Soundbite: Exorcising Demon Rum


In Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (Ivan R. Dee), Thomas R. Pegram has written a concise, accessible history of liquor prohibition in the United States. He provocatively argues that "the image of prohibition remains a powerful, if often unstated, political presence. Prohibition stands as a reminder of governmental limitations and policy failures. To wary politicians, prohibition has become a shorthand reference for the pitfalls of divisive moral legislation which should be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, opponents of narcotics laws and strict governmental regulation of tobacco, to use two recent examples, attack these government controls as 'prohibition,' using that loaded term to summon up memories of foolish, unenforceable, vindictive laws that sparked massive popular resistance and a loss of faith in government itself."

Pegram, an associate professor of history at Baltimore's Loyola College, spoke with Senior Editor Nick Gillespie by phone in January.

Q: Why did prohibition happen?

A: It happened twice. Both times, there was a confluence of factors. The democratic makeup of the United States allows groups to turn their behavioral viewpoints into legislation. In the 1850s, when the first state-level laws were passed, there was a breakdown of the two-party system. In the period of the national prohibition in the early 20th century, it was the slight decline in power of political parties during the Progressive Era and the patriotic lockstep associated with the American entry into World War I.

Q: Why was the 18th Amendment repealed?

A: It hadn't worked on its own terms. Institutionally, it wasn't adequately supported–there was a great deal of evasion of the law. Among those who believed in the rule of law, there was a real fear that the flouting of any law would undermine all laws. The crisis of the Great Depression also helped. And there was an organized anti-Prohibition movement that tapped into growing public dissatisfaction. Still, many opponents assumed it would never be repealed.

Q: What are the lessons to learn from prohibition?

A: One is that interest groups can influence laws, but they can't actually govern. Another is that divisive social issues–precisely because they are divisive–make it very hard for one side to triumph fully over the other.

Q: How does your analysis apply to current wars on drugs and tobacco?

A: Drugs have been illegal for so long that there's still a large cultural adherence to the notion that these are "illicit" substances. So there's little public support for repeal of laws–we're going to continue having drug prohibition. With tobacco and alcohol, however, there are legal producers and lawful consumers. The history of prohibition has taken the possibility of a total ban off the table, even for cigarettes. Instead, you'll see more of what we're seeing now: a public health offensive combined with increased taxes and manufacturer liability.