Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
National Prohibition, a result of a century of moral and religious crusades, lasted but 13 years, from 1920 to 1933. The newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) commented to an aide in March 1933 that it was surely a good time for a beer. The sentiment Roosevelt expressed had been echoed in America since its birth.
The earliest colonists considered liquor a good gift of nature, a necessity of life. Rum was the beverage of choice for weddings, funerals, and generally all community gatherings. Parents spoon-fed it to crying babies, however, it was a sin to overindulge. Nevertheless, gradually as more and more people misused rum, movements began to curtail its use. Temperance campaigns to promote the use of alcoholic beverages in moderation or to abstain completely began as early as 1808. Maine was the first state to pass Prohibition legislation that prohibited manufacture and sale of liquor. In 1862 the United States government, strapped for cash due to the Civil War (1861-1865), began collecting revenue from a federal liquor tax. Ironically between 1870 and 1915 one half to the two-thirds of the revenue of the United States government came from the liquor tax as no income tax existed.
In the early 1870s women’s groups began an assault on the “demon rum.” The Women’s Christian Temperance Union crusaded against liquor and supported Prohibition. By 1893 the Anti-Saloon League had joined in. Ultimately on January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment, or otherwise known as the “Prohibition Amendment,” took effect nationwide. Americans expected Prohibition to make America a wholesome, perfect place, but as Herbert Asbury in his book Great Illusionexplains:
They had expected to be greeted, when the great day came, by a covey of angels bearing gifts of peace, happiness, prosperity, and salvation, which they had been assured would be theirs when the rum demon had been scotched. Instead they were met by a horde of bootleggers, moonshiners, rumrunners, hijackers, gangsters, racketeers, trigger men, venal judges, corrupt police, crooked politicians, and speakeasy operators, all bearing the twin symbols of the Eighteenth Amendment-the tommy gun and the poisoned cup (Asbury, p. 137).
From the start Prohibition had been heavily promoted as a reform to protect community and home, yet it appeared by the mid-1920s to have unleashed a crime wave. Gangsters had organized and were becoming wealthy. The boom of “bootleggers,” or people who smuggle liquor, in the United States overwhelmed the number of Prohibition agents, respect for law became less every day as reports of bribery and corruption continuously surfaced, and courts were inundated with Prohibition cases. It seemed evading the ban on liquor became a national sport, while speakeasies thrived, otherwise law-abiding citizens made home brews and looked at the activity as only slightly illegal, and even women who seldom drank alcohol began to drink. Thousands of lives were lost in futile attempts to enforce Prohibition, and the federal government lost millions in revenue taxes while enforcement costs reached toward a billion dollars.
Ultimately two factors brought an end to Prohibition. First, American women under the banner of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) pushed for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, the Prohibition amendment, and secondly the Great Depression began. In October 1929 the stock market crashed as over valued stocks plummeted in price causing investors to lose millions of dollars. Soon the economic crisis spread to the rest of the economy. Financiers could no longer pour investment money into businesses and factories using new assembly line technology were turning out products faster than the public could purchase them. As a result companies needed to cut payrolls. Banks began going out of business having lost investments in the stock market and citizens not able to keep their loan payments on houses and other property they purchased on credit. The downward economic spiral continued until finally hitting bottom by early 1933 when at least 12 million workers representing 25 percent of the work-force were unemployed.
Americans, confused and dismayed by the economic crisis, listened as “wets,” those in favor of repeal, laid partial blame for the Depression on Prohibition. Legalizing alcohol, they claimed, would bring back desperately needed jobs in breweries and distilleries, generate tax revenue for the government’s coffers, and stop expensive attempts to enforce Prohibition. By December 5, 1933, the necessary number of states had ratified the Twenty-First Amendment that repealed Prohibition. The Great Depression of course did not come to an end, but what had come to an end was the most extensive social experiment ever undertaken in the United States.
Results of the Noble Experiment
As the 1920s came to a close illegal manufacture and sales of liquor continued in the United States on a large scale. In geographic areas where the population was sympathetic to Prohibition it was enforced more vigilantly than where the majority of citizens opposed it. Enforcement generally was stronger in small towns and rural areas and considerably weaker in large cities especially those in the North and East. Mid-decade surveys revealed that Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and areas from Texas to California appeared to have somewhat accepted Prohibition. The cities of Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, however, all had strong wet components. In the Southern states Prohibition seemed to be enforced for black Americans but much less than it was for whites. Throughout the Midwest rural areas generally observed Prohibition, but city residents largely ignored it. Scandinavians of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota continued drinking as did the large ethic communities in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Overall less drinking was taking place largely because illegally obtained liquor was very expensive. The more prosperous middle and upper classes routinely violated Prohibition as did young adults who regarded drinking as a sign of sophistication. The working class, at least those not making their own beverages at home, reportedly reduced drinking the most because of the expense. A quart of beer cost 80 cents during Prohibition, which was six times more expensive than it was in 1916. Likewise the cost of whisky and gin drastically increased after Prohibition commenced. The anger of many Americans was barely repressed. Throughout the nation Prohibition took on an image not of a respected law that reduced alcohol consumption but the image of a law to be widely disregarded. Many Americans realized for the first time that the law of the land could be misguided or, in their eyes, completely wrong and therefore could be ignored.
By the end of the decade the results of the great social experiment were clear. From the start Prohibition had been heavily promoted as a reform to protect community and home. Yet it appeared to be unleashing a crime wave. Prohibition had created a widespread disrespect for the law. Organized crime had become wealthy beyond imagination and would henceforth be a part of the American landscape. Politicians, Prohibition agents, local police, the courts, and prison system were overwhelmed and often corrupted with bribery and payoffs. Citizens lost respect for the legal system and for politicians. Many Prohibition agents, police, and innocent citizens lost their lives in shootouts over the illegal trafficking of alcohol. Physical harm, blindness, and the deaths of over ten thousand people resulted from drinking bootlegged alcohol containing poisonous chemicals. Thousands of honest people employed in the brewery, distillery, and wine industries lost their jobs, and if they chose not to become criminals, they took far lower paying jobs outside their area of expertise.
The drinking habits of America changed dramatically during Prohibition. In pre-Prohibition days little drinking took place at home except for the wealthy, who had wine or beer with dinner and brandy or port wine afterwards. For most of the public, alcohol at home was for medicinal purposes only. During Prohibition, however, drinking at speakeasies was very expensive. As a result liquor was stored at home or made at home and therefore could be drunk more often. Also the cocktail made with liquor became popular. Eight ounces of gin mixed with soda or juice became eight drinks whereas eight ounces of beer was one drink. Those who had disliked the taste of beer, wine, or hard liquor found cocktails irresistible.
Before Prohibition women drank very little, and prohibitionists considered the fact that immigrant women drank beer or wine an outrage. Prohibition was intended to help keep womanhood pure but it had the opposite effect. As soon as drinking became illegal women began to drink. For example, younger women passed the flask with men, and speakeasies invited women in and they came. For those that stayed at home alcohol stored at home allowed women to privately find out what all the uproar was about.
Finally and probably one of the most important reasons leading to repeal was the cost of Prohibition. Enforcement costs by some estimates topped a billion dollars between passage and repeal. Additionally the government lost millions in revenue taxes that would have been collected if alcohol was legal. Also honest brewmasters, wine makers, and distillers were denied the income to pay workers and to turn a profit. Instead liquor revenues went by and large into the deep pockets of organized crime.
Enforcement of Prohibition
From the start of Prohibition agencies charged with enforcement had insufficient funds and manpower. Drys had insisted enforcement would be easy with most Americans voluntarily obeying the law, while wets hoped they were wrong. Congress counted on enforcement being cheap. Responsibility for enforcement under the Volstead Act was with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, a division of the Treasury Department. The first Prohibition Commissioner appointed was John F. Kramer, a dedicated Prohibitionist and lawyer from Ohio. Kramer formed the Prohibition Unit whose name changed much later, in 1927, to the Prohibition Bureau. The Unit, as organized, had a total of 1,520 enforcement agents operating in the United States or one to every 70,000 Americans. Most were paid approximately $1,680 a year, hardly a decent livable wage for men with families in a city. Kramer predicted that “this law will be obeyed in cities large and small without need of much intervention.”
After six months the disillusioned Kramer left his job. Roy Haynes, another Ohioan and ardent supporter of the Anti-Saloon League, was handpicked by the League’s lawyer, Wayne Wheeler, to be the new Prohibition commissioner. Within two years Haynes claimed moonshining, or making illegal liquor at home, and bootlegging were all but conquered, yet the facts told a radically different story. His Prohibition Unit had been filled with men owed favors by politicians and was hardly competent to handle the wildfire spread of bootlegging. Bootlegging was becoming, more and more, a highly profitable, gang-controlled business. In 1925 President Coolidge (served 1923-1929) put military man General Lincoln C. Andrews in charge of enforcement. Andrews better organized the bureaus then dealing with liquor control—the Prohibition Unit, the Coast Guard, and Customs Service. He intended to terminate all unqualified men from the Prohibition Unit and replace them with qualified individuals. Politicians, however, scuttled most of his plans, and corruption associated with Prohibition went on as usual. States passed plenty of enforcement laws to keep drys happy but in reality appropriated almost no money to carry out the statutes. Raids on speakeasies were rarely more than an annoyance, and even padlocking doors rarely kept speaks closed more than a day. Courts were overwhelmed with Prohibition cases, and the juries generally sided with the accused. As a result courts began to set aside certain days for bootleggers, moonshiners, smugglers, and speakeasy managers to come, plead guilty, pay a five or ten dollar fine, and go back to what they had been doing.
Federal enforcement agents whose salaries were meager were highly susceptible to bribery and payoffs. In order to operate their speakeasies without trouble, the bootleg crime gangs put police, sheriffs and any other officials likely to get in their way on their payroll. Hundreds of city officials, police officers, state legislators, judges, and prosecuting attorneys were indicted through the 1920s for working with gangs. Often Prohibition Unit agents worked just long enough to learn about contacts then quit to work as bootleggers or speakeasy proprietors themselves.
The Customs Service’s Border patrol was charged with stopping liquor from entering the United States over land routes and rivers and lakes. During Prohibition’s first years not more than 35 agents were assigned to the Mexican border and one hundred to the Canadian border. Cars and trucks loaded with cases of whiskey had some four hundred roads to enter from Canada and speedboats raced across the Great Lakes and the Detroit and St. Lawrence Rivers. There were probably two hundred routes from Mexico as well has many shallow spots for crossing the Rio Grande. Federal agents admitted two years into Prohibition they seized only one case in twenty crossing the border. Customs Service Agents were also highly susceptible to bribery and corruption.
In 1927 the Customs Service decided on a major effort aimed at the so-called Detroit-Windsor Tunnel where millions of gallons of liquor were smuggled yearly into Detroit from Canada. The Service hand picked one hundred of its best agents with the Border Patrol and committed one half of its patrol boats to the area. The Prohibition Bureau doubled its number of agents at its Detroit headquarters. Yet in 12 months time ending March 31, 1928, the Service seized only 148,211 gallons of the 3,388,016 gallons of liquor that left Windsor for Detroit. The project was considered a total failure, illustrating the difficulty in controlling borders.
When the Eighteenth Amendment passed it became the Coast Guard’s duty to keep smugglers away from American shores. At the time the Coast Guard was a small branch of the Department of the Treasury. Its duties were to protect government revenues, save lives and property at sea, and prevent ordinary smuggling. It had several thousand men, about 30 cutters and a few small harbor boats. Undermanned and underequipped the Coast Guard was almost helpless against Rum Row.
