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repeal day
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


  1. Matthew Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World
  2. Gail Collins, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines
  3. Barbara Holland, The Joy of Drinking
  4. Paul Lukacs, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures
  5. Roger Scruton, I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine
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25 replies to this post
  1. I would like to see it returned… At least in spirit. More Protestant churches should extoll the virtues of not drinking alcohol and/or intoxication. On national news some time ago, an individual was stating that it is out-of-place and out-dated to have dry counties or towns. I think we should commend those 'dry' areas.

    • I cannot imagine why that would be a good idea. With the Bible condemning teetotalism as a demonic doctrine, it is completely out-of-line for Bible-believing Christians to promote legally-enforced

  2. What we think about human nature and how to "civilize", "cultivate"or "control" it is a matter of debate, isn't it? Just what is civility, cultivation, or control?

    "Civility" is being able to engage diverse opinions and allowing those diverse interests without thinking that controlling the diversity is important. That is, as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of another. Isn't this where a liberty of mind is important in how one views "drink".

    "Cultivation" is education in civility, which brings about a culture of peaceful co-existence, which is about allowing for a personal conscience. Cultivation is about liberty.

    "Control" is about maintaining the "social order" which cannot be done with laws alone, but with the character to be civilized in treatment, apart from agreeing as to "drink".

    Our society has suffered from the "culture wars" this past political season. Some of the "fire" has come from those that wanted to ignite and fan the flames for their political purposes, while others truly thought their views about/on Christianity and our Nation were the only ones to be had….I find this disturbing for many reasons.

    People are going to differ as to their understanding, opinions, interests, conscience and that is as it "should be", because diversity means, we still live in a free society that isn't limited by a religious or political viewpoint…

  3. "Van De Merwe" is a fascinating name. Is it Dutch? My wife is of Dutch heritage, and whose great grandparents' name was changed at Ellis Island from "Bremis" to "Bremer" because the agent in charge could not read the upright handwriting of educated Dutch farmers. They were also Catholic, which was unusual for Dutch immigrants at the time, because most Dutch Catholics were land owners and didn't leave. How do you pronounce your name?

    As to the substance of this thread, I have less interest in "diversity" than you appear to. Diversity is never a goal, it is only a condition. Most of the people I have known who wish to force diversity upon us are what a friend of mine once called "extremists of the center." And, like all other extremists, they tend to become ideologues. In this case, ideologues against the possibility that there indeed may be truth.

  4. Yes, it is Dutch. My husband immigrated from the Netherlands in the last half a century…;-)

    I agree that diversity as an OUTCOME is ideological for it calls for government planning. But, diversity as a fact of life, is the truth of nature. Diversity is about everything in life, from mutations of cells to cultural mutations, which America is. The strength of America is the strength of her diversity of thought and choice of action.

  5. I don't mean to be a party pooper, and I certainly don't support prohibition as a means of combating substance abuse, but I note with some awe that there has long been a somewhat overblown sense of joy tied to the use of various substances that provide temporary chemical stimulus. As a fitness buff who quit smoking and began to teach himself physiology, biology and proper diet technique, I highly recommend a return to the ancient Greek ideal of Kalos Kagathos. While there are many books on the joy of body building and health, foremost Joe Wieder's, I strongly encourage everyone to read Eugen Sandow's System of Physical Training, which is more politicaly conscious of what Plato understood as the importance of gymnastics for happiness. Our culture has lost an appreciation for the joy of fitness, seeing it only as a dreary obligation. Nothing could be less true. There is no greater joy than systematic care for health and fitness.

  6. Hmmm. Well-written article, for which thanks!

    But do real conservatives believe "the attempt to legislate morality is a fool’s errand"? Or do we agree that a legitimate role of government is to do just that, but within the bounds of reality, tradition and convention? In which latter case, Prohibition was bound to fail?

  7. First, a confession: I take two fingers of sundry bourbons daily and with relish, though always after 8 PM (one has lines that are not to be crossed!).
    Secondly, I would suggest that every piece of legislation is someone's version of morality. I would perfer my version.

  8. Excellent article. One is interesting point is that indeed, wine is associated with the divine, whereas beer is not. There is a god of wine, but not, afaik, a god of beer. Is beer, made from barley, more related to bread? I don't know.

