December 5th marks the 82nd anniversary of the nationwide repeal of prohibition – Utah was the 36th state to ratify the 21st amendment, achieving the requisite three-fourths majority of states’ approval, and effecting the repeal the the 18th amendment which had prohibited the sale of recreational alcohol in America.
Proponents of the so-called “Noble Experiment” had touted the National Prohibition Act of 1919 (commonly called the Volstead Act) as a panacea for many social and economic woes. In the early 20th century, women had limited rights to divorce, retain child custody, or even control their own wages. Men would often disappear into saloons on payday, coming home broke and violent. Temperance groups capitalized on the assumption that a woman’s role was to preserve family well-being, and were a huge player in the push to criminalize alcohol production and consumption.
Another major pro-prohibition force were religious organizations. Like many extremist groups of today, they threw facts and common sense to the wayside in their crusade to eliminate the “demon rum”. In 1920, evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for alcoholic beverages, proclaiming “The rein of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs.”
Temperance activists hired a scholar to rewrite the bible, removing all references to alcoholic beverages. There was also a move to censor references to “poisonous” alcohol in school textbooks, never mind the fact that alcohol was commonly prescribed by physicians of the day for medicinal purposes.
An 1848 Currier & Ives print of George Washington bidding farewell to his officers was even re-engraved to delete the toasting glass in his hand and the liquor on the table was replaced by his hat.
A temperance publication wrote of drinking parents who gave birth to small children with a “yen for alcohol so strong that the mere sight of a bottle shaped like a whiskey flask brought them whining for a nip.”
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union suggested that school teachers put half of a calf’s brain in an empty jar into which alcohol should be poured. As the color of the brain turned from pink to gray, pupils were to be warned that a drink of alcohol would do the same to their brains.
<Check out more facepalm-worthy fun facts here>
Prohibition also cause myriad problems for the nation’s legal systems. Far from curbing alcohol consumption, prohibition turned millions of recreational imbibers into criminals and turned criminals into national threats. Politicians and law enforcement personnel were also not immune from the opportunities to enhance their incomes while enjoying bootleg hooch. The mayor of New York City even sent instructions on winemaking to all of his constituents.
In Los Angeles, a jury that had heard a bootlegging case was itself put on trial after it drank the evidence. The jurors argued in their defense that they had simply been sampling the evidence to determine whether or not it contained alcohol, which they determined it did. However, because they consumed the evidence, the defendant charged with bootlegging had to be acquitted.
Large-scale bootleggers like Al Capone of Chicago built criminal empires out of illegal distribution efforts (making 60 million per year while the average industrial worker made $1000), and federal and state governments lost billions in tax revenue.
By 1925, the obvious failure of prohibition to make a positive impact on America prompted journalist H.L. Mencken to write:
“Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”
Abstainer and temperance supporter John D. Rockafeller, jr. also expressed disappointment with the results of the ‘noble experiment’, in a letter to The New York Times:
“When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped- with a host of advocates of temperance-that it would be generally supported by public opinion and thus the day be hastened when the value to society of men with minds and bodies free from the undermining effects of alcohol would be generally realized. That this has not been the result, but rather that drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree-I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.”
By the election year of 1932, the Democratic Party platform included an anti-Prohibition plank and Franklin Roosevelt ran for the presidency promising to repeal National Prohibition. On February 20, 1933, Congress enabled states to ratify the 21st Amendment if they chose, and most did, leaving North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and
South Dakota as dry states for years to come.
There is a lot more to read about the Prohibition Era at the links below, plus some entertaining cartoons and illustrations –
Ken Burns/PBS Prohibition series
Temperance & Prohibition @ Ohio State University