Prohibition: The Era of Excess

Prohibition: The Era of Excess

Prohibition: The Era of Excess

Prohibition: The Era of Excess

Excerpt

A good historian, set loose on a good subject, will trace out the pattern not only of his subject itself but also of the whole social fabric into which it is woven. It is so here with Andrew Sinclair. His foreground is the American experiment with prohibition -- one of the most instructive episodes in our history -- and he has given us not only the best account of this experiment but also one of the most illuminating commentaries on our society, for he deals with the ramifications of the alcohol problem on our politics and religion, our law and medicine, our city and country life, our guilts and fears, our manners and morals.

"The Era of Excess" is the characterization Mr. Sinclair gives to the unhappy episode with which he deals; and he has realized brilliantly the implications of the central term, "excess." He sees the incredibly naïve effort to fix a ban on drinking into the Constitution itself as a final assertion of the rural Protestant mind against the urban and polyglot culture that had emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This assertion, though it flew in the face of history and human nature, was temporarily successful because it was carried out by the drys with major organizing gifts and incredible zeal and because it was linked with a passion for reform that swept the country in the years before World War I.

Like others who have written on prohibition, Mr. Sinclair sees in it a kind of Protestant revival which led to a crusade against the saloon. But he sees also, as many have failed to see, that this crusade became a war of extermination partly because the churches and the saloons were rivals in the same business -- the business of consolation. The cause of prohibition was pressed forward with the unbridled ruthlessness of those who are absolutely sure that their cause is just and that it can be carried to the point of total victory. The prohibitionists did not mean to limit or control the evils of alcohol: they meant to stamp them out altogether. Reformers who begin with the determination to stamp out sin usually end by stamping out sinners, and Mr. Sinclair is sensitive to the ironies, sometimes amusing but sometimes terrible, to which this effort at total reform could lead. Before prohibition became law, the prohibitionists decried alcohol as a form of deadly poison.

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