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Smashing the Liquor Machine: 
A Global History of Prohibition

by mark lawrence schrad
oxford, 752 pages, $23.80

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States aspired to be a full-spectrum telling of American history as one long sordid tale of oppression and the resistance to it. Dedicated to a merciless critique of all authority and power, the book extolled and romanticized the victims, critics, and gadflies of the past so that “nationhood pretending to be a common interest” could rise no more.

Through multiple editions and revisions that yielded nearly seven hundred pages of text at the time of Zinn’s death in 2010, A People’s History never tells the tale of temperance and prohibition. In fact, Zinn never mentions the subject once. This is a remarkable fact, and not simply because the nationwide legal ban on alcohol manufacture, sale, and transportation was such an unlikely moment in our national history. It is in fact shocking that a man dedicated to the activism of ordinary people and a “bottom-up” telling of the American story completely ignored one of America’s most popular, sustained, radical, and successful mass social movements.

Come to fill this lacuna is Mark Lawrence Schrad, explicitly fashioning himself the Howard Zinn of the history of prohibition and crafting a story as slanted, politically motivated, and at times cartoonish as that told by the master himself. Schrad’s intent in Smashing the Liquor Machine is to overturn the received interpretation of the American temperance movement and prohibition by placing them in an international context and thereby demonstrating their thoroughly progressive purpose. Schrad claims his book answers the question “What caused prohibition—not just in the United States, but in countries around the globe?” Unfortunately, Smashing the Liquor Machine is too undisciplined and combative to provide an answer. Less a “global history of prohibition” than a series of sketches of progressive, socialist, populist, and “subaltern” anti-­alcohol activists in multiple countries across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Schrad’s is a simple tale of white progressives and non-white native heroes battling (sometimes literally) the capitalist, statist, and colonialist villains who ran the alcohol trade and enslaved the masses through it.

That said, unlike Zinn’s work, Smashing the Liquor Machine is deeply immersed in original research (with more than one hundred and thirty pages of endnotes to prove it). On its rambling path through Europe, the British Empire, and the United States, the book cannot help but disprove its own thesis. Temperance and prohibition arose in multiple countries around the same time out of deeply mixed motives. Schrad highlights the many activists on the left who advocated prohibition. Yet in country after country, he also demonstrates that prohibition had many fathers, not only progressive social reformers but also state elites, military leaders, and even some capitalists. And though conservative social reformers are completely silent in the text, they existed and played a significant role as well.

Even though the book offers no compelling causal story of prohibition, it does elaborate a history of social and political activism in which the common good and the regulation of economic and cultural behavior toward the protection of community, family, and the weak played significant roles. Moreover, as more than half the book is about the United States, it also recovers a very American history of such activism. Smashing the Liquor Machine shows clearly that libertarianism is not America’s political DNA. Democratic self-government and pursuit of the common good are well represented in American history, as in the history of prohibition. There is no reason why they cannot be so again.

Smashing the Liquor Machine is a tale of heroes and villains. Schrad’s heroes are all prohibitionists. Through the text one discovers that Carrie Nation was “Wonder Woman in a frock”; ­Miami Indian chief Little Turtle was “America’s first prohibitionist”; Frederick Douglass believed “abolition and temperance” were “inseparable to the cause of freedom”; and the largely forgotten Anti-Saloon League activist William “Pussyfoot” Johnson was once considered among the twelve “greatest American men.” Schrad’s villains are all purveyors and enablers of the “liquor trade.” Thus one is told that the Russian tsars built their power and wealth “on the drunken misery of the Russian people”; Cecil Rhodes subdued southern Africa “with liquor bottles and bullets”; John Jacob Astor built his fortune “on alcohol and fraud”; and saloon-keeper “Captain” Isaiah Rynders, who ran the Tammany Hall “liquor machine” in New York City’s sixth ward, was “Gotham’s first mob boss.”

Despite the often cartoonish depictions of the book’s characters, Schrad does offer an interesting history of ­individual temperance activists, especially those like ­Douglass whom we don’t ­usually recognize as such, or ­Johnson whom we have mostly forgotten. Schrad ably depicts the role that temperance played in the wider ideology and activism of many nineteenth-­century reformers, whether feminists, abolitionists, socialists, anti-­imperialists, nationalists, or native leaders. He also explores the international dimensions of the prohibition movement. Americans are particularly apt to study their own history in isolation from the world. Schrad indicates how important the international organization of temperance activists was to American prohibitionists’ political successes at home.

But Schrad’s mission is not simply to fill in various holes in the global history of temperance and prohibition. The central purpose of Smashing the Liquor Machine is nothing less than to smash Americans’ “received wisdom on prohibition . . . [and] everything we think we know about prohibitionists.” That received wisdom is a culture-war interpretation of the long effort to eradicate the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States, which culminated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Schrad blames post–World War II academics ­Richard Hofstadter and Joseph Gusfield for crafting a cultural narrative that depicts the temperance movement as a self-righteous and reactionary moral crusade by rural Protestant America against the forces of modernization embodied in Catholic immigrants, the urban proletariat, non-whites, and cultural liberals. Through their “sleight of hand” and imposed “intellectual blinders,” generations have followed in their misguided footsteps.

In place of a cultural account of prohibition, Schrad ­advances a political economy account with uncompromising rigidity. A common interest in advancing the liquor trade and exploiting the ­masses bound together saloon-­keepers, alcohol manufacturers, government tax farmers, and tax-hungry state elites throughout the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When considering the situation in domestic terms, Schrad dubs this exercise of power “alco-­subjugation” and “alco-slavery.” When viewing it in terms of the interactions between conquering powers and native peoples from North America to Ireland to Africa to India, he calls it “alco-imperialism” and “alco-­colonization.” Not giving an inch to the followers of Hofstadter and Gusfield, Schrad ­insists that

[r]esistance against predatory liquor capitalism backed by a predatory state took the form of temperance and democracy—which is why temperance worked hand-in-glove with efforts for liberalization, democratization, female suffrage, abolitionism, and protecting the rights of indigenous communities and impoverished workers. Those are the dynamics of temperance and prohibitionism we find time and again in every corner of the globe.

Schrad defends his thesis by claiming throughout the book that prohibitionists always and everywhere campaigned not against “the drink or the drinker” but against the “liquor traffic” and “the man who sells.” Yet Schrad’s evidence is nowhere near so clear. He quotes any number of prohibitionists on the inherent evils of alcohol itself. Both Leo Tolstoy and Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, referred to alcohol as “poison.” Pussyfoot Johnson compared it to “rotten meat” and “impure drugs.” While ­Mohandas Gandhi served alcohol to his guests, he took each occasion as an opportunity to preach “a lesson of abstinence.” North American activists in particular were often advocates of total prohibition. Many dry U.S. states and Canadian provinces banned not only the manufacture and sale but even the possession of alcohol. Abstinence extended all the way to the celebration of the sacraments in some religious denominations. For example, the Methodist Episcopal Church abandoned wine for grape juice in 1916 in its celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and Mormons switched from wine to water in 1912.

Schrad’s political economy account, which he picks up from ­nineteenth- and early-twentieth-­century socialists, blames industrial capitalism first and foremost for the problem of drunkenness. He makes much of a distinction between “traditional” and “industrial” alcohol, an idea likewise absorbed from ­nineteenth- and early-twentieth-­century discourse as well as, ironically, the beer and wine industries of the time. Schrad attaches “traditional” alcohol to rural agricultural societies in which alcohol existed in low-concentration fermented beverages such as wine, beer, ale, cider, and mead. Consumption of such drinks, he insists, was intermittent, communal, and largely socially productive. “Industrial” alcohol, by contrast, is peculiar to urban industrialized societies (and their colonies) in which alcohol appears in high-­concentration distilled forms such as brandy, whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka. The consumption of these beverages, Schrad contends, was regular, individualized, and without social benefit.

Smashing the Liquor Machine is a history of prohibition in the West and thus almost wholly concerned with the hundred years beginning in the early 1800s and ending with the Eighteenth Amendment. As a result, the book largely fails to appreciate how regular and elevated alcohol consumption has been deeply engrained in Western civilization since the Middle Ages. Even before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans and their settler societies had incorporated alcohol into their diets and cultures to an extent unique among the world’s peoples. Unless they were very poor, medieval Europeans drank ale (and later beer) or wine, not water, as their regular means of hydration. To the horror of contemporary Americans, drinking alcohol at breakfast or on the job was once typical. Vodka was so popular in medieval Russia that the tsars established a royal vodka monopoly by the 1470s to exploit the trade. Public drinking houses began to spread throughout England in the 1500s, and by 1600 distilled spirits had entered into the mainstream of recreational drinking culture throughout Europe and the Americas. Needless to say, all this predates the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization by centuries.

