Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.–H.L. Mencken
But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big, black teetotaler was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P.S.A., or chapel, or Eisteddfod.
For the curse of water has come again because
Of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishops board and the High Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine. –G. K. Chesterton
December 5th was the 79th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment and the repeal of Prohibition. Hailed by lovers of personal liberty and advocates of small government, Repeal Day is celebrated as a victory of the individual over the encroaching impulses of big government and described as vindication of the notion that the attempt to legislate morality is a fool’s errand. While it is certainly evidence of the former, the political lessons of repeal speak more to an appreciation for the conditions of human flourishing than to the inadvisability of attempting to restrain vice through law.
The tormented, but woefully misguided, souls in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who brought about the Volstead Act were convinced that alcohol was the root of innumerable social pathologies—family decay in the form of poverty and spousal abuse and neglect foremost among them. What’s more, they were convinced that the law was the best tool to retard such vices that were afflicting the body politic. One can only imagine the chagrin of the architects of the moral crusade that, as Menken observed, Prohibition ushered in an era in which lawlessness was celebrated—so much so that the images of transgression, flappers sipping martinis from birdbath glasses, remain iconic depictions of freedom and frivolity to this day. Reflections upon the error that was Prohibition often ascribe the fault of the movement to the inclination to use the law to restrain “private behavior” by seeking to “legislate morality.” Such indictments typically lean on caricatured accounts of “puritanism” and social prudishness to account for the aims of the Temperance movement.
In her study of Prohibition, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines, Gail Collins describes the surprise of one of the movement’s leaders upon discovering impoverished communities largely populated by teetotalers. Such encounters suggest a misdiagnosis of the causes of genuine social ills. Prohibition was the wrong answer to real problems; but its failures as a policy may well have been a consequence not of the attempt to legislate morality, but a lack of appreciation for one of the great accomplishments of civilization and one of the delightful complements to human flourishing.
In recent cultural memory, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” has garnered the most attention for its depiction of the Prohibition era, but its conspicuously inconsistent adherence to the actual history of the very characters and events it depicts renders its narrative so contorted that only the combination of its cast’s star power, HBO’s signature high production values, and the spectacle of graphic sex and violence in early 20th-century dialect and dress are capable of distracting from its faults. A better and more satisfying depiction of what Frances Perkins and her fellow crusaders wrought is Matthew Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized account of his own family’s epic bootlegging in Franklin County, Va.—the Moonshine capital of the country during Prohibition. This outstanding novel was also turned into a movie, Lawless, released earlier this year.
What Bondurant’s tale lacks in Big-City gangsters and all of the adornments of vice that accompany organized crime, it more than makes up for with its attention to local culture, the coincidence of poverty and the rural black market, and the role of the government in relationship to all three. What’s more, the story reminds its reader that for most of this country during Prohibition, the appetite for strong drink was fueled by something other than libertinism and the aesthetics of transgression. The effort to suppress the entrepreneurial opportunism made possible by Prohibition in the midst of moribund economic conditions revealed the stark imprudence of the Volstead Act and what followed it. The effort to suppress the cultural appreciation for the timeless pleasures and satisfactions of potent potables revealed its stark injustice.
In his new book, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, Paul Lukacs observes that the earliest accounts of wine celebrated the drink not so much as a sense pleasure but as a divine beneficence. Interestingly, wine was not prized principally for its intoxicating potency, but for that sacramental dimension. Lukacs points out that beer, by contrast, for all of its intoxicating capacity was not so associated with the divine, being rather celebrated as a human accomplishment.
In contrast to beer, wine attains its heights not as the result of human ingenuity and craftsmanship but careful stewardship, cultivation, and a method of preparation that minimizes human intervention. Good winemaking results from allowing the grape to flourish, its juice to mature, and ultimately to be transformed into something sublime. This extraordinary transformation from something mundane into something sophisticated and complex, despite a lack of human artfulness and intervention, helps to account for the identification of this particular species of spirit with the divine. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting vehicle for Jesus’ inaugural miracle. It is always in some sense a gift, and as such it is the paradigmatic biblical beverage.
Interestingly, and appropriately, Christianity is arguably responsible for elevating wine making to the high form of art that it is today. Ancient wine would have been almost unrecognizable to the contemporary oenophile–it was oxidized, adulterated with lead and even powdered stone for flavor, and diluted with water as a matter of course. The subtleties that are associated with contemporary wine are the product of the Middle Ages and one of the civilizational boons of Christianity. Taking seriously the Genesis mandate to exercise stewardship over creation, Cistercian monks applied rigorous scientific examination to the conditions that resulted in the thriving of distinct varieties of wine grapes. This concern for the climatic and geological conditions suited to distinct grape varietals culminated in the appreciation for terroir and the matching of specific kinds of grapes with specific climates that is accepted as a condition for certifications of quality and excellence throughout the great wine producing regions of Europe.
Of course, like all alcoholic beverages, wine is truly an adult beverage. The complexity and sophistication of wine are inaccessible to the immature palate—and the intellectual pleasures that accompany reflection upon its characteristics dwarf even its substantial sensual satisfactions. As an object of reflection and meditation, one which inspires both gratitude and humility, drinking is both civilized and civilizing.
Which is not to say that drinking alcoholic beverages has always been in the pursuit of higher order pleasures. Apart from its appetitive appeal, it is demonstrably practical. For much of human history, polluted water recommended the consumption of alcoholic beverages as a way of staving off illness—to say nothing of boredom. Many a family visiting historic American colonial homes like Mt. Vernon, Gunston Hall, or Pennsbury Manor has been shocked to discover that the domestic distilleries and breweries served the whole population of the home, including providing children with (admittedly weak) beer for just such health reasons.
For those less interested in the loftier dimensions of the spirits, and unconcerned with the historically practical merits of booze, there is much to be said for the act of drinking itself, in its many dimensions. In paying tribute to the practice of consuming alcohol in its many forms, there may be no better literary celebrant than the late Barbara Holland. Her Joy of Drinking is unsurpassed as a chronicle of the inextricability of strong drink from human history, in both its achievements and its embarrassments. Among her many observations, her account of the prevalence of alcohol in the early American experience is positively iconoclastic, including anecdotes relating to the enthusiastic drinking habits of many heroic exemplars of national identity.
Such reflections ought to inspire even greater appreciation for the accomplishment that is Repeal Day. In addition to serving as a potent reminder that the remedy for excess is not to supplant the need for virtue with the force of law, it should prompt us to embrace those virtues that enable us to enjoy the manifest and manifold goods of drinking to the full. Nothing could be more human, or more American.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
- Matthew Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World
- Gail Collins, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines
- Barbara Holland, The Joy of Drinking
- Paul Lukacs, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures
- Roger Scruton, I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine