Editor’s note: with a renewed interest in the history of Prohibition, the Center is hosting an exhibition in 2012 on the era with Dan Okrent serving as curator. Hear a podcast featuring Mr. Okrent by clicking on the player below: [audio: http://hancock.constitutioncenter.org/media/dan_okrent_12-06-10/dan_okrent_12-06-10_%2864%29.mp3]
A day after the anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which happily repealed Prohibition, Daniel Okrent discussed the fascinating history of this sober era. Okrent, the former first Public Editor of the New York Times and author of four books including Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, joined National Constitution Center President and CEO David Eisner for a conversation notable for its humor, history and currency (think: medical marijuana) in front of a packed F.M. Kirby Auditorium (See Okrent’s thoughts on Boardwalk Empire).
The sailing vessel that brought John Winthrop to America in 1630 carried more beer than water. The peak of alcohol consumption in the United States was 1830 when the average person drank 7.3 gallons a year.
Though that number had fallen by the time the Eighteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution, America was still awash in booze. As Okrent explains, it was surprising that the country would ever ban alcohol. In fact, as he writes in Last Call, the “Constitution and its first seventeen amendments limited the activities of government, not of citizens. Now there were two exceptions: you couldn’t own slaves, and you couldn’t buy alcohol.”
Prohibition was clearly a failure; Americans could easily drink, and they flouted the law of the land to continue drinking. The most important factor in the repeal of the 18th Amendment was the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the years of economic hardship that devastated the finances of many Americans and their government. In desperate need of tax revenue, the federal government had an interest in liquor taxes and job creation.
Stefan Frank is the National Constitution Center’s Director of Digital Engagement and manager of Constitution Daily’s Twitter account @ConDailyBlog. Follow us!