Schrad labels mass drunkenness “a symptom of modernity,” but public worries over excessive alcohol consumption are as old as alcohol itself. Reformed Protestants in Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries limited alcohol consumption and the alcohol trade as early as the mid-1500s. New England Puritans battled against excessive alcohol consumption from the founding of their colonies. Shortly after his restoration to the throne in 1660, King Charles II issued a “Proclamation against Debauchery” in which he condemned drinking, swearing, and all manner of crime and moral depravity; taverns came in for especial denunciation. Drunkenness was said to be common in England in the late seventeenth century. Social concern over liquor sprang up in the country repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century, most notably in the “gin craze” of the early 1700s. The British Gin Acts of the mid-1700s were the first sustained state attempt to remove a form of alcohol completely from the market.

Schrad’s political economy account routinely blames predatory states, too dependent on alcohol tax revenues and too beholden to alcohol manufacturers and sellers. Yet his text cannot decide whether government leaders and administrators were enablers or opponents of the alcohol trade. In fact, states were often conflicted over the alcohol question. On the one hand, state budgets prior to the twentieth century were indeed dependent on excise taxes and customs duties, making high-value low-weight goods like spirits a favored source of government revenue. On the other hand, state elites knew that widespread intoxication spurred criminal behavior and social breakdown, while endemic drunkenness within the military was a threat to national security. This latter fear became prevalent with the rise of nationalism and the modern nation-­state in the late nineteenth century, so much so that a “cult of military sobriety” swept the Western world in the decades before World War I.

Schrad is especially critical of Western states’ strategic use of alcohol to subdue native peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Asia; “alco-colonization” and “alco-imperialism” are his frequent refrains. This argument is at best incomplete and at worst dishonest. Certainly alcohol helped extend whites’ power over their subject peoples, and alcohol abuse among those peoples gave whites (no lesser the victims of alcoholism) an excuse to rule them. But Schrad goes much further. He insists that “booze [was] the lifeblood of colonial ­exploitation” and that “the liquor trade was foundational to the entire system of colonial domination.” Here again he fails to consider the many contradictions in the provision of alcohol to native populations in the European and American imperial possessions.

Whites imposed prohibition on their native subjects in North America, Africa, and Australia long before they imposed it—if they ever did—on themselves, and they maintained prohibition on native peoples long after they lifted it from themselves. The governors of New France and New Netherlands banned liquor traders from engaging native tribes as early as the 1640s. The Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the sale of alcohol to Native Americans in 1657, and colonial Connecticut followed suit in 1687. At President Thomas ­Jefferson’s request, in 1802 the United States Congress famously passed legislation allowing the president to ban the sale and distribution of alcohol to Indians on tribal lands, which Jefferson promptly did. Numerous early-nineteenth-­century presidents and governors condemned private corporations’ use of alcohol in extracting furs and land from native tribes. European colonial states did much the same thing. In 1884 Britain sought (and failed to secure) an international treaty banning the supply of arms, ammunition, and alcohol to Pacific Islanders. Five years later, at the Brussels ­Anti-Slavery Conference, European colonial powers banned the expansion of alcohol to “dry” regions of their possessions in tropical ­Africa. In the early ­twentieth century, colonial governors of French Côte d’Ivoire and German Cameroon restricted the liquor trade in their territories. The ­Treaty of Saint-­Germain, formally ending World War I between Austria and the Western Allies, reaffirmed prohibition in tropical Africa. Such treatment of native peoples continued well into the twentieth century. Whereas national prohibition ended in the United States in 1933, it remained illegal to sell alcohol to Native Americans on tribal lands down to 1953. Some Australian states maintained prohibition for aboriginal Australians down to the 1970s. In Canada, not only the sale but even the possession of alcohol was banned to native peoples as late as 1985.

Schrad is certainly correct in showing that such policies usually fell short of their goals. Efforts to keep native territories dry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely failed. But Schrad chalks this up to evil intent rather than weak state capacity. ­Historian William Unrau argues at length that, at least in North America, the liquor trade with native tribes was not a conscious tactic of exploitation so much as the inevitable result of cultural contact across an enormous power gradient between peoples with radically different social practices regardin­g alcohol. All evidence indicates that most Western governments sincerely sought native prohibition, if only for their own interests. Schrad’s charges of “alco-imperialism” thus echo Zinn than a careful and ­measured ­historian.

Schrad sets up his materialist account of prohibition as a radical alternative to the conventional culturalist account. He does so, of course, in order to rehabilitate prohibitionists in the eyes of the left. By showing how Carrie Nation “built an intergenerational, self-reliant, sister-based commune that was ages ahead of its time,” how Pussyfoot Johnson praised ­India for practicing “total abstinence when my ancestors were living in caves and wearing the skins of animals,” and how Ida B. Wells was not only an anti-lynching activist but a temperance activist as well, Schrad seeks to banish prohibitionists’ “­Bible-thumping” image forever.

