Law enforcement officials during Prohibition pour it out.
It seemed like a good idea at the time” “There is only only one thing in life worse than not getting what you want and that is getting it.” These clichés apply well to that fascinating, and somewhat romantic period in US history called “Prohibition.” which was, in short, a constitutional amendment, the 18th, passed in 1919 that made illegal the manufacture, sale and distribution of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. Now it seems foolish, hopelessly undoable, an exercise in utter futility. But at the time it seemed a good idea, the culmination of many years of “temperance” agitation, the fulfillment of a dream of many millions of Americans, mostly Protestant, who looked with dismay at the saloon culture and drunken behavior of so many of their fellow Americans. They saw families torn asunder and lives wrecked by “demon rum” and were determined to do something about it. Just make alcohol illegal, most drinkers will give it up, and the country will be a better place for it. That was the plan.
In the years preceding Prohibition, it is interesting to contrast the different views toward the use of alcoholic beverages of 18th and 19th century Americans. In the 18th century life was tough, so it was believed, and our founding fathers felt that adults, particularly free men, deserved their drink. In the great mercantile triangle of the colonial years, sugar cane came to the Eastern colonies from the West Indies to be converted into rum which was sold to the Indians for furs which were then shipped to England whose merchant marine supplied the slave ships that brought Africans to the West Indies. Soldiers and sailors on both sides in the Revolution received, when available, a rum ration. After the war, the first real crisis of the Washington administration was the “Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against the national taxation of spirits. Imagine that. Later, on the Western frontier, it was discovered that corn could be converted to whiskey and whiskey was where the real money was made. Soon the great rivers of the interior were plied by flatboats and barges loaded with barrels full of whiskey headed to New Orleans and other key river towns. American Indians encountered along the way were good customers as well. Strong drink was, for all practical purposes, the currency of the age and it was traded like specie. And on and on it went. Strong drink was considered a right and alcohol intake in moderation a positive good. The people of Washington’s time, with few exceptions, couldn’t have imagined life without good drinks and good times at the local tavern.
All this began to change in the early 19th century with the rise of the temperance movement, much of which was fueled by nativist Protestant reaction to the steady flow of Irish Catholic immigrants. It was a distinctly Protestant effort coinciding as well with the rise of the Methodist and Baptist churches. And, it must be admitted, the movement was a response to a real social problem. The United States had become, to a large extent, a nation of wife-beating, “deadbeat dad” drunkards, not exactly the image we may have of our hardworking, industrious, virtuous ancestors, an image largely absent from most history textbooks. Historian Richard Shenkman in his engaging little myth-exploding volume, I LOVE PAUL REVERE WHETHER HE RODE OR NOT wonders “why so little is made of our alcoholic past. Slavery is more embarrassing than alcohol and we’ve had no trouble admitting Americans owned slaves. Most likely our alcoholic past goes unacknowledged because it remains at variance with the image we have of ourselves in the Age of the Pioneer(p.117).” It seems then that Americans in the days of Davy Crockett began to like their strong drink just a little too much and so the Temperance societies formed and agitated and didn’t go away until they finally, years later, got what they wanted: the 18th amendment.
Many states had already made strong drink illegal. But for the temperance people this was not enough. They wanted a national policy, a constitutional amendment, everyone on the same page throughout the United States. And they wouldn’t rest until this was accomplished.
And so it was. In the early 20th century the temperance crusaders got what they wanted because they won the argument. In the Constitution our founding fathers made sure that it took much more than a simple majority to accomplish a constitutional amendment; it takes universal and overwhelming support. To claim that Prohibition was a thing imposed upon the American people by a bunch of religious fundamentalist zealots, as many over the years have done, is a not only a gross oversimplification, but just plain wrong. Even most social progressives, liberals of their day, as most abolitionists had done years before, supported it. Virtually everyone, from the political far left to the Klan on the far right, supported Prohibition. To oppose it was considered downright unpatriotic.
One of the most colorful temperance figures of the era was evangelist Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned preacher who filled auditoriums across the country again and again with enthusiastic crowds with his highly theatrical style running back and forth across the stage screaming against demon rum, breaking up chairs and furniture, railing against sin, mostly drunkenness and, of course, agitating for prohibition. His most famous sermon, preached time and again, was titled simply “Booze.” And he left his fans with no doubt as to how he felt on the subject. Another was activist Carrie Nations, who led battalions of axe-wielding women, many of whom had been victims of domestic abuse, into saloons giving those places a dose of “hachetation”-all done to the utter delight of journalists and temperance supporters. And so it came to pass that after years of all this, they got what they wanted: Prohibition.
Everyone saw it coming. Managers of country clubs did what they could to prepare. They hoarded wine and spirits while the getting was good and during the whole thing, up until repeal in 1933, never missed a beat. They were clever. Since it was illegal to “sell” alcohol, country clubs simply raised membership fees and distributed free drinks as a “benefit” of membership. Interestingly enough, it was not illegal to consume alcohol or to give it away. I say they never missed a beat. This is not entirely true. Beer drinkers suffered, since beer needs to be fresh and cannot be stored successfully for very long. Country or yacht club members had to make do with the stronger stuff if they wanted to stay within the letter of the law. Of course they probably found ways of sneaking some beer onto those yachts from time to time.
But most Americans did not belong to country clubs or similar organizations. And those who had to have a drink, and all those who wanted a good fresh mug of beer, were forced to look elsewhere. Where there is demand, there will be supply. And in short order. And so the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, an enormous industry once legally employing hundreds of thousands passed into the hands of lawbreakers and the criminal element. And the various myths and romance of Prohibition, the “rum runners” the “speak-easys” and the gangsters were born.
