotics. People addicted to drugs, widely considered weak, ill, or morally-feeble, were even in the twenties, redefined as criminals by the courts and police. “Prohibition,” McGirr contends, “constituted the formative years of the federal penal state and shaped the assumptions and logic still driving this nation’s domestic and global war on drugs.”
The average population in federal prisons tripled between 1920 and 1930. State prisons too were jam-packed. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover pushed through Congress funds for construction of new federal prisons, and established the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a powerful subdivision of the Justice Department.
New criminals meant new prisons. Three federal prisons were built between 1891 and 1907: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; the Atlanta penitentiary; and McNeil Island in Puget Sound. The vast number of Prohibition violators along with the new drug-related criminals lead to overcrowding, harsh conditions and ultimately violent uprisings in federal prisons. The average population in federal prisons tripled between 1920 and 1930. State prisons too were jam-packed. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover pushed through Congress funds for construction of new federal prisons, and established the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a powerful subdivision of the Justice Department. While Prohibition would fade from public memory, a new penal landscape and new categories of criminology would remain. The unintended consequences of the Eighteenth Amendment and its blunt-edged enforcement were the legal framework and federal prisons that, four generations later, produced today’s mass incarceration.
In June 1932, with close to one-quarter of American workers unemployed and the nation’s industries left at a near-stand-still by the Great Depression, Democratic delegates meeting in Chicago debated what many considered the central issue of the presidential campaign: Prohibition. Several hours of the first days of the convention were devoted to wrangling over repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the first and only time an amendment would be repealed. Though some Democratic delegates tried to turn attention to the jobless with the slogan “Bread not Booze,” alcohol, or efforts to make liquor legal, captured the crowds’ attention. A full 30 minutes of cheers and applause followed the platform committee’s announcement of a plank calling for repeal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party’s nominee, knew that “repeal,” possibly more than any other major issue, would unite his party’s disparate coalition, and he was right. In March 1933, on the eighth day after taking office, President Roosevelt, with strong support from the “wet bloc,” would fulfill his party’s pledge. Few Americans mourned the death of the controversial and crime-inducing law. McGirr’s powerfully-written and deeply-researched book reminds us that the law’s dangerous and enduring consequences were too easily forgotten.