In 1924 the United States and Great Britain agreed to allow the Coast Guard to greatly expand the water it could patrol—allowing it to search British vessels as far out as one hour’s run from the American coast by the Guards fastest cutter. Because of Prohibition the Coast Guard expanded during 1920s into a full military service of the United States. By 1928, not counting small lifesaving boats, the Guard had 560 vessels including 33 cruisers, 25 destroyers, and 243 large offshore patrol boats. The Coast Guard, over the fourteen years of Prohibition, captured hundreds of bootlegging boats and was successful in dispersing Rum Row. Nevertheless the gangsters who bootlegged by sea greatly outnumbered the Guard and by operating with a great deal more care continued smuggling enormous amounts of liquor into the United States until repeal of the amendment.
Presidents William G. Harding (served 1921-1923) and Calvin Coolidge neither pressured Congress nor made any suggestions relating to enforcement. They confined their speeches to complaining about the states’ lack of help on enforcement issues and reminding Americans it was their duty to obey the law.
The Build Up to the End of Prohibition
During the ratification process of the Eighteenth Amendment and the passage of the Volstead Act the opponents of Prohibition were weakly organized. They included the brewery, distillery, and wine industries, hotelkeepers associations, real estate men, cigar makers, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL called for a modification of the act to allow the manufacture and sale of beer. Millions of everyday Americans were opposed to Prohibition but also lacked organization and spokesmen. Many of their leaders which emerged in the middle and late 1920’s actually originally supported the Eighteenth Amendment. One emerging leader was Captain William H. Stayton.
Stayton, who never supported the Eighteenth Amendment, instead watched in horror, as it became part of the U.S. Constitution. A lawyer, businessman, and former naval officer, Stayton had no financial interest in the liquor industry nor did he seek political office. Stayton simply believed deeply in the rights of states and local communities to make independent decisions. To him the Eighteenth Amendment was one more move to the concentration of power in the hands of the federal government. His strongly held convictions led him to establish, along with friends of similar persuasion, the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) in 1918. The political tactics and arguments AAPA developed through the early years of Prohibition allowed it to eventually become one of the most influential groups in the fight to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.
Although widely thought of as a front for the liquor industry, the opposite was true. The AAPA refused to accept industry money and grew slowly in the first half of the 1920s. A few donations along with Stayton’s support at the rate of $1,000 a month kept it going. When AAPA members thought their numbers had grown large enough in a state, a division was created by absorbing various local anti-Prohibition organizations such as the Moderation Leagues of Minnesota and Ohio and the Constitutional Liberty League of Massachusetts. By 1920 nearly every state outside the south that was not thought of as hopelessly dry had a division—twenty-five divisions in all.
An almost entirely male organization, the AAPA did create a women’s organization known as the Molly Pitcher Club in some states including New York and Pennsylvania. Led by Louise Gross, the clubs stated their purpose was to prevent the federal government from interfering with the personal habits of people unless they had criminal intent. The clubs unfortunately were never particularly influential, and many women were discouraged from joining because the clubs operated through the male AAPA. Additionally Gross noted that in the early to mid-1920s there was tremendous resistance to women working against Prohibition. By 1924 the clubs died out but Gross, with a small group of women, continued under a series of names including Women’s Committee for the Modification of the Volstead Act, and, in 1928, the Women’s Committee for Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Nevertheless a powerful independent anti-Prohibition women’s group would not develop until the end of the decade.
During the first six dry years the anti-Prohibition groups advocated modification of the Volstead Act not repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. However, by 1926 newspaper polls consistently showed more and more Americans were beginning to favor not only modification of the Volstead Act but outright repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. While the AAPA loudly touted the various poll results, the ASL charged the polls were rigged. Nevertheless a shift in public sentiment was beginning—a shift away from support of Prohibition.
Prominent Americans Take Up the Anti-Prohibition Banner
By 1926 William Stayton’s AAPA was undergoing a rebirth with its newest members. Many of the same individuals had strongly supported the Eighteenth Amendment during its passage and ratification. By the mid to later 1920s they had come to the conclusion that Prohibition was demoralizing, expensive, and simply unworkable. It had created a total disrespect for the law, an overburdened Court system, and corruption in government. Believing states should govern themselves wherever possible, many saw the Amendment and Volstead Act as infringements on states’ rights. Taking it yet a notch higher many now felt the personal liberties of Americans were being violated. Also enforcement of Prohibition cost millions in liquor tax revenues—taxes levied by the government on the sale of liquor when it was legal. Businessmen believed taxes were being levied on their companies to make up the revenue loss.
An amazing group of prominent businessmen, lawyers, bankers, industrialists, railroad presidents, educators, and authors signed on to the rolls of AAPA. They did not stop at merely joining AAPA but quickly took outspoken and active roles. They included Henry Bourne Joy, retired Packard Motor Company President; two prominent financiers, Grayson Mallet-Provost Murphy and Robert K. Cassalt; James W. Wadsworth, Jr. from a family prominent in American affairs for generations; and the three du Pont brothers of Wilmington, Delaware, Piérre, Lammot, and Irénée, the fourth American generation of the du Pont family and keeper of the family business and the family fortune. By 1929 the AAPA listed 227 members on its Board of Directors, all rich and powerful figures in the United States. Among them were General W.W. Atterbury, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad; John J. Raskob, a du Pont and General Motors executive and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee; Arthur Curtiss James, Director of a dozen corporations; Newcomb Carlton, President of Western Union; Haley Fiske, President of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company; Edward S. Harkness, railroad tycoon; Elihu Root, prominent lawyer and former Secretary of State; Percy S. Straus, president of Macy and Company; and, Charles H. Sabin of the Guaranty Trust Company. As would be expected these men freely donated funds to AAPA’s cause.
Another anti-Prohibition group incorporated in New York in 1927 was the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers. This group opposed the Eighteenth Amendment on the grounds that it was not consistent with the spirit and purpose of the Constitution and that it violated the Bill of Rights. Professional organizations of lawyers, or bar associations, in New York, New Jersey, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Portland passed resolutions in 1928 calling for repeal of the Amendment. Then in 1930 the American Bar Association adopted a repeal resolution by a vote of 13,779 to 6,340.
On the other side, the Prohibition leadership was limping and a lack of unity among leaders was evident. An irreparable loss to the drys occurred in 1927 when Wayne B. Wheeler died suddenly. Wheeler’s persuasive leadership style and expertise as an attorney had guided the ASL for years. Methodist Bishop James Cannon, Jr., chairman of the ASL’s political activities, replaced Wheeler as the recognized leader of the drys. Cannon attempted to bully Congress in an abusive, violent manner, calling anyone who disagreed with him a hopeless sinner. He lost credibility by the end of the decade with revelations of his own misdeeds such as gambling on the stock market, marrying his secretary shortly after his wife’s death, and charges of misspent campaign money. In addition to ineffective leadership the drys also suffered large declines in donations whereas the wets had plenty of donated money. For example, the du Ponts, who had donated to the drys early in the 1920s, now gave freely to the wets. The drys also had a practical philosophical problem. Since they refused to admit any problems with the Eighteenth Amendment or the Volstead Act, by default they were supporting the bootlegger, the speakeasy, and any other problems inflicted on the United States population by Prohibition.
Backed by almost unlimited funds, wet propaganda moved into full swing. Prohibition was a topic of arguments and discussions throughout the United States. Public opinion polls continued to reveal support for the full repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment or at least major modification to the Volstead Act. The Presidential election of 1928 brought the question of Prohibition to a head.
The 1928 Presidential Election
Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith was nominated as the 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate. Although Bishop Cannon, a Democrat, used his influence to get a dry Democratic plank in the party’s platform, saying the party would make “an honest effort” to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, candidate Smith was clearly a foe of Prohibition and the ASL. Publicly Smith asked for a modification of the Volstead Act, but privately he considered Prohibition unconstitutional, in violation of both states rights and individual rights. Smith was a cigar smoking, gravel-voiced son of an Irish immigrant, a union man, and a Roman Catholic. He had grown up in the city slums and drew much of his support from foreign-born Americans. Many Democratic, Protestant, rural Americans could not buy into Smith’s candidacy. Cannon denounced Smith and led a group of Southern Democrats out of the convention.
The Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, before his nomination, had said Prohibition was a great social and economic experiment. He stated that it was certainly noble in motive and also far reaching in purpose. From this speech came the often-used phrase, “the noble experiment.” Hoover, a humanitarian and idol of millions, had served as secretary of commerce under two presidents. Many Americans credited him with the ever-rising prosperity of the 1920s. Probably no Democratic candidate could have beaten Hoover in the booming year of 1928. Hoover took 444 electoral votes to Smith’s 87. The drys won majorities in most state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and House. The bitter campaign, however, had brought the Eighteenth Amendment into question and the first rumblings for full repeal were heard in Washington, D.C.
President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933) became the first president during Prohibition to commit to stricter enforcement of Prohibition. Just before he took office Congress raised the maximum punishment for first time offenders of the Volstead Act to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison. This change in policy, however, did not improve Prohibition effectiveness rather it only served to strengthen its reputation as harsh and unreasonable. In 1929 Hoover authorized construction of six new federal prisons to relieve the existing overcrowded ones. Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay was one of the new prisons to be built, and by 1930 more than one-third of the 12,332 federal prisoners were Volstead Act violators.
One of President Hoover’s first acts in office was to appoint the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement with former Attorney General George W. Wickersham as Chairman. This body, known as the Wickersham Commission, studied the problems of Prohibition enforcement for almost two years, producing its final report in January 1931. The five-volume well-documented report ended with highly contradictory conclusions. In a brief summary, signed by all members, the Commission declared they were against repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, against modification of the Volstead Act, and against the return of the saloon. Yet each member also made a separate statement, two of which clearly favored repeal, seven desired major or minor revisions, and two wrote as though they were satisfied with the status quo. One of those favoring repeal thought liquor control should be returned to the states. Another stated that in practicality the people did not support the government in enforcing Prohibition, and he saw no other route but repeal. Whatever one chose to focus on in the Wickersham report it was soon clear that the Eighteenth Amendment had never been and probably never would be properly enforced and was headed for an attempt at repeal. Two pivotal occurrences in 1929 ultimately set the Eighteenth Amendment on the road to oblivion; the establishment of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) and the beginning of the Great Depression.
Women and Repeal
By the late 1920s the Women’s Christian Temperance Union seemed stuck in a 19th century mold. Rather than expanding the role and influence following their success at helping to install national Prohibition in 1920, the WCTU constantly looked backward not forward. It continued to see immigrants as a threat to America, and it clung to Prohibition as an evangelical mission, condemning new ideas of young adult dress, use of tobacco, and courtship as demoralizing. The WCTU had long claimed women naturally supported Prohibition to protect family, especially children, home, and community. However, a new women’s repeal group would soon meet the WCTU on its own philosophical turf—that of children and family protection—and demand a goal directly opposite to that of the WCTU
Louise Gross, who had headed the AAPA’s women’s arm, the Molly Pitcher Club, led the Women’s Committee for Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1928. This was the first organized group to call for outright repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. That same year Gross became president of another women’s repeal group, the Women’s Moderation Union (WMU). Gross put out a call for women to organize a strong and militant national women’s anti-Prohibition organization. The organization would offset the activities of the WCTU headed by Ella Boole since 1925. Boole responded in horror that women would “demean themselves” (Rose, p. 73), to work for repeal. Gross’s rhetoric and ideas, which even extended to legalizing moderate use of opium, strayed too far from the center for most American women, as a result the WMU never gained a large following. At this point the socially prominent Mrs. Charles H. Sabin entered the scene.
