Prohibition: A Great Moral Re-Awakening
Posted on 27th July 2021
Prohibition was one of those issues that along with abortion and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution revealed in the starkest terms the deep schisms that have always existed in American society; the difference between the cosmopolitan, free-wheeling and not always interchangeable attitudes of big city life and the deeply conservative values of rural and small town America.
A large part of the United States sense of itself comes from the ‘Puritan Myth’, that it was founded by European settlers who having fled religious oppression in their homeland had landed in America determined to create a new nation under God.
The values that the Pilgrim Fathers espoused of sobriety, hard work, that everything they did had a moral and Godly purpose and that the colony they had created should be in a state of permanent self-improvement have permeated American society ever since. Yet barely half of the 102 colonists, who had sailed from Southampton, England, in September 1620, were Puritans at all but what they stood for and believed in would come to dominate the lives of the early colonists.
William Bradford, one of the leading colonists referred to America as a “vast and un-peopled continent” but this was far from the case, not only were there a great many ethnic Indians but the Pilgrim Fathers were not even the first European colonists. The French were already in Canada, the Spanish had advanced as far north as Florida and in Virginia the colony of Jamestown had been settled since 1607.
But it is to the Pilgrim Fathers that America looks back to for the values that underpin it as a society. It was to be, as the first Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop referred to in a famous sermon of 1630, the “City on the Hill,” a land chosen by God to be an example to the world.
America was to be a country that prided itself on the freedom of the individual and it was this sense of freedom, the rights of the individual, and a willingness to combat perceived oppression that in large part drove the War of Independence against British colonial rule.
Its fear of big Government and that too much power should ever be in the hands of one man or group is reflected in the strict separation of powers enshrined in the constitution.
Despite this, Prohibition was an attempt by some to impose their values on others, to dictate how they should live their lives. For a nation that is built on the concept of individual freedom to restrict that freedom at its most fundamental level was a bold act. It was both an attempt at self-improvement and an act of oppression. It was in turn a reflection of how America saw itself and contrary to everything they stood for.
Drinking was a visible vice and one that could be seen in every main thoroughfare, on every street corner in every town and city the length and breadth of the country. Public drunkenness was commonplace. By, 1830 it has been estimated that the average American man drank the equivalent of 80 bottles of whisky a year.
The following decades saw a Protestant religious revival sweep the country, congregations swelled as Church attendances reached unprecedented levels and the prevailing view became one that the country needed a moral cleansing.
The most obvious sign of the decline in moral values was the public drunkenness mentioned, the lewd behaviour that it invoked and the saloon bar that seemed to be on every street corner; and at the forefront of this mission to curb the consumption of alcohol were to be women, so often the victims of idle, negligent, and violently abusive husbands ruined by the demon drink.
A woman’s role in nineteenth century America however was expected to be a passive one. They were to be the obedient daughter, the dutiful wife, the diligent caring mother and little else. It was not intended that they should have a paid job or a career and certainly not to involve themselves in political campaigns or moral crusades.
As early as February 1826 the American Temperance Union had been formed in Boston, it grew rapidly and by the 1840’s had some 6,000 chapters throughout the country with more than 1,500,000 members. Of these around half were women but they wielded little influence over the strategy of the movement and were not even permitted to speak at its public meetings.
If the women who saw themselves as the victims of their men’s slavery to the demon drink were to play a decisive role in the restriction of its consumption, then they would have to form their own groups.
On 2 April 1840, six men who openly described themselves as drunkards met at Chases Tavern on Liberty Street in Baltimore and vowed to never take another drink. They also decided to form an organisation for men such as themselves who wanted to do the same. They named it the Washingtonian Society. It was to be a self-help group where ex-drunkards such as themselves could meet together, share experiences, swap stories and flush out their demons. It was an early forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Washingtonian Society was greeted with indifference by the Temperance Movement because it did not actively call for the prohibition of alcohol. In its short existence however more than 500,000 men are believed to have attended their meetings at one time or another.
As early as the 1840’s it seemed simply taking the pledge to abstain from alcohol was no longer enough and that the Temperance Movement was already looking towards its total abolition. Alcohol was increasingly seen by many people as the root cause of all society’s ills. It was responsible for idleness, sloth, violence and crime. If only reliance upon it could be curtailed then America could once more be the beacon of hope to the world.
The calls for total abstinence were on the rise and groups such as The Sons of ‘Temperance and the Templar’s of Honour and Temperance began to spring up in small towns across the country while young boys and girls were encouraged to join their so-called ‘Coldwater Army’ and pledge never to touch alcohol in their lifetime.
In Portland, Maine, the Mayor Neil Dow had long campaigned for a law restricting the availability of alcohol in the State. On 2 June 1851, he at last got his way when the State legislature passed a law banning its sale and manufacture.
Though there had long been dry counties in America this was the first time that a State had passed legislation imposing a blanket ban and a delighted Mayor Dow set about with gusto closing down the many saloons, liquor stores and any other outlet that sold alcohol.