  9. Though I prefer wine to beer, there are beer gods–or gods associated with brewing beer. I grew up in the Central Valley of California, and so I was made very aware of Tezcatzontecatl, Aztec god of drunkenness (and fertility–HAH!). Osiris was often associated with beer. Aegir was the Norse god of the sea but who threw wicked parties and brewed strong ale (see the poem "Lokasenna") and so is often associated with beer. I recall Silenus (companion and, in some myths, teacher of Dionysus) brewing drinks other than wine (which one does not actually brew, of course). One of the oldest texts we have is a hymn to the Sumerian goddess of beer, Ninkasi (19th century BC):

    Borne of the flowing water (…)
    Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,
    Borne of the flowing water (…)
    Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,

    Having founded your town by the sacred lake,
    She finished its great walls for you,
    Ninkasi, having founded your town by the sacred lake,
    She finished its great walls for you

    Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
    Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake,
    Ninkasi, Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
    Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

    You are the one who handles the dough,
    [and] with a big shovel,
    Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
    Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
    the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
    Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

    You are the one who bakes the bappir
    in the big oven,
    Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
    Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
    the bappir in the big oven,
    Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

    You are the one who waters the malt
    set on the ground,
    The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
    Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
    set on the ground,
    The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

    You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
    The waves rise, the waves fall.
    Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks
    the malt in a jar
    The waves rise, the waves fall.

    You are the one who spreads the cooked
    mash on large reed mats,
    Coolness overcomes.
    Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
    the cooked mash on large reed mats,
    Coolness overcomes.

    You are the one who holds with both hands
    the great sweet wort,
    Brewing [it] with honey and wine
    (You the sweet wort to the vessel)
    Ninkasi, (…)
    (You the sweet wort to the vessel)

    The filtering vat, which makes
    a pleasant sound,
    You place appropriately on [top of]
    a large collector vat.
    Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
    which makes a pleasant sound,
    You place appropriately on [top of]
    a large collector vat.

    When you pour out the filtered beer
    of the collector vat,
    It is [like] the onrush of
    Tigris and Euphrates.
    Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the
    filtered beer of the collector vat,
    It is [like] the onrush of
    Tigris and Euphrates.

    O.K., that's enough.

  10. Mr. Mcgranor, have you considered relocating to Utah? The spirit you seek is alive and well there.

    Do you recognize the difference between consuming alcohol and consuming it to the point of intoxication?

  11. John,

    Please know that when speaking of ancient "beer" we have to use the term loosely. There would have been a basic starch, fruit, plants, herbs (rice in China). Beer as we know it now is defined by barley and especially hops. But hops weren't introduced until the 9th century AD. So I'm playing pretty loose with "beer." "Beer" and "ale" are even treated as separate beverages in Old English, the former being a sweet alcoholic drink, the latter produced from malted grains.

    To your question: some did, some didn't. The Egyptians/Sumerians did. Along with Ninkasi, there was Geshtin, specifically a goddess of wine/vine. Silenus made and was often drunk from alcohol other than wine.

    But the Aztecs simply had their pulque. The Norse didn't have grapes.

    Please know that I'm no expert of these things. I sometimes brew and have discovered these things through researching various recipes.

  12. Justin, let's talk American for a minute. We were the "alcoholic republic" for about a hundred and twenty-five years after 1787, and then were the "prohibited republic" for about fifteen. We have recently become enamored of a new prohibitionism, which fits nicely with our ban on the evil weed tobacco, which fits nicely with our tolerance for unlimited sex, abortion, divorce, and Lady Gaga. We invented bourbon whiskey, which is superior to the medicinal taste of the imported types the Scots tried to force on us. The cosmopolitan Jefferson tried to convince us that wine, French, of course, was better than any apple jack, moonshine, or rum that ordinary Yankees or hillbillies could come up with. American beer has now moved beyond what the increasingly decadent Germans can produce, and Guinness cannot compare with Founders Club of Grand Rapids, MI turns out for about two-thirds the price. Who cares about the Sumerians, when we can drink Red's Rye?

  13. As (no doubt) one of TIC's few Sumerian readers, let me begin by thanking you for this marvelous website! If we Sumerians had followed your good advice, our culture might still be around in force and not have been overrun by the riffraff of Elamites, Amorites and Akkadians, and we might still be hanging out in Ur drinking beer. We blew it after 3,000 years or so, and so we Sumerians hope that you Americans regain your Republic and break our record for longevity.

