Our guest author is Bill Savage, who teaches Chicago culture at Northwestern University and the Newberry Library. His essays, articles, and reviews have run in the Chicago Tribune, ESPN.go.com, and the Chicago Reader. His latest book is an annotated edition of George Ade’s The Old-Time Saloon, out this fall from University of Chicago Press.
December 5 should be a national holiday. Maybe not as widely celebrated as Independence Day or Labor Day, but definitely a cut above Columbus Day or President’s Day. The date already is toasted in some hard-drinking and historically well-informed circles as Repeal Day, commemorating Utah’s ratification of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment and ended national Prohibition of the manufacture, transport, and sale of “intoxicating beverages.”
So, go to your local watering hole, and lift a glass of your favorite craft beer, artisanal cocktail, or whatever, without fear of the Feds knocking down the door and hauling you and your server off to the hoosegow. If you’re of legal drinking age, you’ve been free to do so since 1933.
Repeal is now taken for granted, and Prohibition is little discussed or depicted outside of romantic gangster-movie narratives and bullshit bus tours. But to get a glimpse of the still-germane political argument that led to Prohibition in the first place, you should read George Ade’s 1931 book The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet, Not Dry—Just History, which has just been reissued by the University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction and annotations by your humble reporter here.
Ade, a once-famous journalist and Broadway playwright, was fond of his drink, and despite his Republican loyalties (he was, after all, from Indiana) he supported the movement to end the “noble experiment” of Prohibition. His rhetorical angle in this polemic was to remind his fellow Americans what saloons were actually like, since most people in 1931 had never set foot in one. Ade takes the liquor industry and saloon owners to task for flouting the law and bringing on their own demise, but he also brings to life the political, economic, and sentimental reality of this American institution.
Myth has it that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led the crusade to dry America up, but it was actually the Anti-Saloon League that succeeded in turning religiously motivated personal temperance or abstinence into government-mandated morality. The battle was complicated, as it involved the best and worst of American culture: the Progressive ideal that government could make things better socially, as well as deeply conservative impulses towards government control over personal morality.
(“Complicated” might be an understatement for any argument that had Jane Addams and the Ku Klux Klan on the same side; Chicago’s secular saint and America’s first racist domestic terrorist organization both favored Prohibition.)
The argument over Prohibition, as Ade depicts and I explore in my notes, was really an argument over American identity. Rural and small-town Americans, of white Protestant born-in-the-USA backgrounds, generally favored it, while urban Americans, Catholic or Jewish and immigrants or their children, opposed it.
The proponents of Prohibition were outnumbered by the urban immigrants, but state and federal representative districts were drawn in ways that gave power beyond their numbers to the conservative and reactionary rural voters over the progressive and liberal urban voters. And so those voters proceeded to elect representatives who would enshrine their religious beliefs into secular law.
Substitute same-sex marriage and abortion rights for alcohol and saloons, and we’re having the same arguments still.
And so despite its seeming quaint Ye Olde Days approach, Ade’s book speaks directly to contemporary American culture and politics, especially since we still live under Prohibition laws–not to mention the results of the 2016 Presidential election.
After 1933, Prohibition shifted from alcohol to other substances, but the Feds (and local and state law enforcement) are still in the highly profitable business of putting people in jail based on the substances they ingest for pleasure, or for selling such substances to their neighbors or visitors from the suburbs. And the legal hammer is still likelier to fall if that person is poor, an immigrant or a person of color, just as it was from 1919 to 1933.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the same American political identity dynamic that imposed Prohibition on the United States has now brought Donald Trump to power.
The Electoral College, and the utterly arbitrary and not-in-the-Constitution limit of 435 Congressional Representative Districts, to be re-apportioned state-by-state based on the decennial census, gives rural and small-town Americans more political power than their absolute numbers would mandate in a truly one-person/one-vote system. A voter in our smallest state, Wyoming, has almost three times the Electoral College sway of a voter in our most populous state, California.
Thanks to the Electoral College and the “Great Compromise” that gave us the Senate, smaller states, almost all more rural and conservative than America as a whole, run the whole country today, just as they did in the decades leading up to Prohibition.
It’s enough to drive a thinking person to drink.
So, on December 5, I suppose we should take heart in Ade’s successful contribution to Repeal. It might’ve taken 13 years, but Americans did come to their senses and declare the Great Experiment a failure. We shall see if a similar buyer’s remorse follows after January 20, 2017.
Bill Savage will be teaching a four week seminar, “Before Capone: Chicago Saloon Culture 1880-1920” at the Newberry Library in Spring of 2017. Before then, there will be an Old-Time Saloon reading event at Comix Revolution in Evanston, the evening of Monday, January 9 (details TBD/TBA). And on Thursday, January 12, if you’d like to learn how to make Prohibition-era cocktails and get a copy of The Old-Time Saloon as part of your class, come out to Koval Distillery in Ravenswood. You can follow Savage on Twitter @rogersparkman, and soon (he swears) on his under-construction blog, rogersparkman.com. The Old Time Saloon is available for purchase here.