Pauline Sabin, wife of Charles H. Sabin, New York banker with Guaranty Trust Company and member of the AAPA, declined to have anything to do with Gross’ WMU and set about to form, in May 1929, the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Sabin’s lofty social standing was an asset in attracting publicity and members. In April 1929 Sabin had announced both her resignation from the Republican National Committee and her determination to work for a change in Prohibition laws.
Sabin crafted an appeal that a large number of women could accept. The appeal was largely based on protection of family and children just as the WCTU’s was. In order to protect the family, however, WONPR believed real temperance—real choices by people to drink moderately or not at all—had to be individual decisions not legislated by the federal government. WONPR believed the crime, lawlessness, and corruption spawned by Prohibition was destroying communities. Furthermore it was rendering impossible the ability of parents to instill respect for the law in youth. To WONPR members, repeal meant protection of youth from the hypocrisy of Prohibition.
Within three years, by 1932, the WONPR had over a million members. These women were far removed from the hymn-singing women of the old dry crusades and of the WCTU. They were prominent and active in their community, had social standing, were able to raise funds and attract newspaper publicity. The WONPR stayed staunchly independent and apart from the AAPA and any other men’s organization.
The Repeal Coalition
In 1929 the organizations who banned together to form the Prohibition repeal movement seemed a strange group of allies: the AAPA, predominantly businessmen; the WONPR, a large contingent of well-heeded women; intellectuals, writers, critics and journalists who sustained a nearly universal hatred of Prohibition; and, organized labor. Organized labor had long been dismayed by the unfair burden placed on the workingman. While even beer was not legally available anywhere and was too expensive in local speakeasies for laborers, those with more monetary means went right securing and enjoying alcoholic beverages.
Despite rapidly growing support the coalition’s goal of repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was unprecedented in American politics. A constitutional amendment for repeal would have to be crafted and passed through Congress to the states for ratification. The question that loomed was if 36 states would ratify. There was still strong sentiment in the western and southern states for Prohibition. It would take only 13 states to block the repeal effort. Just as many anti-Prohibitionists feared outright repeal might simply not be possible, the Great Depression began.
The Great Depression and the Eighteenth Amendment
Millions of Americans in 1928 had contently voted for Herbert Hoover and what they thought would be four more years of prosperity. In September 1929 the U.S. stock market had reached an all-time high. Beginning in October shock after shock hit the American economy. The stock market plummeted. Businesses closed their doors leaving thousands unemployed. Americans became unable to make payments on home loans and frequently lost their homes. Banks failed leaving some penniless. Individuals and whole families began to go hungry. The happy boom days were over and a somber nation was in no mood for what now seemed the trivial sport of either trying to beat Prohibition or demanding its enforcement.
The Great Depression, historians recognized, was what finally killed Prohibition. Although the nation already appeared to be on a tract to attempt repeal, the Depression pushed the process to a much quicker end than there might otherwise have been. The drys appealed to patriotism in 1919 to help pass and ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. They had asked Americans to create a healthy environment for young soldiers to come home to at the end of World War I (1914-1918).
Now the wets employed the same tactics to bring repeal of that Amendment, exploiting the Depression to the fullest. Every conceivable medium of speech and print was used to lay blame for the Depression at the feet of Prohibition. The wets’ trained economists shouted that the stock market crash, business failures, and unemployment had been due to Prohibition. Americans, confused and bewildered by the economic crisis, believed the propaganda. Wets argued the government’s budget had been severely stretched by the expensive attempts at enforcement of Prohibition, and that the government could no longer afford to spend any money on enforcement. Legalizing liquor would return much-needed jobs in the breweries, distilleries, and wineries; legal liquor would again generate tax revenue money for a needy government; profits would be taken from the criminals and returned to honest men. A sense of national emergency surrounded the repeal issue, and Americans were desperate for any suggestions that might stop the economic slide. As the Depression deepened demand for repeal got louder and louder.
The 1932 Presidential Convention
President Hoover would again be the Republican Party’s nominee in 1932 and although he was ready to eliminate Prohibition he called for a platform that would not directly commit him or his party to outright repeal. The plank as written was considered noncommittal, straddling the fence rather than providing clear direction. It stressed preserving gains made in dealing with liquor traffic but at the same time called for state conventions to consider a new amendment to modify the Eighteenth Amendment. The delegates on the floor called the plank “bunk” and demanded an outright repeal platform. In the end the plank stood as written.
The outcome would be quite different at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Wet crusader and former Democratic Presidential nominee, Al Smith and John J. Raskob of the AAPA had urged the Democrats to come out against Prohibition in 1931. They were battled by Franklin Roosevelt who thought it was too early for such a pronouncement. In the interest of party unity, Roosevelt, who would be the party’s presidential nominee, had remained quiet on the subject in the months before the 1932 convention. At the convention, however, the completed platform stated the Party’s position clearly. To wild cheers and demonstrations on the convention floor, the plank was read. Roosevelt called for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.
The Big Parade
All across America in the largest cities and smallest towns it was parade day. Saturday, May 14, 1932, was neither a national holiday nor a day for honoring heroes. It was a day for Americans to turn out in support of a cool refreshing beverage long denied them—beer.
Far from just being a day of fun the goal of the big, or beer, parades was to point out how beer could help America climb out of the Depression. Taxes derived from the legal sale of beer could help fill empty government coffers that in turn could help put Americans to work building roads, schools, and hospitals. Signs in the parades read, “We Want Beer and We Will Pay the Tax.” Legalizing beer would also help ease unemployment by starting up legal breweries. Other signs read, “We Want Beer but We Also Want Jobs.”
In villages and towns bands marched, citizens followed holding signs high, cars covered with streaming crepe paper held all sorts of politicians and officials tipping their hats to the crowds on the streets. Detroit’s parade was some 15,000 marchers strong with floats covered in anti-dry messages. A Baptist church in Syracuse, New York chimed, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” as marchers went by. In Daytona Beach, Florida beer from barrels was served to marchers. The parade in New York City went right up Fifth Avenue. Police estimated crowds of onlookers plus the marchers numbered from several hundred thousand to several million. If the number of gathered people was in question the sentiment was not. Huge posters at the reviewing stand on the corner of Seventy-second and Central Park illustrated how a tax on legalized beer would battle the Depression.
The End of Prohibition
Roosevelt was swept into the Presidency along with a Congress sure to do away with Prohibition. Without waiting for the new president or the new Congress to take office, the old Congress acted in February 1933 on a resolution to submit the Twenty-First Amendment to the states to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. The plan called for ratification by a simple majority vote of special conventions called in each state to which delegates were to be elected.
President Roosevelt, as soon as he took office on March 4, 1933, issued an executive order reducing the appropriation funds of the Prohibition Bureau from $8,440,000 to $3,600,000. Knowing ratification by the states could take the rest of the year, Roosevelt next legalized beer as suggested in the Democratic platform. He sent a “special message” to Congress urging swift action on a bill legalizing 3.2 percent alcoholic content for beer. The message suggested a five-dollar tax on each barrel to go to government coffers and would require brewers to take out a $1,000 federal license. The bill, which in effect amended the Volstead Act, became effective April 7, 1933. Over two hundred breweries producing near beer announced they were ready to roll out the “real thing” immediately. Beer trucks began rumbling through the streets delivering to speakeasies that were suddenly legal beer houses.
The need for gangster involvement in alcohol production and distribution evaporated. Brewmaster schools opened and breweries were swamped with employment applicants. Cases of beer arrived at the White House, and parades, sirens, cowbells marked the first day of legalized beer in cities across the country.
The WCTU mustered a comment to the effect that nations cannot drink themselves out of depressions. President Roosevelt predicted ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment would come by Christmas and would bring with it hundreds of thousands of jobs and tax revenue dollars for the government. Texas, home to the author of the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified as did Virginia, home of Bishop Cannon. Maine, dry since 1846, and Vermont, dry since 1852, both ratified, and Utah was the 36th state to formally ratify the Twenty-First Amendment. On December 5, 1933, at 5:32 PM Eastern Standard Time, the greatest social experiment in American history came to an end. By 7:30 PM EST, Roosevelt had issued a proclamation that ratification was complete and that not only beer but liquor was legal again.
Repeal did not end the Depression but it did create an estimated 250,000 jobs in the distillery and brewing industries. Even more jobs were created in the trades serving those industries as machinery, bottling, and transportation, as well as a much-needed flow of tax money came into national, state, and local governments.
The first ships to reach the New World in the early 1600s carried alcoholic beverages as part of their vital provisions. The colonists themselves, including the stern Puritans, approved of drinking in moderation and even considered it one of the necessities of life. Those who drank too much, however, were social outcasts. Colonists considered liquor a good gift of nature and to misuse it was a sin to be punished severely.
The first Prohibition attempt in the colonies targeted Indians who were inflamed by the “strong waters” that the settlers themselves had brought to the new world. Massachusetts and other colonies passed stiff laws prohibiting the sale of liquor to Indians. Nevertheless traders “bootlegged” liquor, that is carried bottles in their boots, to Indians to trade for furs. Land hungry settlers used liquor to lessen Indians resistance to giving up choice tracts of property. The Prohibition laws, largely ignored, gradually were lifted.
In the late 1600s New England established a bustling trade with the British West Indies. Colonists developed a taste for the West Indian beverage called rum, and before long New Englanders were importing molasses from the West Indies, which they distilled into rum. The first large rum-distilling center was in Rhode Island. By 1723 merchants used rum in the notorious slave trade, exchanging an estimated 600,000 gallons of rum a year for slaves.
People drank rum at town meetings, weddings, christening, funerals, and most any other community event. Families considered it a tonic for good health and a cure for all ailments. Parents spoon-fed it to crying babies, clergy drank rum liberally, and rich and poor alike enjoyed its benefits; rare was the abstainer.
The first real attempt to enforce Prohibition in America came in the colony of Georgia. Georgia’s founding father, James Oglethorpe, known as the Father of Prohibition, was determined to establish a sober colony. As soon as new colonists settled in Georgia it became clear most did not share Oglethorpe’s vision. Instead, they began making rum for their pleasure and entertainment. Oglethorpe and the English trustees in London fashioned an act flatly prohibiting the import or sale of rum in Georgia. Many of the conditions that later surrounded Prohibition in the 1920s developed in Georgia in 1735. Stills in the back country continued to pump out rum, boats smuggled rum into secluded docking points, bar rooms flourished in back rooms of stores and homes, and the average citizen ridiculed Prohibition and made heroes of the bootleggers. Finally in 1742 the London trustees gave up any attempts to enforce Prohibition in Georgia.
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) cut off trade with the West Indies halting both imports of good rum and molasses. Whiskey, distilled from rye grains and corn, became a popular substitute for rum. After the war’s close in 1789 the new federal government, strapped for money, attempted to tax liquor for revenue. The government put a tax on all imported alcoholic beverages, on molasses for making rum and, two years later, on American made whiskey. Men quickly organized and loaded their guns to fight off the tax collectors and the uproar resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion. President Washington called up the militia (local armies) of three states to move into the Pennsylvania countryside and put down the rebellion. Frontiersmen eventually gave in and agreed to pay the tax. The federal government gained new authority, demonstrating it could enforce the laws of Congress.