    The late Peter Damerow, at Germany's Max Planck Institute, theorized that we Sumerians only made non-alcoholic beer because you guys never found our recipes. Otherwise, how could modern people be absolutely certain that we did not make non-alcoholic beer – and a German wrote this?! Jeez, Louise! (We used to say "Shit, Shiptu!" but I Americanized it for you). So, non-alcoholic brewskies? Gimme a break! No natural fermentation in all that heat? Even a Hittite wouldn't have drank non-alcoholic beer, and everyone knows what pantywaists those guys were.

    Besides, I wrote to Damerow twice and the creep never answered me (it may have had to do with the German Post Office and my clay tablets). Anyway, for the record, our beer was alcoholic, we got snockered regularly, and a good time was had by all. If you could have got your heads around the lack of refrigeration, you'd have loved it.

    Enki, our god of beneficence, joins us in wishing everyone at TIC (and across America) a merry Christmas.

    yours faithfully,
    Huttupum the Sumerian

    ps: where can we find this Founder's Club beer in the after-life? Enlil, our god of the Ghost-Land who works at the Cash-and-Carry (open 24/7), has never heard of it.

  14. Dear Mr. Huttupum,

    One can buy Founders (and I miswrote earlier–it is Founders Brewing) at the Broad St. Downtown Market in Hillsdale, MI. It is a lovely store, and I'm almost certain I have seen Sumerians buying Founders Dirty Bastard IPA there.

  15. "Prohibition was eventually deemed unsuccessful, and, in 1933, Amendment 18 was repealed by Amendment 21. Not only was it a failure, it was unbiblical. The Bible condemns drunkenness, but, because it does not condemn alcoholic beverages, forcing abstinence upon others is unlawful.

    "The temperance movement was at the forefront in pressuring Congress to ban the manufacture, transportation, importation, and exportation of intoxicating liquors. It was mostly made up of women claiming to be Christians. However, rather than taking a Biblical stand on alcoholic consumption, they took an unbiblical stand (one still found in many churches today) that was at the center of framing this unlawful amendment."

    For more, see online Chapter 27 "Amendment 18: Repealed for Good Reason" of "Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective" at

  16. John,

    Of course, when it comes to wine versus beer, Bourbon versus Scotch, etc., I eschew the either/or dialectic; I am a both/and kind of guy. I just follow Amos Milburn's lead on this one (if we're talking American, let's talk Blues!): one bourbon, one Scotch, one beer.

    I'll put American wines (both Napa Valley and Paso Robles) up against any region in the world. We fare every well in international competitions, and we simply dominate with regards to beer. We also produce Vodkas (out of Idaho and Texas) which are amazing and compete with the best out of Russia.

    "We have recently become enamored of a new prohibitionism, which fits nicely with our ban on the evil weed tobacco"
    ***I agree that this is a problem: what is one supposed to smoke after all of this unlimited sex?

  17. Thanks! Turns out that my cousin, Buttatum, pops in now and again but he had't told me. Good news is he got us a few sixpacks; silly news is the girl behind the counter demanded ID – and at age 4,323 he is four years younger than I am. Go figure! Of course Sumeria, for awhile, had various identity-cards for many things – buying beer, riding donkeys, paying taxes, using the well, gathering firewood, etc, but carrying them around caused an epidemic of hernias. TIC's interest in limited government has a lot to say for it!

  18. Bourbon is not bad but no one has ever forced a good Scotch or Single Malt on me; tastes may vary but to paraphrase Kipling "a woman is a woman but a whiskey is a good drink." And yes, American wines and spirits are of fine quality. Mencken was surely right. The 18th amendment was a ghastly mistake and a wrong overreach of Federal power.

  19. My dear fellow John: I have tasted some fine bourbons and tend to prefer certain Irish whiskeys, but might you have over generalized in dismissing Scotch? A cousin once introduced me to Lagavulin, aged in oak barrels that sat on the beach in the open sea air. The flavor was pleasantly striking. I prefer it to most — but by no means all — bourbons.

  20. There has indeed been lore and celebration over what you politically correctly call "substance abuse" and "temporary chemical stimulus," Peter. The joy of "health and fitness," far from having become a dreary obligation, has become a political obsession and/or an utter bore in contemporary culture, but can also become an unhealthy obsession (like drunkenness or snorting cocaine) or a false joy that has men and women in tights selling videos like Eugen Davidow made piles of money being an exhibitionist on European stages. Furthermore, the Greeks treated their olympic champions much as we treat our sports superstars. Everything, especially power, is prone to abuse; even worse to silliness. Winos do not understand the joy of wine, any more than body builders understand the joy of fitness.

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