One hundred years ago last month the necessary number of states ratified the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. The Amendment went into effect the following year. Thus, next January, my fellow dry Southern Baptists may raise a toast to the time when our great republic gave a black eye to demon rum and the evil alcoholic beverage industry.
Or, maybe not. I recall Prohibition being taught in history classes as a failed experiment. That it failed is manifestly true since the country, after a dozen years of it, quickly and decisively repealed the 18th amendment with the 21st amendment in 1933. My parents were born during the years of prohibition and by the time they were older, it had been repealed. My grandparents were young parents, 30s, and lived through it all but I don’t recall a single conversation or comment on the subject.
Prohibition: A Concise History, W. J. Rorabaugh is a brief but fascinating look at the subject. The author, a history professor, covers the subject in a little over one hundred pages. There is a PBS series on Prohibition by Ken Burns that is quite good.
Here are some things I thought interesting about the subject:
- Americans liked their hard liquor “spirits” in the 19th century and consumed it at per capita rates more than double current consumption. But then, beer was not readily available and wine seldom encountered.
- Such was the distaste for the effects of hard drinking, almost all men and much of it in saloons, that many localities and some states passed prohibition laws. Maine was the first in 1850 but it didn’t last long.
- New England, not the South, was the hotbed of anti-alcohol sentiment, mainly because of the strength and fervor of churches there.
- Saloons were squalid, all-male drinking establishments. Temperance female warriors would dress up, go to a targeted saloon, kneel to pray and not leave until the establishment closed its doors. Speakeasies, the term for illegal clubs where alcohol was served, were very popular with women.
- Prohibition in 1920 was to some degree an anti-immigrant measure, since immigrants from Ireland and Germany were much more accustomed to a drinking culture than Americans at the time. (And your favorite beer, what’s the brand? Budweiser? Uh huh, German. Adolphus Busch, charismatic German-born brewer, was a leader of the “wet” lobby.)
- Most often mentioned as stalwart proponents of prohibition were Methodists, moreso than Baptists. That table has flipped and I had a deacon once explain the difference between us Baptists and our Methodist friends down the road: “Well, unlike us, they believe you can drink a little.”
- Some dispute the point usually made that prohibition increased crime rates. I don’t think it is disputable that it generated the types of revenue possibilities that gave rise to organized crime like Al Capone (and, my grandfather was in the same prison in Atlanta that Capone was in although grandaddy was the prison pharmacist rather than a prisoner. He quit after a short stint because he didn’t like being cooped up.)
- Al Capone we know. “The real McCoy” we’ve heard of (named for Captain Bill McCoy a runrunner of integrity who would not dilute his product; hence, “The real McCoy). Billy Sunday the reformed former hard-drinking baseball player turned evangelist we are familiar with. But, Wayne Wheeler, not so much. Wheeler was a brilliant Washington lobbyist for the Anti-Saloon League. His support or opposition was such that elected officials feared him, lest they be defeated. Before he died suddenly in 1927 he may have been the most powerful man in American.
- Enforcement of prohibition was uneven, corrupt, and ineffective. Rich people could drink with impunity. The Yale Club in New York City laid in a huge supply of alcohol. It lasted for over a decade.
- Bootleggers…NASCAR…southerners already know that story.
- Some religious traditions used wine for communion and other religious rites; hence, a special provision for them. Naturally, this corrupted many. Ironic that when my wife wanted rum for a rum cake, I’d enlist a deacon to go get it. Back then, they might have come to me for alcohol.
- Farmers in Carroll County, Iowa came to be big gin distillers. Lots of corn and their priest said it wasn’t a sin.
- Alcohol has always been a big contributor to the tax coffers. Cut that revenue stream out and it has to be replaced by other sources, like income tax.
- Rorabaugh concludes that the most important legacy of prohibition was that it caused a dramatic change in drinking habits. “Per capita consumption of alcohol was reduced for a very long time.”
- The alcohol industry, recognizing that they were vulnerable politically, began to recognize problems and fund research. Early research on alcoholism was funded by the industry, not the government.
- Alcoholic Anonymous was founded a few years after the repeal of prohibition. “AA rejected the prohibtion model to place responsibility for drinking on the individual drinker…”
One thing seems certain, in my state there is no appetite for any move back towards prohibition. A local option to allow Sunday alcohol sales in Georgia passed almost everywhere in the state despite Georgia Baptists’ strident opposition.
Change the heart and you change the individual. Change the law and the state may impact behavior or the law may be so ill-conceived that it makes lawbreakers of most of the citizenry. I’ll vote not to drink, personally. Depends on the circumstances whether or not I’ll vote for you not to drink.
And maybe Dave Miller has a vintage bottle of that Carroll County, Iowa gin. Bring it to Birmingham, bro.
Photo of Carrie Nation and her hatchet. She would only target illegal drinking establishments but after she had achieved success and notoriety she would do reenactments on Broadway for the paying public.