Thomas R. Pegram. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1998. xv + 207 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56663-208-9.
Reviewed by Leonard Moore (McGill University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (May, 1999)
Thomas R. Pegram's Battling Demon Rum is an incisive, well-written overview of temperance and prohibition politics from the early nineteenth century to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933. It covers much the same ground as Jack S. Blocker's American Temperance Movements, but from a slightly different perspective and with the advantage of drawing on literature appearing since the publication of Blocker's book ten years ago. It makes excellent use of that literature, folding it into a lively, synthetic narrative that represents the best single starting place for students interested in the history of America's long battle against alcohol.
Pegram's story of the dry crusade focuses on the political institutions that channeled private concerns and efforts at moral suasion into public campaigns to regulate and eliminate alcohol. The politics of temperance and prohibition, Pegram argues, reflected fundamental social conflicts and conditions in industrial America, key moments of change in the nation's political system, and the central political challenge of balancing personal liberty and diversity on the one hand with the power of the state to enforce democratically constituted laws on the other. At the center of these events, he contends, is the issue of political party involvement in prohibition politics. At times, temperance and prohibition advocates would make use of the party system. But at other times, grassroots political dynamics and innovative local leadership would power the anti-liquor crusade in new, highly successful directions, while party leaders stood on the sidelines afraid to allow the volatile alcohol issue to disrupt party loyalties.
This was especially apparent in the Anti-Saloon League era. The League transcended the party system and compiled so many local victories that it was eventually able to push through the Eighteenth Amendment without strong backing within the party system. Pegram contends that this lack of committed support by the parties, not only in regard to national prohibition but throughout the history of the temperance and prohibition movements, explained why the dry crusade ultimately failed. Grassroots pressures and innovative single-issue politics could push through state and even national prohibition legislation, but prohibition itself could only be enforced by a determined government. In the end, the parties had never been enthusiastic about prohibition and were therefore unwilling to make the extraordinary public investment that would be required truly to enforce anti-liquor laws.
Pegram's emphasis on political institutions is more than justified. Throughout the more than one hundred year campaign against alcohol, even seemingly limited efforts at moral suasion were always rife with political implications and in nearly every instance a prelude to direct public action, whether it involved angry women taking to the streets, activists attempting to pass a local option law, or lobbyists leveraging congressmen to amend the Constitution. By emphasizing political institutions, Pegram successfully weaves together familiar material with a wide range of more recent works on such diverse topics as religion and antebellum reform, ethnicity and cultural conflict during the Civil War era, gender and public activism, race and southern progressivism, social change in Midwestern immigrant communities, the culture of the urban working class saloon, the Ku Klux Klan and prohibition enforcement, legal and constitutional questions surrounding prohibition, and the dynamics of the repeal campaign. Ultimately, each of these, as well as many other forces, made it clear that conflicts over alcohol did indeed play a central role within American political institutions.
Despite this book's many strengths, however, it seems legitimate to wonder if Pegram takes his thesis about prohibition and the party system a bit too far. Why did prohibition fail? Was it really because party leaders never fully embraced the cause? It seems unlikely that any amount of increased commitment to enforcement could have dried up the underground market or halted the pluralistic forces that were steadily eroding the power of a white Protestant cultural nationalism that had always been at the base of the anti-liquor crusade.
Many of the problems of prohibition enforcement are brought to life in John E. Hallwas's The Bootlegger, an engaging account of the prohibition era in the small Illinois town of Colchester. The book revolves around the colorful life and violent death of Kelly Wagle, a smalltime liquor operator and gambler so beloved that his funeral in 1929 became one of the largest and more memorable events in the town's history. As Hallwas pieces together the details of Wagle's life, it is easy to see why "the bootlegger" was such a popular local figure. He was a swaggering, brawling entrepreneur who supplied the town with liquor, ran a gambling hall, and toured through the area in a constantly changing fleet of expensive automobiles. But he also doled out money to individuals who needed help, purchased uniforms and equipment for the high school football team, and acquired the services of Shoeless Joe Jackson and other former members of the Chicago White Sox (banned from the big leagues after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919) to give Colchester's team something of an edge in a grudge match against a nearby town.
He survived a pattern of dangerous living, scrapes with the law, and the wrath of a reform-minded, law enforcement mayor and her supporters in the Ku Klux Klan. He was able to do so, Hallwas argues, primarily because he was seen as a local boy who made good through his own grit, because most people did not believe that supplying liquor for a thirsty town was really a crime, and because the flamboyant bootlegger helped provide a sense of communal identity at a time when the town was in a clear state of economic decline. That is why so many mourned and why he became something of a local folk hero after he was murdered, most likely by a rival bootlegger.
Hallwas' account is well written and in many sections highly entertaining. It demonstrates how, in at least one community, prohibition simply could not be enforced. It is particularly worthwhile to note that the community in question is a small town in rural Illinois, not an immigrant neighborhood in an industrial city. Two things, however, might have added to the book's success. First, and most important, this book should have included footnotes and an index. Hallwas bases much of his account on the many interviews that he conducted. He doesn't clarify the nature of those interviews, and one is left wondering how many of them could possibly have been with subjects giving firsthand accounts of events that took place seventy to eighty years ago. As it is, the reader is left wondering at too many turns how much of the narrative is based on substantial evidence and how much consists of folk stories and small town legends. The second point is that given the importance of community in this study, Hallwas might have given a bit more consideration to the ways in which Colchester was different from more typical small towns of the Midwest. As a community that lived and died with its coal mines, it may not have been as representative of "smalltown America" as the author asserts.
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Leonard Moore. Review of Hallwas, John E., The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America and
Pegram, Thomas R., Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933.
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