Vice Squad
Sunday, March 07, 2004
Clarence Darrow on Prohibition (I)

I just finished reading Clarence Darrow's autobiography, The Story of My Life
(New York: Scribner's, 1960 [1932]), which I enjoyed way beyond my expectations.
Some of the special payoff comes from the local color, in that I live in
Darrow's old neighborhood. But the vice-specific material in the autobiography
also provided a lift. Darrow took the John Stuart Mill approach to self-regarding
actions, it seems. He was a fervent opponent of alcohol Prohibition, and even
co-authored a book (which I have not read) attacking national Prohibition. But
he has plenty to say about Prohibition in his autobiography, too. The Story of
My Life
was originally published in 1932, while Prohibition still ruled the

Darrow highlights the contradiction between the gluttony that he attributes to
many temperance reformers and their stern warnings about touching even a drop
of alcohol, even though "There were always more graves filled from overeating
than from over-drinking..." [This is recognized, incidentally, in the modern
day US, where obesity leads to more early deaths than alcohol.] Picking up
again, from page 287 (of the 1960 Scribner's edition, not the more recent edition
linked above)...

"Puritanism has always associated pleasure with sin. To the real Puritan, life
is a grim, depressing duty; this earth is nothing but a preparatory school
for entering heaven. And to be happy in heaven, one must be unhappy here.
So the old revivalist and temperance reformer had no difficulty in holding
up the drunkard as a horrible example: Just see how happy and carefree and
unmeddlesome he was; always so satisfied with his lot in life and willing
that every one else should do as he liked; naturally there was something
wrong with such a method of living. The glutton dragged himself to the
meeting and shouted "Amen!" in the right places, a friend to heartburn but
not to hiccough....

Devouring all the food that one could hold was praiseworthy. But drinking
liquor, even one mouthful, was damnable....

It was on this popular foundation that prohibitionists organized their
forces and waged the campaign to destroy the liberties of American
citizens. It was on this foundation that they foisted upon the United
States a reign of terror, intimidation, violence, and bigotry unprecedented
in the modern world."

Times certainly have changed: we can no longer claim that our current
prohibition is unprecedented.

[If you think that the title of this post threatens more later on Darrow
and Prohibition, uh, well, that might be the case.]

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