Meanwhile Americans downed whiskey at an ever-increasing rate. Employers provided their employees with whiskey as farmers did their laborers. Grocers kept whiskey barrels on tap for customers. Whiskey was used for every ailment. Those who drank to excess often reduced themselves and their families to poverty. More and more responsible citizens called for moderation. Out of concern for those who couldn’t control their drinking and their disgraced families the first temperance movements began to arise. The term temperance refers to the use of alcoholic beverages in moderation or abstinence from their use. The most influential early spokesman for temperance was a medical doctor, Benjamin Rush. Dr. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was named physician-general of the Continental (or Revolutionary) Army. In 1778 he warned his troops against excessive use of hard liquor. In 1784 he published a pamphlet that changed the thinking of thousands of Americans. The forty-page, Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and Mindargued that instead of improving health liquor damaged the human body. He gained many converts, including merchants who halted the sale of whiskey and rum, farmers and factory owners who quit supplying their workers, and church leaders who reformed and called for informed temperance. Before Rush’s death in 1813, he predicted someday soon Americans would turn their backs completely on rum and whiskey and become a healthy, happier people.
The first organized temperance society had been formed in upstate New York in 1808 by approximately forty of the areas most influential men. The Union Temperance Society of Moreau and Northumberland adopted the first written temperance constitution pledging abstinence from drinking distilled spirits for one year as an experiment. Gradually more temperance groups formed often under the direction of local Protestant churches. The clergy of Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist and other Protestant churches preached emotional sermons on the evils of alcohol resulting in thousands pledging to abstain and groups forming in all states by the early 1830s.
The focus of the early temperance movement was to encourage drinkers to decide for themselves to give up liquor. Moral persuasion was used to portray makers and sellers of liquor as sinful and evil. As a result Americans developed a lasting and far different attitude toward even moderate drinking than in most other countries in the world. The term Prohibition came into wide usage.
On June 2, 1851, Maine became the first state to pass legislation forbidding all manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in the state. To induce tight enforcement of the law, local law officials were allowed to keep any fines collected by the Courts. In the next four years twelve states passed Prohibition legislation. Within a short time, however, voters rebelled and every state except Maine, that had voted for Prohibition either repealed or drastically cut back its restrictions.
Engulfed by the devastating Civil war it would be twenty-five years before Prohibition again came to the forefront. Interestingly, President Lincoln (served 1861-1865) in desperate need of money to finance the war, signed the Internal Revenue Act in 1862. The act imposed a federal liquor tax on every retail liquor establishment in the Union and on every gallon of liquor, beer, and ale manufactured. Ironically, in light of the Prohibition activities that began with renewed fervor in the 1870s, the liquor tax provided between one-half and two-thirds of the revenue of the United States from 1870 to 1915, a time when direct income taxes did not exist.
The Woman’s Crusade and Women’s Christian Temperance Union
By the early 1870s a new force for the temperance movement—womanhood—began a determined assault on the “demon rum.” First in Ohio, then across the nation women began joining “praying bands.” The highly charged bands of women swarmed around and into saloons singing and praying. Soon tens of thousands of women from New York and Pennsylvania, through the Midwest to California and Oregon swept into saloons. The uproar had more success in small towns and rural areas than in large cities. At first saloonkeepers treated the demonstrations as a joke, men hooted at the ladies as they knelt on barroom floors to pray. But soon the saloonkeepers hurried to lock doors when they saw the ladies approaching. Undaunted they remained kneeling outside. Known as the Woman’s Crusade, the demonstrations lasted from the winter of 1873 until summer of 1874. Although the Crusade had only closed saloons temporarily and changed no laws, the temperance movement gained worldwide publicity. Americans became temperance-minded, while stay-at-home sheltered women dared to break old barriers and speak out.
Leaders of state and local temperance unions met in Chautauqua, New York in November 1874, and organized the Women’s National Christian Temperance Union, adopting a position to preserve the mission of the Woman’s Crusade. Soon known as the WCTU, the organization stated that Prohibition was essential to a healthy America, a position it never abandoned.
A highly intelligent witty reformer, Frances Willard, gradually rose to the leadership in the WCTU Elected its national president in 1879 she oversaw the growth of WCTU from a few thousand women to a cohesive national force with branches in almost every town and city. Willard energetically oversaw some 50 departments of WCTU. dedicated to improvement in a variety of women’s interests including nutrition, family health, cooking, gardening, physical exercise, and welfare work. WTCU promoted political action groups on economic issues, labor, and education in alcoholism. WCTU greatest success came in educating young people, the future voters, about the effects of drinking alcohol. In some states the WCTU’s influence was so powerful that school authorities made sure selected textbooks conformed to WCTU policy. Willard held firm control until her death in 1898, knowing that WCTU had become the first great national organization of women. With Willard’s death WCTU dropped most of its causes and reforms to focus almost entirely on the crusade against liquor and in support of Prohibition.
Concurrently with the growth of the WCTU was the organization of the Prohibition Party. Formed in 1869 the party went on for more than 50 years nominating candidates for local, state, and national positions. Never more than a minor party it exerted influence out of proportion to its membership numbers and kept Prohibition alive as a political issue.
Meanwhile during the 1890s waves of Germans and other European immigrants arrived on American shores and largely settled in the cities where the jobs were. Many immigrants were Catholic rather than Protestant, long the dominant religion in America. These new Americans had traditionally accepted moderate drinking; for example the Germans loved beer, the Italians loved wine, and the Irish loved whiskey.
The city population also swelled with workers moving off the farms to jobs in the factories. The male only (except for dance hall girls) saloons were places of irresistible temptations for the otherwise respectable men. Drinking, smoking, gambling, prostitution, dancing, card playing, and all sorts of corruption were tied to saloons.
Residents of rural areas looked upon cities and their saloons as evil places. Prohibition grew into a battle between native-born Americans and immigrants, of rural residents versus city people, and of Protestants versus Catholics. Prohibitionists believed if they could just get the beer stein, or wine glass or bottle out of the hands of immigrants, those individuals would have a spiritual wakening, become good citizens, and most likely convert to the Protestant churches.
The Anti-Saloon League
A major force of the growing Prohibition movement was the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Founded in 1893 by Dr. Howard Russell, a Protestant clergyman in Ohio, ASL grew quickly into a nationwide organization. It continuously stressed its religious character and its ability to attract members from all political backgrounds. With intensified religious and emotional appeals its avowed goal was to close saloons. ASL constantly spewed forth propaganda to build public sentiment. Its original and basic plan was to dry up the United States in steps—first villages and towns, then counties, states and finally the entire nation. Calling itself the Church in Action against the Saloon it raised and spent millions on propaganda and lobbying. ASL developed its own printing plants that produced a gigantic volume of literature each month, and tried to enlist every churchgoer in the country into political action against saloons. Organizations and individuals favoring temperance or full Prohibition became known as the “drys.”
The propaganda battle was never one-sided, and those against Prohibition and favoring liquor availability were known as the “wets.” The leading wets, brewers and distillers with their billion-dollar industry at stake, waged war against the drys. The wets chose to make fun of the drys rather than clean up the worst of the saloon conditions that might have satisfied most people. They were poorly organized and chose to bribe political leaders and big city newspaper editors into supporting the liquor industry. The ASL managed to make the liquor organizations seem horribly scandalous and succeeded in shocking and disgusting many respectable Americans. Even those who had never strongly supported temperance believed the saloons must be closed.
The battle for saloon closure, and ultimately national Prohibition, was carried to the public by a colorful cast of crusaders. Their dramatically captivating speaking skills and outrageous activities held the evils of drinking foremost in the minds and hearts of righteous Americans. Some of the most zealous individuals included politician William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, Carry A. Nation, and Pussyfoot Johnson.
William Jennings Bryan grew up in an Illinois home where liquor was forbidden. As a young man and college student in the late 1870s and early 1880s he praised temperance and tried to convert all around him to give up drinking. He cooled his fever somewhat when he ran as the Democratic candidate for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908 but still quietly denounced saloons. Defeated in all three attempts he again became an all out advocate of Prohibition. He served as President Woodrow Wilson’s (1913-1921) Secretary of State in 1913 and banned all drinks but water and grape juice at diplomatic functions. His personal example provided a strong role model for the drys.
Of all the orators that railed against liquor, Billy Sunday drew the largest audiences. Shaping and directing public opinion to despise the dirty, rotten, stinking liquor industry, he worked religious revival meetings of thousands into hysteria. Born in Iowa in 1862 Sunday was turned over to an orphanage after his father died in the Civil War. As a young man his outstanding sandlot baseball skills earned him a job in the major leagues with the Chicago White Sox. One Sunday afternoon he got drunk with his buddies at a Chicago saloon after a baseball game. Across the street was an outdoor preacher with his band playing hymns. One of the band members, thinking Sunday was a drunkard, invited him to a mission meeting. On a lark Sunday went, but it ended up changing his life forever. Sunday left his buddies, went to the mission and quit drinking. By 1896 Sunday began conducting revival meetings in large eastern cities where he denounced drunkards and all businesses that make men drunkards. Drenched with sweat Sunday would pound his feet, stride back and forth on the podium, and roar with outrage. Quickly gaining national prominence, he traveled with up to 50 advance men, a choir director Homer A. Rodeheaver, an army of musicians, and even carpenters to build the giant, temporary wooden “tabernacles” in which the revivals were held. In 1903 he was ordained a Presbyterian minister and continued his ministry. Sunday conducted at least 300 revivals reaching hundreds of thousands.
Almost six feet tall, Carry Amelia Moore Nation was the best known and most radically daunting figure of the temperance movement. She probably did more than any other single individual to keep the nation focused on the evils of saloons. Nation’s family had a history of mental instability; for example, her mother became convinced she was the Queen of England. Carry blamed all her personal troubles on liquor including the mental illness of her grandmother, mother, and cousins. From childhood Carry was subject to wild dreams and hallucinations.
Carry’s first husband died a helpless drunkard, and until her mid-fifties Carry lived in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, with her second husband, David Nation, who did not drink. Kansas, Maine, and North Dakota were the only states where statewide Prohibition was in effect in 1899. Carry again had wild dreams of fighting hand to hand with the devil and speaking directly with God who instructed her to destroy saloons. Since all of the drinking places in Kansas were illegal she believed she and other citizens had a perfect right to destroy them. In 1899 she started a prayer Crusade patterned after the Woman’s Crusade of the 1870s. With the help of other members of her local WCTU she closed down the saloons in Medicine Lodge. Within the year Carry’s tactics turned more drastic. Carry and friends marched toward the chosen saloon or “joint” of the day singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” as they concealed clubs, iron scraps, bricks, and stones under their long cloaks. A towering figure in black, Carry burst through saloon doors, stood in the middle of the floor and challenged anyone to stop what she and her companions were about to do. Raising her shining hatchet she would proceed to destroy row after row of liquor bottles. Her companions wreaked similar havoc destroying every object that could be smashed in the saloon. Nation spent approximately three years between 1899 and 1902 carrying out her fiery anti-saloon crusade. She was widely admired but at the same time publicly criticized for her unusual tactics. Nevertheless replicas of her hatchet, inscribed “Carry Nation, Joint Smasher,” sold by the thousands. Nation even suggested divine guidance for her mission was apparent from her name, Carry (misspelled with a “y” instead of “ie” by her father at her birth) A. Nation.
William Eugene Johnson, “Pussyfoot” Johnson, was appointed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1906 to clean up the lawlessness in the Indian territories and Oklahoma, which was rampant with shootings, lynching, gambling and illegal liquor trade. In Wild West fashion with cowboy hat, long coat, and toting a rifle, Johnson in town after town cleaned out bootleggers peddling whiskey to Indian reservations. He was Uncle Sam’s “Booze Buster.” Promoted to Chief Special Officer of the Commission of Indian Affairs, Johnson with his men swept into Indian lands in New Mexico, Idaho, California, and Montana. By 1911 they accounted for six thousand arrests and had won Court convictions in most of the cases. When Johnson left government service his next venture was heading up the Anti-Saloon League’s publishing plant. As the real battle for national Prohibition drew closer Johnson had a hand in fund raising, economic studies, organization of states, and publishing volumes of literature.
