Book Review: The Coming of Southern Prohibition by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis. The Coming of Southern Prohibition: The Dispensary System and the Battle Over Liquor in South Carolina, 1907-1915 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2016). pp. 328. $45.00.

The advent of nationwide Prohibition in 1920 marks a pivotal moment in U.S. history. This momentous political step was preceded by a decades-long public controversy as to how to curb the social ills associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol. Michael Lewis’ The Coming of Southern Prohibition is a case study that examines this prolonged ideological struggle between ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ forces in a localised context. Focusing on the colourful history of the North Augusta Dispensary in Aiken County, South Carolina, the book provides an in-depth look into the changing fortunes of the state’s liquor dispensary system, a government monopoly on alcohol sales that was introduced in 1892 and remained in operation until the adoption of state-wide prohibition legislation in 1915. Instituted by Governor Benjamin Tillman (1847–1918) as an alternative to full prohibition, the dispensary system was an innovative political venture seeking to combine tight control of alcohol use with financial benefits to the public purse.

By chronicling this unique piece of local history, Lewis contributes to a fuller picture of how attitudes towards temperance reform varied across regions and simultaneously sheds new light on the broader dynamics that would eventually lead to the general ban on the production, sale, and consumption of liquor. Whereas other notable publications in the field have put particular emphasis on Southern cultural mores or on local smuggling practices  – Joe L. Coker’s Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause (2007), Lee L. Willis’ Southern Prohibition (2011), or Lisa Lindquist Dorr’s A Thousand Thirsty Beaches (2018) come to mind –, Lewis brings to the fore the pragmatic considerations behind legislators’ choices. Based on meticulous research of contemporaneous press commentary and public documents, he challenges the common narrative that moral fervour was the overriding concern that drove the rise of prohibition sentiments in the South. While acknowledging the role of the region’s strong evangelical Protestantism as well as the impact of the pronounced social frictions that existed across lines of race, class, and gender, he delineates a more complex interplay between financial, geographic, social, and ethical motives behind the push to control the availability of alcoholic beverages.

With the North Augusta Dispensary, which is still remembered as one of the most influential institutions in the town’s history, Lewis chooses an apt example for illustrating the weight of such layered factors on public opinion and political decision-making. Conceived at a time when the national agitation over alcohol as a source of social evil had created a geographical patchwork made up of dry and wet counties, the dispensary was set up in late 1907 directly across the border from Georgia just months before the neighbouring state was to go dry. By virtue of this strategic location within easy reach of one of the South’s largest dry populations, Aiken county was able ‘to take advantage of their neighbours’ moral zealousness’ (x). And while the move was initially met with strong public resistance, general acceptance grew as the revenue from liquor sales began filling the county’s coffers. In fact, the North Augusta Dispensary could boast higher sales than any other liquor outlet in South Carolina. This not only provided ample funds for civic improvements such as schools, roads, parks, and electrification projects, but also allowed citizens to enjoy the lowest taxes in the entire state. However, as a growing number of counties sought to emulate this attractive example by launching their own dispensaries, the proceeds of individual establishments dwindled. Combined with a string of highly publicised corruption scandals, the drying up of the monetary flow turned public attention back to the negative aspects associated with being a dispensary location, and eventually led to the endorsement of strict prohibition laws.

By highlighting local policies, Lewis traces a societal negotiation process that unfolded beyond the religiously motivated moral crusades mounted by national organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or the Anti-Saloon League, or, for that matter, the frantic panic narratives of impending societal breakdown at the hands of alcohol-crazed African Americans and mill workers. Instead, he underscores the efforts of ‘earnest, middle-class progressives proposing a logical way to deal with the myriad social problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption’ (52-53).

To this end, Southern policy makers experimented with a variety of novel approaches that included not only dispensaries, but also legal measures such as rural prohibition, license fees on so-called social clubs, and mile laws that stipulated how far liquor establishments had to be from schools and churches. This goes to show that, in the run-up to Prohibition, as one of the most consequential turning points in national history, there was a palpable political will to carve out ideological middle ground in what is frequently described as a highly polarised, uncompromising clash between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ advocates. As such, The Coming of Southern Prohibition examines an intriguing chapter of Southern history, but at the same time presents a paradigmatic case that elucidates the conflicting impulses of idealism versus pragmatism, religion versus commerce, personal freedom versus public interest – tensions that are dominating U.S. political discourses to this day.

About Olga Thierbach-McLean

After studying North American literature, Russian literature, and musicology at the University of Hamburg and UC Berkeley, Olga Thierbach-McLean earned her doctorate in American Studies at UHH. Her main research interests are in contemporary U.S. politics and particularly the intersections between politics and literature, in American Transcendentalism, the intellectual history of liberalism, and dystopian fiction. Currently, her projects are focused on the cultural appropriation debate as an aspect of American political exceptionalism and on the reimagination of the cyberpunk genre as social criticism. Olga Thierbach-McLean is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Hamburg.
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