There were overnight millionaires: the“Jay Gatsbys” and Al Capone and, sorry but I have to say it, Joseph Kennedy, father of a future president. And it seemed that the Feds, despite the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and men like Eliot Ness, were able to do little about it. There just weren’t enough of them. Soon the economies of major cities like Chicago were controlled by organized crime. Graft, bribery, and corruption was rampant. Local judges were paid off, paid to either look the other way or to simply give the “rum-runners” a slap on the wrist when hauled into court. For many it seemed that chaos had overtaken the nation and, later, in the midst of the depression, it seemed that the only ones with money were lawbreakers in the whiskey trade. Furthermore, it did not escape the attention of government officials both at the state and federal level that an important source of government revenue had been lost with the passage of the 18th amendment. Instead, all that money was now going to the criminal element. Apparently, they hadn’t considered that beforehand. Sounds a little like the drug situation today, doesn’t it?
Myths about prohibition abound. The 18th amendment specifically outlawed “intoxicating liquors” which still allowed for the sale of low alcohol beers and some wines. It was, interestingly enough, the accompanying “Volstead Act” that outlawed even that mild stuff, not the 18th amendment itself. When repeal finally came in 1933, the Federal government simply threw the issue back to the states and let them decide, and importantly, fund and carry out enforcement. Many states were happy to carry on with Prohibition. The state of Mississippi did so until 1966! But, the Federal government, preoccupied with the depression, got out of enforcing “liquor laws” deciding it had more important things to do.
Another persistent myth, already mentioned in the first paragraph, is the notion that Prohibition was forced upon the American people by Puritanical religious zealots and rural hayseeds. On the contrary, it is astonishing now to discover that many social progressives such as Eleanor Roosevelt, were fervently “dry” and supported Prohibition as a means of saving the American family. Other “dry” figures were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. FDR was mostly silent on the issue, he liked his daily “highballs” a bit too much! When the vote was tallied in 1918, only three states had rejected the amendment. It passed in the other states by huge majorities. In short, the USA embraced the measure initially with an unprecedented enthusiasm.
Perhaps the greatest myth concerning Prohibition was that it was a colossal failure and that repeal was an acknowledgment of that “fact.” Maybe it depends on how one defines failure. If the stated goal of Prohibition was to cut down on the consumption of alcohol in the US, and to a large extent it was, it succeeded. Between 1919 and 1933, per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages declined dramatically and for good reasons. Most Americans, it seems, did not want their drink bad enough to pay the high prices the criminal element demanded during those years. But, of course, many did. And many “rum runners, “ became very wealthy. But this was not so much because people were drinking more but simply because they paid so much more than previously for the illicit product. To the whiskey dealers during Prohibition it was far better to make a hundred dollars from the sale of twenty bottles of illegal wine than the same amount from the sale of a hundred bottles of legal wine. During Prohibition a mug of beer or a glass of wine became too expensive for the average guy to consume on a regular or daily basis. Furthermore, the average guy didn’t like dealing with the criminal element, something that keeps a lot of people away from marijuana use nowadays. The average guy then as now, has a healthy respect for the law of the land. And it is this universal respect for the law that makes for a stable society.
Despite the good behavior of most citizens, things only got worse and eventually it was just too much for the Feds. Repeal in 1933 occurred because the cost of enforcement was simply too high. The federal government was not the behemoth that it is now. And enforcement now would be about as effective as the enforcement of our current drug laws. Or immigration laws. We might compare the efforts of the “Untouchables” and “G-men” then to that of agents on the Mexican border now: there just aren’t enough of them to get the job done. This exercise in futility will probably continue because nowadays the Federal government seems reluctant to grant any meaningful enforcement role to the states on illegal immigration. But this was not the case in 1933, when Washington DC was happy to finally wash its hands of the Prohibition business and turn alcohol issues back over to the states as before. They could chase the rum runners and distillers themselves if that was what they wanted. It had become painfully clear during Prohibition that many state governments, even many of those who had voted unanimously for the 18th amendment, either refused to help with enforcement or offered only token support. They turned out to be all talk and no do making Prohibition, in all honesty, a mission impossible.
Should we now consider Prohibition an embarrassment? No, it was simply a mistake. To err is human. We should look on the bright side and remember that this is the ONLY time in US history that a constitutional amendment has been repealed, only once in over 235 years. Not bad. This demonstrates a stability that few nations can boast of.
How many times have nations enthusiastically embarked upon some “noble experiment” or great cause only to abandon it after discovering certain hard unanticipated developments, the unintended consequences, that the cost was simply too high? Too many times to count. Consider the Vietnam war in a similar light. With it, the US wanted to contain the spread of communism in SE Asia, a noble goal for sure. But, after a few years of trying to do so, the US decided that it wasn’t worth it, that the cost was simply too high and, like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, finally abandoned the effort.
Did preacher Billy Sunday, the great promoter of prohibition, forget to read his Bible? Jesus said: “What man, wanting to build a house does not first consider the cost?” It seems that very few prior to the passage of prohibition, not the religious zealots or the social progressives, had really “ counted the cost” or considered the possibility of unintended consequences. And yet,… there are always unintended consequences, hidden costs, and big surprises when new policies and rules are imposed upon large groups of human beings. Always. They never considered the real possibility that many of those who supported prohibition were hypocrites and never had the slightest intention of abandoning their drinking habits. No doubt many of these “supporters”, people who gave Rev. Sunday and the other temperance crusaders lip service, were alcoholics. And the drunk is going to have his drink. The temperance crusaders forged ahead ignoring this hard fact. They wanted “demon rum” outlawed no matter what and …they got what they wanted. Moral of the story? Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it…. Plus some.
Jim Hardaway 8/8/11