But the culturalist and the political economy approaches are not the opposites Schrad makes them out to be. Gusfield’s influential 1963 book on prohibition, Symbolic Crusade, marginalizes political economy categories like class and economic interest in favor of a cultural analysis emphasizing status groups and symbolic conflict. His culture war account emphasizes the status goal of middle-class domination over the urban poor and, ultimately, the former’s use of state coercion through alcohol prohibition to do so. Yet it says nothing about the degree to which drunkenness was an actual social problem in ­nineteenth- and early-­twentieth-century America, nor about the material preconditions for the temperance movement. Notably, both Gusfield and Schrad ignore the dramatic growth of urban populations’ access to potable water over this period. It was only after clean, accessible, and abundant water was available that the prohibition not only of spirits but especially of beer and wine became conceivable, let alone politically possible.

Moreover, a political economy approach to prohibition needs a cultural history. Despite claiming to offer a work of comparative politics, Schrad has no rigorous comparative methodology and thus no way to explain why prohibition conquered certain times and places but not others. For example, why did all the English-speaking ­provinces of Canada embrace prohibition, while Quebec did not? Why did teetotalism become so popular in the American South, a region in which progressive political forces were so notably weak? Why did the working class revolt against prohibition in England? Why did the prohibition gradient in Europe run from north to south, with Scotland and Scandinavia hotbeds of alcohol restriction, Germany and France mixed, and temperance essentially nonexistent in Spain and Italy?

Oddly enough, despite his distaste for cultural arguments, Schrad advances a culturalist explanation of why a culture war framing of prohibition became conventional wisdom: What had been regarded as debatable attempts at community protection prior to 1920 turned into fundamentalist-nativist moralizing after 1945 because “our understandings of liberty” had changed. This is true—but not in the way he means it. Schrad does not invoke Americans’ negative experiences of national prohibition itself, changing norms around alcohol in the 1950s, or the class sensibilities of liberal post-war elites keen to kick their cultural conservative opponents when they were down, all of which contributed to a changing understanding of liberty. He instead blames libertarian enthusiasm for “economic rights” and even “neoliberalism” for our determination to defend the right to drink. This is embarrassingly anachronistic. Hofstadter and ­Gusfield were standard academic liberals writing during the heyday of Keynesianism. To accuse either of an affinity with Milton ­Friedman or Ronald ­Reagan is nonsensical. To accuse more contemporary scholars of ­prohibition—such as James ­Morone, Lisa McGirr, or Ian ­Tyrrell—of right-wing sympathies is equally absurd.

Schrad makes this charge, however, because he is keen to save progressivism in the eyes of the reader. Our understandings of liberty have indeed changed since the 1920s, but the change is only partly ­manifested in the spirit of ­laissez-faire. The advance of individual rights appears also in deep cultural changes regarding the body. The consumption of alcohol is only part of this transformation of values. The mainstreaming of marijuana and cannabinoid use over the past decade also points to it. Radical changes in American norms and practices regarding sex—nonmarital intercourse, contraception use, divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, gender identity, ­pornography—are the most ­obvious. Any cultural reaction against temperance, teetotalism, and prohibition is thus bound up with a larger embrace of “tolerance,” “diversity,” and moral libertarianism.

If prohibition was a progressive or left-wing political project at all, it embodied a definition of the left that has expired in the United States. The left’s abandonment of communal definitions of liberty and its narrowing of the common good to government social programs and taxes on billionaires is lamentable, but it leaves a large political opening for conservatives. This is especially true for conservatives who are open to a postliberal politics of class solidarity, the promotion of the family, gender sanity, nationalism, and a judicious exercise of state power.

The right can also learn a valuable political lesson from left prohibitionists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In an October 2021 column, journalist Abigail Shrier raged against the largely impotent “chucklehead” conservative political response to transgenderism. While conservatives fight to keep troubled children out of school bathrooms, liberals ride from transgender victory to victory. In short, rather than attack the drinker, Shrier advises conservatives to go after the man who sells: reckless doctors and gender clinics, social media, Silicon Valley, prison administrators, gender ideology, and public schools who hide from parents the most important facts about their children. Left prohibitionists did not cause prohibition, but they certainly contributed to its realization across a huge swath of the world. And despite prohibition’s repeal, there is ample evidence that the strong regulation of alcohol continued for decades and contributed to a significant reduction in consumption, to the benefit of families, society, and the economy. True freedom is not freedom from government, but freedom from all that enslaves the body and spirit. As Schrad quotes Frederick ­Douglass on the passage of New York’s ­prohibition law in 1855, “moral and legal ­suasion ­united, by these we ­conquer!”

Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College.

Image by Orange County Archives via Creative Commons. Image cropped.