States Become Dry
The Anti-Saloon League carefully organized and built its political power base step by step. The base included voters and lawmakers from both parties, and as a result of these efforts a new wave of state Prohibition began with Georgia and Oklahoma in 1907. Mississippi and North Carolina followed in 1908 as did Tennessee in 1909 and West Virginia in 1912. Virginia, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Arizona all were dry by the end of 1914. The Prohibition wave continued in the states with four to five states becoming dry in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918. By 1919 a grand total of 34 states were dry.
Those wets in dry states did not complain too much at first for liquor could still be freely obtained through the mail. Post wagons increasingly clinked, jangled, and sloshed as they made appointed rounds. The drys were infuriated by this, and in 1913 the ASL drew up a proposed law as a solution. Senator William Kenyon of Iowa and Representative Edwin Webb of North Carolina introduced the legislation in Congress. The Webb-Kenyon bill passed by a large margin but President William Howard Taft (served 1909-1913) vetoed it. Congress stood with the ASL and overrode the veto. The Act became known as the Interstate Liquor Act prohibiting the shipment of alcohol into dry states. In December 1913 five thousand men and women of the ASL and WCTU paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, demanding a saloon free nation by 1920.
The marchers asked Congress to pass a Constitution Prohibition amendment for submission to the states for ratification. Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas and Representative Richmond P. Hobson of Alabama introduced the ASL’s resolution to Congress where it stayed in committee for a year. Passage of an amendment resolution requires two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Meanwhile in 1914 the ASL sent approximately 50,000 trained speakers, volunteers, and regular members into every village, town, and city to attack the wets and influence Congressional elections of 1914. The November 1914 election returns revealed a major gain in seats for the drys. Although fully aware they did not have the two-thirds majority, the dry legislators took the Hobson/Prohibition Resolution out of the Judiciary Committee. The first full debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether Prohibition should be part of the Constitution commenced. When a vote was taken 197 voted in favor of Prohibition and 190 voted against it. The ASL had demonstrated its power and would not try again until it was positive it had the votes to carry an amendment. The increasingly powerful ASL appeared to control the outcome of the 1916 Congressional elections. Candidates were afraid to challenge the ASL for it meant sure political suicide. Enough dry votes appeared to be within the incoming 1917 Congress to pass a resolution to add a Prohibition amendment to the Constitution.
Entry into World War I
As the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917 the ASL attempted to make the public view Prohibition as an act of patriotism. For example many brewers were German Americans, and after America entered into the war in 1917, hatred of everything German became a national frenzy. The drys began an unrelenting campaign of propaganda to paint beer as un-American. Saloons were cast as harboring enemy agents and it was rumored that beer for American consumption might be poisoned. ASL members claimed that large brewing industries were anti-American and promoted German culture in the United States. Another dry argument claimed the brewery and distillery industry employed thousands of men that could instead be helping in jobs related to the war effort. Also trucks and trains used to distribute liquor should be used for the transportation of war materials. Drys put forth yet another patriotic argument claiming grain used to make alcohol could provide millions of loaves of bread to feed the troops.
At the end of July 1917 after thirteen hours of debate over three days the Senate passed the Eighteenth Amendment by a vote of 65 to 20. By the time the Amendment reached the House of Representatives, the Congressmen, consumed with war issues, were tired of the pressure of the ASL and voters back home. After only six hours of debate the House voted 282 to 128 to submit the Eighteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. The Eighteenth Amendment would need a majority vote in both houses of the 36 state legislatures to be ratified and added to the U.S. Constitution. The state ratification process turned out to be no battle at all. The ASL had been working and influencing lawmakers in every state capital for years.
On January 16, 1919, the Secretary of State announced that the required number of states, 36, had ratified the Amendment and it would become part of the U.S. Constitution on January 16, 1920. Within the next three years twelve more states ratified. Eighty percent of the members of all state legislatures in the country had voted in favor of Prohibition. Only two states failed to ratify, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
A flaw of the Eighteenth Amendment was that it included no clause against the purchase of alcohol. Without breaking the law Americans were still perfectly free to buy liquor and keep it at home. The seller, if caught, could be thrown in jail, a fact that meant nothing to the purchaser. To ensure Prohibition could be adequately enforced a law would have to be created that did not violate other parts of the Constitution concerning search and seizure of homes and personal belongings but that prevented the purchase of alcohol. Realizing this deficiency, Attorney Wayne Wheeler of the ASL had been working for months before ratification to draw a draft of enforcement laws acceptable to Prohibitionists. He, along with input from a special ASL committee and those already experienced with matters in the dry states, produced the National Prohibition Act. The Act was given to ultra-dry House Judiciary Chairman Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota who introduced it into the House in May 1919. The act became known as the Volstead Act. The ASL anticipated and prepared for a hard fight in both the House and Senate but wets were so disorganized and disillusioned that they offered little resistance. With only a few changes and little debate the Act sailed through both the House and Senate in October 1919. The Volstead Act prohibited the manufacture, sale, barter, transport, import, export, delivery, or illegal possession of any intoxicating beverage. It would not take effect for one year allowing the liquor industry to wind up business. The term “intoxicating” was defined as one-half of one percent of alcohol by volume. For example one hundred ounces of a beverage could contain no more than one-half ounce of alcohol or it would be considered intoxicating. Beer normally contained three to seven percent, alcohol and wine, up to 15 percent; therefore both fell under Prohibition. Special permits were allowed for the manufacture of industrial alcohol and alcohol for medicinal and religious use.
The Noble Experiment: National Prohibition Begins
Americans viewed January 17, 1920, the day the Eighteenth Amendment would take effect throughout America, with either great anticipation or great resignation. Drys believed the start of Prohibition promised a cure to poverty, crime, and corruption. They expected it would be the fulfillment of a dream for a more perfect, healthy, happy, and prosperous nation. America would forever be free from the “demon rum.” Since Prohibition had become part of the U.S. Constitution, drys were convinced it would remain the law of the land. Prohibition, the noble experiment, had begun.
Most every town in America had a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and they held night watch services in churches to ring in the victory. Prominent Prohibitionists attended a service in Washington, DC, and cheered along to a rousing speech by William Jennings Bryan, politician and inspirational orator for the cause. The Anti-Saloon League of New York wished everyone, everywhere a “Happy Dry Year.” In San Francisco amid festive ceremonies, a WCTU official described Prohibition as “God’s present to the nation” (Asbury, p. 143). In Chicago the WCTU glorified in the victory, announced it would now proceed to dry up the rest of the world. Billy Sunday, fiery evangelist, entertained a crowd of ten thousand in Norfolk Virginia, with a mock funeral service for John Barleycorn, fictional model of the drinking man.
The wets greeted Prohibition with resignation. Since the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919 anyone who could afford it had been feverishly buying and storing whiskey and other liquor. No one ever knew just how much had been squirreled away but large cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco reported that trucks, automobiles, and vans transported liquor all over the cities throughout 1919.
As the fateful hour of 12:01 AM January 17, 1920, neared officials in most cities braced for what they thought would be a last night fling—a drunken orgy of sorts. But the binge in saloons, restaurants, and hotels failed to occur. Police were stationed in all the well-known drinking places to seize all liquor on tables at midnight. Yet the night proved very tame, even in the wettest cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Louisville. In New York City’s Delta Robbia Room of the Hotel Vanderbilt cases of fine champagne were served free to guests at midnight. In Washington, DC, bars between the Capitol and White House on Pennsylvania Avenue stayed crowded all day and evening. When midnight struck customers made final toasts and went home. Of course in New Orleans, Prohibition was simply ignored that night and every night thereafter. Nevertheless for 99.9 percent of the United States the forces of righteousness were completely convinced that a new age of clean living and clean thinking had begun.
No One Will Violate Prohibition
Prohibitionists believed the enforcement laws of the Volstead Act would be easily instituted and that wets, obeying the law, would gracefully accept the inevitability of Prohibition. A revenue agent, Colonel Daniel Porter of New York, observed the penalties provided by the Volstead Act were so severe, a fine up to one thousand dollars and imprisonment up to six months for the first offense, that no one would attempt to break the law. Prohibitionists assured the American people that all remained to be done was a simple mop up operation. All were quite wrong.
Nevertheless Americans had been indoctrinated with the idea that the destruction of liquor traffic was the will of God and would cure all the problems of mankind. They were bound to try it.
There were some, however, that doubted Prohibition would work, and during debate in Congress a few senators and representatives feared in practicality it could not work. Former President William Howard Taft prophetically stated that the business of manufacturing liquor would fall out of the hands of law abiding citizens into the criminal element. He believed there were large numbers of communities where a majority of residents would refuse to go along.
Foretelling the challenge of what was to come, less than an hour after Prohibition begun a gang of six masked men bound and gagged the yardmaster and watchman in a Chicago rail yard. They proceeded to round up other trainmen then hijacked $100,000 worth of medicinal liquor from freight cars. Within the week over one hundred other large thefts were reported including from government warehouses where liquor was stored.
During the first year of Prohibition problems with enforcement multiplied rapidly. Within months raids on stills had increased one thousand percent. Saloons and barrooms simply went on behind closed doors, became known as speakeasies, and went right on serving liquor, obtained illegally. In Chicago as in the rest of the country doctors issues thousands of fake prescriptions for whiskey. Courts became clogged with thousands of Volstead Act violations. People of wealth and influence frequently failed to set examples of compliance with Prohibition. Liquor stashes were found with delegations to the Republican National Convention in Chicago and the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Drys generally ignored the trend and continued making optimistic statements and enforcement officials hoped things would get better. Congress hesitated to appropriate more money having been told few dollars would be needed to force compliance with Prohibition. No one really believed the “noble experiment” would fail.
Within the first year it became apparent that many Americans did not feel obligated to stop drinking the moment Prohibition became part of the U.S. Constitution. Although the precise degree of compliance with the law was difficult to access, polls indicated that at least one third of the adult population abstained, but Prohibition did not stop anyone who wanted to drink. As soon as saloons were outlawed and liquor made illegal and comparatively more difficult to get, it seemed everyone who wanted it was determined to have it. The forbidden beverages became irresistible for many. Judging from the demand the supplies stored away before Prohibition began must have dwindled rapidly. In response to consumer demand a variety of sources provided at first a small amount then later a flowing torrent of alcoholic beverages.
Where Did the Liquor Come From?
The great majority of alcohol came from illegal stills. The stills, large and small, spread by the hundreds of thousands across the country. During the first five years of Prohibition federal agents seized approximately 697,000 stills but admitted there were nine more operating for every one they shut down. Stills were in remote areas, in villages, towns, and cities. Hill country moonshiners got their names from working mainly at night by the light of the moon. Many stills were family operations set in basements, in tenement buildings, behind stores, and in old warehouses. After only a few years organized gangs began taking over alcohol makers’ operations. Many were too small for gangs to bother with but others became part of the gang networks. Many still owners had to pay off the gangsters to protect their deliveries of alcohol to customers. Organized gangs also operated their own large distilleries and paid off enforcement agents, police, and politicians to look the other way. Prohibition defined the future of organized crime, which, over-seen by the likes of Al Capone, was established and immensely wealthy by the late 1920s.
Pre-Prohibition real whiskey was made from mashes of various grains, mostly barley. The grains were allowed to ferment naturally, and no actual sugar was ever used. Real whiskey came out of the still pure white and took on its color and flavor only after aging in oak barrels for four to eight years. The illegal stills of the 1920s turned out cheap raw alcohol, not whiskey, made from a blend of sugar, water, yeast and any fermentable food scraps available, often from garbage scraps.
