The Points Interview: Michael Lewis

Editor’s Note: Today’s interview is with Dr. Michael Lewis, author of the new book, The Coming of Southern Prohibition (out now from LSU Press). He is an assistant professor of sociology at Christopher Newport University. Contact Dr. Lewis at mlewis@cnu.edu. 

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Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The Coming of Southern Prohibition is a story about profit from liquor sales- who gets it and how the government sometimes uses morality and fear to make rules to ensure they get more of it. In 1892 South Carolina’s Governor Benjamin Tillman did just that, creating a statewide system of liquor stores that kept all the liquor profits for the state and county government. The subsequent decisions that South Carolina counties made about how many liquor stores they should permit and where these ought to be located were influenced as much by the chances of increasing profit than they were by preventing
alcohol sales to the “riff-raff” of society.

The book describes this overall story, but then focuses in on one case- the town of North Augusta South Carolina which sits right across the state line from the much larger city of Augusta Georgia. When Georgia declared statewide prohibition in 1907, the folks in Aiken County (where North Augusta is located) opened a liquor store at the foot of the bridge connecting Augusta with North Augusta and proceeded to do over 4 million dollars (2016 dollars) a year in liquor sales- more than any other liquor store in the entire state of South Carolina.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Especially when alcohol historians examine the American South, there is this strong temptation to frame anti-liquor crusades in racial or religious terms. But reading the historical record that I uncovered makes the whole question of alcohol control seem quite a bit more pragmatic. Yes, Southerners were concerned about race and yes, religion informed their understandings of the potentially negative effects of alcohol use. But many citizens were easily able to put these fears aside if it seemed possible that liquor sales could materially help their community build better roads, hire better teachers for their schools, and most importantly, do these things without having to raise their taxes.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

For me this is a story about borders as much as it about alcohol. What made North Augusta’s dispensary so successful was its location on the border of a much larger city that had been forced to adopt prohibition. When I tell people about my book, most everyone nods their heads and follows with a story about how they have traveled across state lines to get otherwise illegal alcohol, or in some cases cheaper alcohol. I’ve come to think of these border crossings as the second-most common story Americans tell about liquor- the first being some piece of family lore that details an ancestor who produced or sold illegal liquor

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

As part of the South Carolina Dispensary system, Governor Tillman created a constabulary force charged only with the task of enforcing the state’s monopoly. I came across a number of mentions of this in the archives, but had little time to investigate it further. I’d be curious to know more about who served as constables and more importantly how they were received by the population at large (my hunch is they were none too popular).

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

As it happens, my wife is vision-impaired and therefore gets a good bit of her reading done through audio books.  In deference to an actual reader, I asked her who she would like to provide the narration for my book. She of course hemmed and hawed and said all the right things about “the author’s voice being the only voice she really wanted to hear” but as I pushed a little further it became clear that her vote would be George Clooney. As she is the “expert” in our house on audio books, I will defer.

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