21 Thoughts About Prohibition and Repeal.
1. Prohibition was about as likely to ultimately succeed as a law repealing gravity. People drink, and we've been enjoying alcohol for about seven thousand years or more. Note that longevity does not equal an invulnerable cultural position, but the stuff tastes good, too, and it makes you feel wonderful.
2. This did not stop people from attempting to make Prohibition work. Donkeys.
3. But note also: we had it coming to us. Prohibition happened because booze and the people who sold it were out of hand. Saloons were often dens of iniquity, drunken men did squander their paychecks and beat their wives and children, brewers and distillers were corrupt and fed graft money into a corrupt political system. We look back on saloon society and plentiful local breweries and a wide diversity of distillers (oh...for the days of rye distillers in Maryland and Pennsylvania), and we see things through amber-colored glasses, a beautiful Golden Age of Drinking. Well...there were some pretty cool things. But there were some pretty ugly things, too: see Gangs of New York.
4. There was something to that Golden Age, though. The heart sags to think of the local breweries and distilling traditions lost because the industry couldn't police itself. We had monastic breweries here in America, we had pot-stilled whiskey, we had flourishing wineries, and we had saloons that were opulent palaces of booze. All crushed, forcing us to start over from practically nil. Woe.
5. Enforcing Prohibition was a disaster. For every Eliot Ness, for every Mo Smith and Izzy Einstein (pictured here, sharing a legal drink after Repeal), there were a hundred corrupt enforcement agents who signed up for a chance to make bribe money, get away with shooting rivals, or to get inside information on raids for their gangster bosses. Enforcement was underfunded -- often on purpose -- and at times vicious: there was support among some Drys for not labeling wood alcohol as poison, or for simply poisoning all alcohol. And it never stopped more than a minuscule amount of the huge illegal trade in alcohol.
6. If all that sounds like The War On Drugs, the DEA, and Paraquat...well, draw your own conclusions.
7. But while you're drawing those conclusions, keep in mind the obvious. What the War On Drugs is today, Prohibition was yesterday; a doomed attempt to control an easily produced substance that a significant part of the population wanted to buy and consume, an attempt that built and hugely enriched a criminal organization, while making many otherwise law-abiding citizens criminals and scofflaws. Great...
8. Oh, and it also lost the government a huge source of taxes (not that I approve of those excise taxes, but I've found my opposition to them to be quixotic at best) and turned the quality of that product to crap. Thanks.
9. Prohibition was actually immensely popular...at first. It must have been, the 18th Amendment was ratified very quickly. Almost as quickly as the 21st Amendment was, 13 years later.
10. Prohibition was not, however, foisted upon us by Bible-thumpers, "conservatives," puritans, rural nutjobs, or Republicans. They had their place in it, but the progressives, liberals, city-dwellers, public healthmongers, and Democrats were right there beside them. Not a judgment either way, just truth. The Anti-Saloon League was the NRA of its day, the first real power politics practitioner in the modern era, and they didn't care what party you belonged to, as long as you promised to vote Dry.
11. Prohibition was foisted on us by a progressive lie, much like keg registration is being shoved down our throats now. It started in one town/township/county. But the drinking wouldn't stop, and booze would come in from every border. "Give us statewide prohibition," would be the cry, "and we'll show you how it can work! The outsiders are ruining our good work!" And they'd get statewide Prohibition, and the drinking wouldn't stop, and booze would come in from every border. "Give us national prohibition," was the cry, "and we'll show you how it can work! The outsiders are ruining our good work!" And they got national Prohibition...and we got Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and Joe Kennedy. "Give us more money for enforcement, give us the military to stop smugglers, give us easier search warrants!" And they got it...and nothing happened. Prohibition, as Will Rogers said, made you want to cry in your beer, and then denied you the beer to cry in. Finally, people got fed up, and started talking Repeal.
12. Prohibition got a big boost from business -- John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and other industrialists thought it would mean a clean and sober workforce that they could get to work more like the automatons they wanted -- and government -- because the feds now had the income tax and were rolling in revenue, and thought they didn't need booze tax any more. So did Repeal. When Rockefeller saw that his workers were still drunk, and now were sick from bootleg crap booze, and saw the taxes going to pay for an increasingly corrupt enforcement bureaucracy, he did an about-face. When the Depression hit in 1929, income tax revenues dropped, and the feds needed money to pay for jobs programs -- hey, start up the booze biz again, it's a two-fer!
13. Women were a major force for Prohibition -- they were feeling empowered by the suffragist movement and the Progressive movement -- and, again, for Repeal. Upper-class women were revolted by the corruption, by the blatant hypocrisy of Dry politicians who drank like fish, and by the lack of human sympathy displayed by the more cruel Drys (those guys who wanted to poison the drunks). Urban Catholics and immigrants were against Prohibition because it simply seemed unnatural to them; well, it was.
14. Repeal became unstoppable as the Depression deepened because of the two-fer effect mentioned above. But the damage to America's palate had already taken place. We got used to lighter (cheaper) beer, white (unaged) spirits, Canadian and Scotch (smuggled) whisky, and sweet fortified (cheaper) wine. It took us decades to re-discover what we'd lost.