The second largest source of illegal alcohol for making false whiskey and gin came from the industrial chemical industry. Tremendous industrial growth after World War I led to the expansion of factories that required alcohol for manufacture of their products as medicines; candy, spices, extracts, cosmetics, insecticides, soap, and photography supplies. The Volstead Act allowed industrial alcohol to be manufactured by licensed distilleries. Industrial alcohol was “denatured” or made unfit for human consumption by adding any of some 76 substances, some of them strong poisons. To get a permit to buy the industrial alcohol, applicants simply had to show they had a use for it. Thousands of new chemical companies, many backed by bootleggers and gangs, sprang up but they never manufactured anything at all. They withdrew all the industrial alcohol their permits would allow and stored it until it was sent to “cleaning plants” where attempts were made to clean it and convert it back to pure alcohol fit for human consumption. The danger of course was in all the additives that could not be removed, leaving substances that made consumers very ill or that were deadly.
A third source of liquor was smuggled liquor, which was brought in to the country from boats anchored just beyond the U. S. jurisdiction, 12 miles out from the U.S. Eastern Shore. The rows of anchored boats became known as Rum Row. The boats brought liquor that had been imported from Britain, or from two tiny French islands, St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland that imported 118,600 gallons of British liquor in 1922. Considering the islands only had 6,000 residents, this was a sizeable amount of liquor. Boats laden with spirits obtained predominantly from Canada were likewise anchored off the Pacific coasts. On both coasts some of the boats catered only to the professional bootlegger affiliated with organized crime, while others sold by the case to anyone who motored out. Not surprisingly the rental of motorboats greatly increased during Prohibition.
Smugglers bringing liquor into the United States by way of land from Canada or Mexico had some advantages over smuggling on the high seas. Rum ships had to approach the United States from a limited number of routes, while the routes by land were numerous. An estimated 650 roads and trails led from Canada into the United States and one fourth as many led from Mexico into the U.S. American organized crime units operating out of Canada could draw from the legal production of Canadian distilleries and breweries which increased production dramatically. Smugglers ran boats into the United States by way of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence and Detroit rivers, and Lake Champlain. Mescal and Tequila rather than American type liquor came from Mexico. In both Canada and Mexico liquor was a legal commodity and did not become illegal until it crossed the U.S. border. Although it took approximately two years for Rum Row to be fully operational smuggling at the borders began immediately. It was impossible for Customs Service agents on land and the Coast Guard on waterways to maintain watches at more than a few places. With almost nothing to stop them fast boats raced across lakes and rivers, cars and trucks sped over border roads, horses and mules lumbered across trails, all carrying loads of liquor. By far the greatest quantity of liquor from Canada came aboard fast boats—some could carry one thousand cases at a crossing. In the mid-1920s officials estimated eight hundred to 1,500 rum boats traveled the Great Lakes. In winter boats were put on skis and pulled by cars across the frozen lakes. Only very old cars were used in case they broke through the ice and sank. More liquor landed at Detroit docks than in any other border city. The Detroit Newsin 1928 reported $35,000,000 worth of liquor came in to the United States through Detroit. Gangs made estimated payments of over two million dollars in pay-off money to Detroit officials alone.
In October 1921 the first airplane loaded with liquor left Winnipeg, Canada, for the United States. By 1930 sixty planes a month headed for landings in the U.S. Midwest. Rail cars were also employed in the liquor smuggling, and a common route ran from Buffalo, New York through Canada to Detroit. Even American tourists and Canadians visiting the United States wore coats and suits with many pockets to fill with pint bottles. Even congressmen were persistent smugglers from their overseas trips.
Amusing stories developed of smugglers bringing cartons of eggs, with blown-out eggs filled with whiskey. Life preservers filled with liquor containers if used to save a life would instead cause the person to sink. Wild stories developed such as the unsubstantiated tale that torpedoes filled with liquor roared through the Detroit River between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit each night.
Yet another source of liquor originated from government storehouses intended for medicinal use only. By 1926 one half to two thirds of the original supply had been removed by various means. The plan was for liquor to be released to wholesalers who in turn sold it to drugstores. Physicians could write a prescription for one quart of whiskey per patient per month. Almost anyone could get a prescription for a two-dollar office call fee. There were also thousands of false prescriptions with doctors’ names forged. All involved wholesalers, physicians, and druggists had to be licensed. The Prohibition Bureau gave permits to an average of 63,891 doctors annually, and by 1929 over one hundred thousand permits were in force. The physicians wrote over 11 million prescriptions per year.
Some of the big bootleg gangs used more direct methods to take liquor from warehouses. George Remus, a Chicago lawyer became one of the most successful liquor dealers in the country. He bought distilleries in Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri and thus became the legal owner of whatever whiskey was stored away in warehouses. After bribing any official that might conceivably get in his way he removed liquor at night with trucks and then transported it by railroad.
Whether the basic alcohol was moonshine alcohol, industrial alcohol, or real liquor smuggled into the United States or out of warehouses, all went to “cutting plants.” There the cheap alcohol or real whiskey was diluted with water, then colored and flavored. To give it punch, or “bead,” various chemicals were added such as glycerin, iodine, or even embalming fluid. Customers always looked for the fiery “bead” which they assumed was a sure sign of fine aged whiskey.
At the cutting plants, one case of alcohol or whiskey became three to five cases each bringing $50 to $70. Some bootleggers did their own cutting but most work was carried on in large plants in building basements or country hideaways. Thousands of cutting plants existed across the country. The Detroit News reported at least 150 in the city in 1928, most running full blast on three shifts each. Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all had at least as many operating as Detroit. An estimated five hundred to one thousand operated in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Large cutting plants were well protected by payoffs to officials and politicians.
The Real McCoy and Rum Row
At the onset of Prohibition in 1920 Bill McCoy was a boat builder in Jacksonville, Florida. One spring day a fellow in a fancy car drove up to the boatyard and offered McCoy $100 a day to sail from Nassau in the British Bahamas Islands to Atlantic City with a cargo of whiskey. McCoy turned him down but an idea had been planted in his mind. He immediately sold his boatyard business, and with the proceeds he bought a boat that could hold three thousand cases of liquor and began making trips from the Bahamas into remote southern locations. Carrying only genuine Scotch whiskey bought cheap in Nassau, McCoy soon learned that more money could be made selling the alcohol further up the coast in New York. After all, he was selling “the real McCoy!” Anchoring off the Long Island Coast beyond what was then the three-mile limit, McCoy sold to dozens of bootleggers who met him in small boats, and within hours of his arrival his entire cargo would be sold. McCoy made one voyage a month evading the Coast Guard for three years eventually delivering an estimated three million dollars of real liquor. He set a pattern that was mimicked by others, and soon a flotilla of hundreds of boats calling themselves Rum Row, lined up off the New England coast all supplying liquor to bootleggers who took it to shore for distribution. The term “rum” was a romantic holdover from rum smuggling in the 1700s and from the Prohibitionists’ habit of referring to all liquor as the “demon rum.” Actually, most rumrunners carried whiskey not rum. Keeping Rum Row well supplied, British exports of liquor to the Bahamas increased dramatically. For example Britain exported 944 gallons to the islands in 1918 but 386,000 gallons in 1922. Likewise the British exported 118,600 gallons of liquor to the tiny French islands off the coast of Newfoundland in 1922, which was quite a supply of liquor for an island population of six thousand.
After long negotiations the United States won an agreement with Britain and other foreign countries to push Rum Row to twelve miles from shore. All this accomplished in the government’s fruitless war on rum running was to drive the individual bootleggers in their small boats out of business. It strengthened gangster control of bootlegging since the gangster syndicates had the large fast boats.
The quality of goods actually reaching customers began to fall precipitously because bootleggers took the real imported whiskey and greatly diluted it so that one case of liquor became five cases. Out at sea most rum running boats now had holds full of cheap alcohol instead of real imported whiskey. They had full bottling and labeling operations on board and filled “custom” orders from the bootleggers. Bootleggers could order just what type of liquor they needed. To fill an order the on-board crew added appropriate coloring to the alcohol, bottled it with a label of a real brand, then dipped the bottles in saltwater to give them that “just off the boat” appearance. Thirsty Americans paid millions for the bootlegged whiskey but rarely was it ever again the “real McCoy.”
Beer freely flowed through the biggest hole in the Volstead Act. Although all breweries were suppose to close down they could reopen with permits as “cereal beverage” plants which meant they could produce beer that contained not more than one-half of one percent alcohol or a beverage called “near-beer.” The catch was the only way to make near-beer was to first make real beer in the usual way then draw off alcohol until the beer reached the legal percentage of alcohol. Not surprisingly that second step was often left out. Prohibition agents could do nothing as long as it remained in the brewery since breweries could say it was awaiting the final step. Then when no agents were aground, trucks rolled out carrying the real beer. Agents were frequently paid protection money to be sure all officials looked the other way as trucks left to deliver the beer.
Made at Home
Although some wineries were allowed to go right on producing wines for sacramental religious use, the Volstead Act also allowed making fruit juices and cider at home. The maker was supposed to stop the process before fermentation took place. Pamphlets were published instructing makers to be careful and told them what not to do, otherwise they would have wine in 60 days. Not surprisingly juice-makers often made just the mistakes warned against and ended up with wine.
Americans could learn everything they needed to know at any library where books and magazines described methods of distilling alcohol in ordinary kitchen utensils such as coffee percolators or teakettles. Almost immediately after Prohibition began stores sprang up selling hops (from grain which beer is made), yeast, corn, meal, grains, and all the apparatus for home brewing or home distilling. Ready to use stills, of one to five gallon capacity, were available for sale. Different flavorings such as imitation rye, bourbon, or scotch were sold. At times the family bathtub would be filled with water and alcohol purchased from a bootlegger, and by adding a few drops of juniper oil “bathtub gin” was ready. Drunk with juices or ginger ale the concoctions were quite passable. Once the knowledge of making liquor, beer, or wine was widespread little could be done to halt the process. Millions of Americans were breaking the law and no force could reach into all homes to stop them. Before Prohibition nearly all heavy drinking was done in saloons, restaurants, cafes, and cabarets, however, during Prohibition drinking became commonplace mainly in homes. The lemonade pitcher, formerly holding the beverage of choice for guests, might now be filled with gin. Home liquor cabinets were often elaborately concealed in case they should be raided.
The major watering holes outside the home were the speakeasies. Saloons had merely gone behind closed doors and resurfaced as speakeasies. The name was derived from the fact many “speaks” required an entering individual to speak an easy code word or phrase such as, “Joe sent me,” and some issued official looking cards to patrons. According to various estimates New York City’s 16,000 saloons grew to at least 33,000 speakeasies. Across the nation several hundred thousand speakeasies gaily served drink after drink. If agents raided a speak and arrested its bartender another bartender quickly took over and the speak was generally reopened the very same night.
To almost everyone’s horror except the women, speaks catered to men as well as women. Many American women began drinking as soon as liquor became illegal. Before the Eighteenth Amendment a nice girl would never think of taking a drink and the boy that did owed his hostess an apology.
A National Pastime
In 1920 alcohol became a symbol of independence, sophistication, romance and adventure. Young people began to carry flasks and if a boy took a girl out on a date without offering her alcohol he was considered a “drip.” Getting “plastered” seemed to be a national goal, and rarely was a college fraternity party planned without alcohol. Upper middle class Americans dealt with their favorite bootlegger who delivered liquor directly to their homes.
Breaking the law seemed to have become a national pastime, perhaps surpassing baseball as Americans’ favorite game. Otherwise law-abiding citizens had great fun devising ways to break the law. Undermanned and poorly equipped, government agencies had the impossible task of trying to dry up America and also keep it dry.
After repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, liquor regulation once again became the responsibility of local and state government. A flurry of experimenting with controls led to a few outrageous debates such as: should people stand or be required to sit while they drank and could establishments allow their patrons to be seen through the windows? Before long most areas settled down to well-enforced controls and regulations. The obsessive discussions during Prohibition concerning public and private drinking ceased. The basic forms of liquor control were government control of liquor sales through systems of licenses, taxes, and regulations such as location, hours of operation, and advertising. Some states decided on sales of liquor only through state liquor stores while a few continued Prohibition. Eight states prohibited the sale of hard liquor in 1936 but by the end of the 1930s most lifted Prohibition. Kansas kept Prohibition in place until 1948, Oklahoma until 1957, and Mississippi until 1966. Most states allowed a local option to ban liquor if a certain community so desired. In those states certain localities were “wet” and others were “dry” depending on what the voters of the area wished. As of 2000 wet and dry sections within a single metropolitan area still existed in a few locations such as Dallas, Texas.
During World War II (1939-1945) the brewing trade was viewed as a vital war industry for both civilian and military morale. Brewery workers were even given draft deferments. This point of view contrasted dramatically with the hostility directed at the brewing industry in World War I. During World War II, however, fifteen percent of beer produced was reserved for the military.
By 1940 all states had laws barring the old style saloon, and with the introduction of electric refrigeration and canned beer in the 1930s, a central drinking place lost some of its importance. Both men and women drank together at private parties, restaurants, bars, and at nightclubs that became symbols of ultimate sophistication. By the mid-twentieth century public drinking was only another form of entertainment, with alcohol once more becoming acceptable in the mainstream of American life.
From a legislative standpoint reformers and legislators recognized that laws must be voluntarily accepted by a vast majority of those affected in order to succeed. Enforcing a widely unpopular law upon an uncooperative populace proved to be a disaster. Lawmakers became resistant to try and reshape moral behavior with legislation. The New Deal set a pattern of dealing with improving economic, social and political opportunities but did not attempt to alter Americans’ wants or desires. The failure of national Prohibition closed the door on future national attempts to legislate abstinence, moreover legislators accepted that ordinary legislation should not be placed in the Constitution.
One lasting legacy of Prohibition was highly powerful and immensely wealthy organized crime syndicates. Drug trafficking proved to be a natural extension of bootlegging. Again it supplied a demand of an illegal substance desired by the public. During Prohibition government enforcers seized only five percent of liquor illegally entering the United States. Drug enforcement agencies reportedly seize no more than ten percent of illegal drugs coming into the United States. Over half of America’s prison population at the close of the twentieth century was jailed on drug charges. By 2000 trafficking in illegal drugs and dealing with its enormous monetary proceeds were organized crime’s biggest businesses.
With the end of Prohibition all individuals did not immediately drink only in moderation. Excessive drinking or alcoholism began to be viewed as a disease. Most people drank alcohol responsibly, but a minority was unable to control their drinking. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous formed and their members, all alcoholics, sought to help one another through to abstinence. Statistics show that alcohol consumption in America in 1990s was 2.8 gallons yearly of pure alcohol per person in the drinking age population. This was above consumption in the 1911 to 1915 pre-Prohibition level of 2.56 gallons. The youthful culture was given to underage drinking and binge drinking, which is characterized by consumption of a large quantity of alcohol (usually six or more drinks) in a few hours, a few times a week. In 1996 there were 17,126 highway deaths from alcohol related accidents. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since 1980 has pushed for stronger penalties against drunk drivers. “Designated driver” programs, where one partygoer pledges not to drink and be the driver for the group, have been emphasized throughout the nation. The concern for health and safety of young people echoes back to the underlying reasons for America’s Prohibition years.
Early to Mid-1920s
Advocates of Prohibition in the early 1920s did not want to just reduce alcohol consumption but wanted to eliminate it completely as part of the American lifestyle. They envisioned Prohibition as the centerpiece of a healthy, wealthy, law abiding and unified nation. The values of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) were formed in the late nineteenth century. Those values were based on faith in God, duty, self-denial, a strict social code, and protection of family. Prohibition seemed a necessary reform, and few doubted that, after a few years of trial enforcement of Prohibition, alcohol would cease to be a problem. The drys tended to ignore the growing lawless pattern, while federal officials presumed things would get better, and Congress was reluctant to appropriate more money for enforcement so as not to annoy voters.
In contrast a growing worldly consumer culture of the 1920s focused on youth, entertainment, and self-fulfillment. Where the saloons of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century had greatly offended the values of the middle class, the Prohibition speakeasies supplied a hint of mischievous adventure and enjoyment to the modern sophisticated 1920s middle class. More and more of these citizens began to view the Eighteenth Amendment as a social mistake and violation of personal liberties.
Both wets and drys at the turn of the century had expected women, once they had the right to vote, to form a powerful bloc of dry voters. This proved not to be the case. Women, just as men, demonstrated a wide variety of opinions on Prohibition. Unlike saloons, speakeasies welcomed women and women indeed came. Men and women drinking together became a popular social gathering.
College students, both male and female, also rather enjoyed the adventure of procuring alcohol, whether it was the less expensive domestic liquor or a more expensive “imported” liquor, and it was a social must to show up at parties with a flask. Of course there was always the chance a policeman might show up also but it was all part of the game. Plenty of bootleggers near college campuses kept the pocket flasks in raccoon coats and the garter-held flasks, well supplied. Drinking forbidden liquor was an act of bravado and evading the Volstead Act became a national sport among young adults.
At home, brews became family pastimes. Considerable time was spent discussing what brands of malt and yeast to buy for the home brew and how much sugar to add. Most of the otherwise law-abiding citizens looked on their home brews as only slightly illegal. The upper middle class, businessmen, and professionals could afford the expensive liquor at speakeasies or dealt with personal bootleggers who made home deliveries. More and more individuals routinely ignored Prohibition as the decade moved on.
Immigrants from European countries regarded drinking of alcoholic beverages as a normal part of everyday life. Alcohol was not regarded as a means to drunkenness rather it was drunk for enjoyment with most meals.
Despite growing disgruntlement with Prohibition, wets and drys alike believed any talk of repeal was a waste of time. Having Prohibition a part of the Constitution appeared to assure its continuance. Instead wets pushed for modification of the Volstead Act, particularly to allow the manufacture and sale of 2.75 percent beer.
Strong Anti-Prohibition Sentiments Develop
From its start, Prohibition had been strongly promoted as a reform that protected home and community from the influences of liquor. As the years went by, however, many Americans began to form the opinion that quite the opposite was occurring. Bootleggers became famous and organized crime groups became wealthier and more powerful by the day. Neighborhoods once considered respectable experienced shootouts. The public became outraged as increasing numbers of people died or became seriously ill or harmed from drinking bad bootlegged liquor. Moreover hundreds lost their lives or were injured in the violent gunplay of enforcement and gangster wars. Many viewed the U.S. government as responsible for creating the circumstances that caused injury and death to its own citizens. Daily news accounts of bribery and payoffs of enforcement officials, local police, politicians, mayors, governors, all dismayed the public. Americans who had supported Prohibition in 1919 began to view it as a failure. By 1926 many of those early Prohibitionists had shifted to supporting repeal.
The most strident opponents of Prohibition all along were writers, journalists, and intellectuals, who believed the government was trying to enforce a law that invaded millions of individuals’ personal lives. While some newspapers came out by the late 1920s as wet proponents, many others remained timid to do so. In 1929 newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst stated his opposition to Prohibition. Hearst viewed it just as corrupting to women and children as it was to men and as the creator of a powerful criminal class. Once Hearst made his pronouncement the floodgates opened for paper after paper to endorse their approval of a repeal.
Many wealthy businessmen began to back repeal not only because they feared growing lawlessness but because they wanted to cut their taxes. Prohibition was costing the federal government an estimate loss of one half billion dollars a year in liquor tax revenues that would have been collected if liquor was legal, therefore business taxes were up to cover the loss. By 1926 more businessmen became active members of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA). Likewise lawyers, realizing Prohibition had put an impossible burden on the Courts, formed the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers to work for repeal.
Other opponents charged that Prohibition violated states’ rights. They believed liquor should be regulated by the states not the federal government. Still others claimed the dry movement had long been a front for racial and religious bigotry. In the south Prohibition was largely enforced against black Americans but not against whites. Many Protestants looked upon Roman Catholics, who tended to be more recent immigrants and drank as part of their European heritage, as useless drunkards. Labor leaders saw little of the changes promised by Prohibitionists, and slums and poverty still dominated many of the lives of laborers.
Women Make the Decisive Stand
Although by the late 1920s, repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was supported by a number of groups for several different reasons, it was the women’s influence on repeal that was decisive. Due to the fact that women had long been associated with Prohibition, support of its repeal by large numbers of women was surprising and carried considerable influence. Some of the nation’s most prominent women devoted themselves to the repeal movement and formed the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) in 1929. Women exposed the moral problems that Prohibition had caused and linked repeal with protection of home, family and community. Women called on other women to battle the foe that threatened their ability to instill in their children a respect of the laws of the land. William H. Stayton, founder of the AAPA, observed that the women of WONPR had done more in only two years to bring about repeal than all the work done by men in the last decade.
Presidential Election of 1932
As Republicans gathered for the 1932 Presidential Convention considerable number of Republicans believed endorsing repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was their only hope of victory, while others thought endorsement would bring disaster to the party. Republicans ended up with a confusing platform, it did not support appeal but spoke of retaining federal government gains in liquor control nevertheless allowing some sort of revision for states to gain more control. Whatever the issue, most found it to be unintelligible.
In contrast the Democratic Party’s platform clearly stated they advocated repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, despite his wavering earlier in the decade, clearly threw his support behind repeal in 1932. In the American public’s perspective the parties were in opposite camps. The Republican Party became identified as dry and the Democrats as wet.
Many countries had experimented with Prohibition through history. Ancient China, Japan, India, the Scandinavian countries, and Canada are all examples. Finland adopted then repealed Prohibition in roughly the same time period as the United States. Finland had tried to steer its population to beer that had a lower alcoholic content than liquor. Sweden tried to stem alcohol use by issuing liquor ration books to its citizens. These attempts, just as in the United States, have been short lived. Only a few Muslim countries maintain national Prohibition.
Ella Boole (1858-1952)
Ella Boole grew up in Ohio, was educated in public schools and graduated from the College of Wooster. Ella married William Hilliker Boole, a Methodist minister and in 1883 settled into a spartan home at a pastorate in Brooklyn, New York. She immediately became active in the New York Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1925 Boole was elected national president of WCTU. Running as a Prohibition party candidate she made three unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 1920, 1922, and 1926. During a 1928 Congressional Hearing on Prohibition Boole proclaimed, “I represent the women of America.” Apparently disagreement with this comment led Pauline Sabin to form the Women’s Organization or National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Boole served as President of WCTU until 1933 and was head of the World WCTU from 1931 to 1946.
The du Pont brothers
The three du Pont brothers, Pierre (1870-1954), Irénée (1864-1935) and Lammot (1880-1952), belonged to the fourth American generation of du Ponts. The du Pont family had moved to Delaware in 1800 to escape the unrest in France. The brothers’ ancestors founded a gunpowder manufacturing business that prospered. The brothers, however, greatly expanded the family business by diversifying their manufacturing to include many chemical products. The oldest, Pierre, a shrewd businessman, built their wealth into a vast fortune. Irénée often served as the spokesman for his quieter two brothers. Lammot, the youngest, would actively run the family business after Pierre and Irénée stepped down.
