In 1758, young George Washington decided to seek a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He had been stymied in an earlier bid, he believed, by one crucial error: he had not “treated” the voters properly—which is to say, he had not provided them with sufficient alcoholic refreshment. This time, determined to correct his ways, he purchased some 144 gallons of wine, rum, hard cider, punch and beer for distribution to supporters. At more than two votes per gallon, Washington’s effort proved successful, launching a rather distinguished career in American politics.
More than a century and a half later, after the American temperance movement had finally won its fight to prohibit alcohol, a considerable percentage of the nation’s populace remained staunchly faithful to the founders’ tradition, using their ingenuity to acquire any and all available alcohol. They drank hair tonic, flavoring extracts and patent medicine. They patronized speak-easies and bootleggers, helping to boost a nationwide industry of organized crime. They stole liquor from government warehouses. They posed as priests and rabbis to acquire sacramental wine.
It was late at night, in the middle of a hard-fought union campaign, when a friend confessed that he wondered if he had “made the right choice.” He had just quit graduate school to become a labor organizer and was having second thoughts about his decision. I asked him if he was worried about the long hours, the political frustrations or the frequent travel.
“No,” he said bluntly. “I’m worried that there won’t be a labor movement in 30 years.”
On a warm July night in 1919, a gang of whites dragged a black man off a streetcar in Washington, DC, and beat him in full view of the evening crowd. Ossian Sweet, then a medical student at Howard University, happened to be walking by. He watched in horror as the beating continued: “the sickening sound of fists and boots slamming against bone, the victim curling his body into the fetal position to avoid the blows, the stream of blood filling the cracks in the cement,” as Kevin Boyle imagines the scene in his wonderful new book on the unrelated court case that would soon make Sweet a political martyr (p. 97).