15. Some of it never was recovered. Thousands -- thousands -- of breweries closed, never to re-open, and the idea of the local brewery was irreparably crippled. Hundreds of distilleries closed, and bourbon and rye distillers were left with a huge, irreplaceable hole in their warehouse inventories. Young bourbons tasted vile, and sold for such low prices that the bourbon business referred to sales as "swapping dollars": the cashflow from the income just barely balanced the outflow of production costs. Rye whiskey, America's heart-warming frontier spirit and the pride of the Monongahela, practically disappeared. We had a hole shot through our memories and our national palate that would take years to begin to replace.
16. Repeal was a gloriously happy occasion. The beer trucks rolled, wine flowed, hipflasks were openly waved. Happy days were here again! I would truly love to go back in time for those two days -- Happy New Beer in April of 1933 and Repeal Day eight months later -- to watch America celebrate the return of John Barleycorn and Demon Rum. And to eat the livers of the Drys...how did Conan put it? "Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. And to hear the lamentations of their women." Oh, yeah. That would have been sweet, watching the Anti-Saloon League hating all those fun-loving boozers.
17. The Drys often got the last laugh, or at least a long one. States remained dry, then counties, towns, as local option laws held on. Screwed-up liquor laws kept things weird: in some states, the word "saloon" was illegal. Morality and government greed got mixed in an unholy combination of taxes and control schemes: state stores, rapacious prices, and customers treated like unclean supplicants. An alliance of Baptists (who wanted no drinking) and bootleggers (who wanted no legal booze sales) kept many counties in Kentucky dry to this day. The Drys were salted through the state legislatures, and everyone seemed to think that the return of Prohibition was lurking right around the corner -- after all, it had happened once -- and they had to step cautiously lest it return.
18. But the Drys had been beaten. Prohibition continued to recede, the WCTU became a joke, the ASL withered and died (corrupt itself, at the end), and "temperance" was forgotten. The New Drys, the neo-prohibitionists, didn't really start to re-group until the 1960s, when they found a new home among the Science Geniuses and the Safety Nazis, the good people who were going to save us from ourselves with Science. They realized that Prohibition had been tried, and failed. They openly announced that they would bring their new order to the nation by limiting access to booze (liquor license procedures), by tightening who could drink (the 21 LDA), by re-defining "drunk" (the 0.08 BAC DUI limit), and by raising excise taxes. And that's what they've been hammering away on ever since, with some success.
19. How do we fight it? Two things. First, to quote Mad-Eye Moody (the fake one) in the Harry Potter books: CONSTANT VIGILANCE! The New Drys are constantly flooding the media with anti-alcohol bullshit. Whenever they do, someone should counter them. The brewers, distillers, and vintners didn't in 1919, and look what it got them. Don't ignore them; they are at work every day, earning their grant money and taking aim at your fun. Now, the second thing...we have to admit that they're not all wrong. I've heard ridiculous bullshit from our side too: "You can't get drunk on beer." "You're not an alcoholic if you drink the good stuff." And worst of all, this:
That's right, silence, as in not admitting the problems of alcohol exist. We have to be honest, or we can't hold them to the same standard. Remember: the reason we got Prohibition was because there really was a problem. A big one. We have to step up and be honest about fighting it.
20. In the meantime, the full fruits of Repeal are sweeping the nation at an increasing rate. Long-dry towns in the South (and North) are going wet, ridiculous laws are being repealed (limits on beer strength; draft beer is allowed in Montgomery, Alabama; South Carolina finally gets rid of airline bottles at bars; and the PA case law...how long, O Lord, how long?!), and attitudes are changing (lowering the 21 LDA is being openly discussed for the first time in 20 years). The New Drys are fighting fiercely, and ground is exchanged back and forth, but we're definitely in the fight.
21. As for me...I intend to celebrate this momentous 75th Anniversary of Repeal in the same way everyone else did in 1933. I'm going to get me to a brewery, and get a few big seidels of good lager beer.
Lew, nice piece! It's obvious you appreciate and understand the topic. As you suggest, the only way to help solve any problem is being truthful about the problem and educating one's self to better understand it.
BTW, I have attached a link to an article in today's Inquirer that really sheds some interesting insight on Prohibition and the Repeal process in PA and especially the involvement of then Gov. Gifford Pinchot. It's amazing what the influence of one individual can have in creating a system that we all know as the PLCB.
Finally, if you want an appropriate place to celebrate 75 years of being "wet" again, Victory will be tapping two 30-liter barrels today at 5PM of unfiltered Prima Pils. I know I will be raising my glass to celebrate beer freedom.
Nice piece great historical prospective. Question to you and your readers : how can John Q Public repeal these arcane dry/blue laws when the very forces that should be advocating for liberalisation are not only comfortable with the current status quo, but are profiting handsomely from it. Mainly groups like the PA Tavern Association, the Beverage Distributor Association of Pennsylvania, the unions representing the Pa State Store employes, and especially the hacks running the PLCB. I know you might have to tread delicately/diplomatically here with certain groups(read Pa Taverns and Beer dist.), but I have no problem for calling these hypocrites out for what they are.
Gifford Pinchot is an agonizing historical character for me, Richard. One of Pennsylvania's great governors, IMO, and a leading conservationist on the national stage...and pretty much a totally tweaked-out Dry. Oh, my.
The new drys say a return to prohibition is due with the econony in the tubes.
They're saying back then people put their money in home improvments instead of booze.
"They're saying back then people put their money in home improvments instead of booze."
Guess they're blocking the memory of all those speakeasies and bootleg liquor for us -- ignore it, and it never happened.
Really magnificent, Lew. Just outstanding.
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