By the mid-1920s the du Pont brothers became increasingly concerned about national Prohibition. Irénée, firmly believing in temperance, expressed alarm that Prohibition had made drinking fashionable and that all liquor money flowed to corrupt officials and bootleggers. He felt legitimate businesses were being heavily taxed to make up for lost liquor tax revenues. Irénée and Lammot joined the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) and Pierre followed in 1925. Pierre was concerned with the lawlessness, threats to property rights, loss of local government, decision-making power, and the fact that Prohibition had not stopped excessive drinking. Having stepped down from the active leadership in Du Pont Company and General Motors by 1925 Pierre had plenty of time to devote to AAPA. Lammot, although still actively running the business, contributed generously to AAPA. The du Pont brothers, along with their business associate and close friend John J. Raskob, became so involved with the repeal movement that many Americans instantly thought of these men when they thought of repeal.
John J. Raskob (1879-1950)
Born to poor immigrant parents in Lockport, New York, John Raskob was forced to support his mother, three brothers and a sister when his father died. Full of ambition, Raskob studied bookkeeping and stenography (writing in shorthand) and obtained a position as secretary to Pierre du Pont in 1902. The capable Raskob quickly rose to treasurer, then director and finally to vice-president of the du Pont Company. At the same time Raskob had invested in the struggling General Motors (GM) firm, while urging the du Ponts to do the same. Raskob and Pierre du Pont played a key role in restructuring GM. Raskob founded the General Motors Acceptance Corporation to allow Americans with modest incomes to buy cars with installment purchase (down payment, plus regular payments). As a loyal Democrat he served as the head of the Democratic National Committee from 1928 through Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1932.
Early in the 1920s Raskob became concerned with the developing lawlessness around the sale of illegal liquor. He joined the AAPA in 1922 and each year increased his monetary contributions. A Roman Catholic, Raskob worried about the country’s disrespect for law officials and the effect it had on raising American children with proper values. He was also deeply disturbed at what he considered the federal government’s intrusion into social affairs of his family and friends. Along with the du Pont brothers, Raskob became an outspoken member of the AAPA and greatly influenced the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.
Just prior to repeal Raskob had headed a consortium that built the Empire State Building in New York. It opened in 1931 as a mighty symbol of optimism for Depression-fearful Americans.
Pauline Sabin (Mrs. Charles H. Sabin) (1887-1955)
Born Pauline Morton of the famous salt company, Pauline was raised in a prosperous and highly political family. Her early life followed the path of fashionable education, marriage to a wealthy New York sportsman, J. Hopkins Smith, J., two sons, divorce, and owner of a profitable interior decorating shop. In 1916 she married Charles Hamilton Sabin, chairman of Guaranty Trust Company. The new Mrs. Sabin soon became involved in politics and helped found the women’s National Republican Committee. When women were added to the Republican National Committee she became New York’s first female representative.
Sabin’s concern over Prohibition developed gradually. At first she supported the Eighteenth Amendment explaining she thought the world without alcohol would be a “beautiful world,” however, the lawlessness and ineffectiveness of Prohibition soon began to change her mind. She also disdained the hypocrisy of politicians whom she observed voting for enforcement of Prohibition one hour and enjoying cocktails the next. But it appeared the “mother” in Sabin mainly put her on the road to fighting for repeal. In 1929, along with several other socially prominent friends, she founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). In less than a year 100,000 members were enrolled and 13 state branches were formed. The WONPR remained entirely apart from the AAPA of which Sabin’s husband was a member. WONPR’s appeal centered ironically on home protection just as the WCTU had in 1919 when the Eighteenth Amendment was first passed. Sabin explained that young women were working for repeal because they did not want their babies to grow up in the hipflask, speakeasy atmosphere that had polluted their own youth. By the 1932 presidential election the WONPR reportedly had 1.1 million members and when repeal was achieved in December 1933 over 1.5 million women were members. Among supporters for appeal, it was widely held that the women’s movement for repeal was decisive in doing away with Prohibition.
Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944)
Born in New York City, Al Smith grew up in the immigrant Irish-Catholic world—hardworking, Democratic and devoutly Catholic. An excellent politician, Smith was elected governor of New York in 1918, 1922, 1924, and 1926. Smith was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1924, a nomination he eventually won in 1928. Smith was an outspoken foe of Prohibition and of the Anti-Saloon League. In the 1928 presidential election Smith asked only for modification of the Volstead Act instead of outright repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, he made it clear he considered Prohibition unconstitutional, an intrusion into individual liberties, and a violation of state’s rights. His opposition to Prohibition, his Roman Catholicism, and support of immigrants was too much for many American voters, and he lost the presidential election to Republican Herbert Hoover.
William H. Stayton (1861-1940)
Born on a farm in Delaware, Stayton, of Swedish dissent, greatly valued his education. As a child he walked several miles to the nearest school in Smyrna. An appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis provided his escape from the farm. He later earned his law degree from Colombia (now George Washington) University Law School in 1891. By 1918 the white haired successful lawyer, businessman, and former Naval officer watched with alarm the progress of Prohibition. Having no financial interest in liquor, Stayton’s objection to the Eighteenth Amendment was based on his sincere belief in state’s rights. The loss of local decision-making power to a centralized federal government also deeply distressed him. The Eighteenth Amendment, according to Stayton, would be one more intrusion of the federal government into matters that should belong to the states. He and his friends formed the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) in November 1918 to oppose the Eighteenth Amendment. As a result of Stayton’s commitment, he became the guiding spirit behind the AAPA. At the core of AAPA philosophy was the belief that the Prohibition amendment and laws represented an intrusion of national government into local and private affairs. The AAPA attracted the support of prominent business leaders by the mid-1920s and grew into a significant force behind the repeal movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
James W. Wadsworth, Jr. (1877-1952)
James Wadsworth, elected as U.S. Senator from New York in 1914, opposed Prohibition throughout his political career. He voted against the Eighteenth Amendment when it came before Congress and publicly endorsed the AAPA. He believed the Constitution should not deal with matters properly left to the state as Prohibition. He predicted the unhappiness with Prohibition would result in disrespect for the law and the constitution itself. Wadsworth did not take an active role in the AAPA until after his defeat for reelection to the Senate in 1926. During the next seven years, Wadsworth worked tirelessly for AAPA’s campaign against national Prohibition. By his own estimate he delivered 131 speeches throughout the country on behalf of the AAPA.
Wayne Bidwell Wheeler (1869-1927)
Born in Brookfield, Ohio, Wayne Wheeler graduated from Western Reserve law school in 1898. Wheeler joined and went on to become a prominent member of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League (ASL). The League helped defeat an anti-Prohibition governor of Ohio, Myron T. Herrick in 1906. Wheeler, as an attorney for the national ASL pressed for passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. During the dry years of the 1920s Wheeler remained in Washington, DC, as ASL’s representative and attorney. He continued to push for ASL policies to reflect a strict law and order approach with big prison sentences for violators as opposed to an alcohol education focus. Wheeler died suddenly of a heart attack in 1927, leaving a major void in ASL leadership that Bishop James A. Cannon, Jr. unsuccessfully tried to fill.
C.H. Gervais in his book The Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook (p. 45), describes how he would smuggle liquor over the border from Canada into the United States during Prohibition.
I used to do it all the time—smuggle booze that is—I’d take my daughter over (to the States) in her pram. But underneath her, there was a false floor and I’d put the bottles in there. Then I’d give her a sucker, and off we’d go. And just as we got to Customs, I’d pull the sucker out of her mouth, and she’d howl. The Customs man, not wanting to put up with a screaming baby would just look at me and say, ‘Get out of here.’ And off we’d go. And of course, as soon as we were through, I’d give her another sucker.
Thoughts and Comments
John J. Raskob, General Motors executive and member of AAPA, shared in 1928 his concerns about the disrespect for the law and he wondered how he could teach his children temperance (quoted in Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition,1979, p. 84).
I am not a drinking man (this does not mean I never take a drink), am a director in corporations employing over three hundred thousand workmen and have a family of twelve children ranging in ages from five to twenty-one years. ‘The thing that is giving me the greatest concern in connection with the rearing of these children and the future of our country is the fact that our citizens seem to be developing a thorough lack of respect for our laws and life except getting caught … What impressions are registering on the minds of my sons and daughters…when they see thoroughly reputable and successful men and women drinking, talking about their bootleggers, the good “stuff” they get, expressing contempt for the Volstead Law, etc.? … what ideas are forming in their young and fertile brains with respect to law and order?’.
In Herbert Hoover’s speech accepting the nomination to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1928 he reveals his belief on Prohibition (from What Herbert Hoover Stands For, 1928, p. 15). Taken from this comment is the often used phrase, “noble experiment,” referring to the Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition.
I recently stated my position upon the 18th amendment which I again repeat:
I do not favor the repeal of the 18th Amendment. I stand for the efficient enforcement of the laws enacted there-under. Whoever is chosen President has under his oath the solemn duty to pursue this course.
Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose. It must be worked out constructively.
Common sense compels us to realize that grave abuses have occurred—abuses which must be remedied. An organized searching investigation of fact and causes can alone determine the wise method of correcting them. Crime and disobedience of law cannot be permitted to break down the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Modification of the enforcement laws which would permit that which the Constitution forbids is nullification. This the American people will not countenance. Change in the Constitution can and must be brought about only by the straightforward methods provided in the Constitution itself. There are those who do not believe in the purposes of several provisions of the Constitution. No one denies their right to seek to amend it. They are not subject to criticism for asserting that right. But the Republican Party does deny the right of anyone to seek to destroy the purposes of the Constitution by indirection.
Whoever is elected President takes an oath not only to faithfully execute the office of the President, but that oath provides still further that he will, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I should be untrue to these great traditions, untrue to my oath of office, were I to declare otherwise.
Groups for Repeal
The leaders and supporters of the Associated Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) agreed to a resolution drawn up by the new Board of Directors in 1928 (reprinted in Kyvig, p. 97).
RESOLVED, That we shall work, first and foremost, for the entire repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States … the intrusion of which into constitutional realms has so severely hurt our country … a task which is an affair for the policy power of each of our forty-eight separate and sovereign states, and never should be the business of the Federal Government.
The final Wickersham Commission reports, put out in 1931, sent contradictory messages concerning Prohibition. Franklin P. Adams, writer for the New York World made fun of the Commission’s report (reprinted in Kyvig, p. 114):
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime
It don’t prohibit worth a dime
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
Nevertheless, we’re for it.
End of Prohibition
The New York Daily Mirror rejoices with the city’s citizens in its final edition, Wednesday, December 6, 1933, that Prohibition was over. Utah was the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment. The headline and story was reprinted in Cabell Phillips’ From the Crash to the Blitz: 1929-1939, 1969, p. 174, 175:
PROHIBITION ENDS AT LAST!
New York got the breaks from Utah … The lid is off! … The 36th and most necessary State to ratify repeal of the Prohibition Amendment had dillied and dallied yesterday while New York fumed and then “out of consideration for the rest of the nation” … New York in particular … the long-dry Mormons opened their hearts and cast their ballots for repeal hours ahead of the time expected … Then the fun began!
Suggested Research Topics
- Should drugs be legalized in the United States? Are current anti-drug laws hindering or helping the fight against crime? List pros and cons of legalizing drugs.
- Research organized crime in the United States at the start of the twenty-first century. What is its main revenue source?
- Explore the relationship between drinking and automobile accidents. What attempts are being made to discourage drinking and driving?
- Compare and contrast the goals and beliefs of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). Did they have any common ground or common goal?
- Consider your cultural background. Do you think your ancestors supported or ignored Prohibition? Explain.