When a crowd of around 3,000 mostly Irish immigrants came onto the streets to protest, he called out the State Militia which in the ensuing violence fired upon the crowd killing one and wounding seven.
The people of Portland and in the rest of the State soon found ingenious ways of circumventing the law. Fishermen smuggled alcohol in barrels disguised as part of their catch and preserved fish in alcohol which they later siphoned off and sold. Saloon owners and bartenders would sell other items at exorbitant prices and then throw in a free drink while men people appeared on the streets with bottles hidden in their trousers selling drinks at a dime a time. They became known as bootleggers in what was a sign of things to come.
The Temperance Movement stalled during the years of the Civil War when recourse to alcohol to escape the horrors of battle and alleviate against the grief of loss became ever more commonplace. The increased consumption of alcohol soon became a valuable source of income to a government that was desperately scrambling around to find new ways to finance a ruinously expensive war.
In 1862, the Federal Authorities licensed the brewery and distillery business at $20 a year and taxed beer at $1 per keg and 20 cents of every gallon of distilled spirits. By the end of the conflict a full third of the Federal budget came from the tax raised on alcohol production and the Government’s reliance upon the brewing industry for finance had appeared to secure its future. It was a setback to those who wished to see restrictions imposed upon its sale, but it wasn’t to prove as fatal to their cause as at first appeared.
In the decades following the end of the Civil War the fight to prohibit the sale of alcohol was to grow as never before and was to become part of a wider reform movement. It was also to divide Americans into Dries and Wets where there was to be little room for the middle ground.
On 23 December 1873, in the small town of Hillsboro, Ohio, an elderly woman by the name of Eliza Jane Thompson was encouraged by a visiting preacher, Diocletian Lewis, to take to the streets if she wished to close down the 20 or more saloons that she believed were blighting life of ordinary people.
She gathered around 200 women and after a meeting at the local First Presbyterian Church, she led them, all dressed in black, into town. Once there they blocked the entrance to the saloons, fell to their knees and prayed.
It was to be the beginning of a crusade that was not only to close the 20 saloons in Hillsboro but 1,300 others throughout Ohio and in the next few months the campaign spread to 22 other States.
At first the women had been greeted with some condescension and were subject to gentle mocking and mild abuse but as the crusade gained momentum, they were to find themselves spat at in the street and pelted with stones.
Eliza Jane Thompson was just to be one of many women who took the course of direct action to rid her local area of alcohol, another who adopted a more forceful approach in neighbouring Kansas was, Carrie Nation.
Carrie Nation was a tall, powerfully built woman of stern demeanour who had previously been married to an alcoholic and had a hatred of the demon drink that knew no bounds.
She had been a member of various temperance groups but for her petitioning local politicians and silent prayer was never going to be enough. She described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus barking at what He doesn’t like,” and what He didn’t like it appeared was saloons.
Despite the State of Kansas being the first to amend its constitution to prevent the sale of alcohol in 1881, it was a law little enforced. If the State Authorities wouldn’t act then Carrie Nation would, and so armed with a hatchet and sometimes accompanied by others, she would greet the bartender with words such as “You are the destroyer of souls” and then proceed to smash the saloons furniture and fittings.
Her activities as the ‘Hatcheteer’ brought Carrie Nation great notoriety and even a stage play about her life on Broadway but of far greater significance than vicarious celebrity for the prohibition movement was to be a quiet, retiring New York spinster named, Frances Elizabeth Willard.
In 1879, she had been appointed to lead the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but she saw the organisation as more than just a movement dedicated to ridding the nation of the evils of alcohol but as a campaign for women’s rights and a great moral cleansing in all things. Moreover, it was not just to be restricted to America but was to be a global campaign and her Christian Socialism was to embrace with fervour what she saw as the social ills of her day. She established homes for women fleeing domestic abuse and orphanages for abandoned children and worked tirelessly for female enfranchisement.
The key to a better America she believed was for women to have equal voting rights with men. She called it her Home Improvement Movement; but most important of all she believed was the education of children.
In 1880, she appointed Mary Hanchett Hunt to head the newly established Department for Scientific Temperance Instruction. Her mission was to get instruction on the effects of alcohol taught in schools. She was to prove a very effective campaigner using the full weight of the WCTU’s 250,000 strong membership and many others besides to tirelessly lobby their Congressmen, State legislators and local School Boards.
The campaign was an enormous success and by the turn of the century anti-alcohol instruction was being taught in most schools the length and breadth of the country.
What they taught was hardly balanced however and often lurid and grossly inaccurate. Children were taught that just one sip of alcohol would burn away the throat, that young women who drank would never be able to bear children, and that it could even make someone spontaneously combust.
Whilst the Women’s Christian Temperance Union under the leadership of Frances Willard continued to campaign effectively on a number of issues in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, a new organisation was formed by the Reverend Howard Hyde Russell. It was to be a solely political pressure group with just one aim - the prohibition of alcohol. They targeted politicians at a local and national level in areas where there was strong support for prohibition and who were vulnerable to the votes of their electorate.
His Anti-Saloon League worked hard to unite the Protestant Churches in his mission to make America dry and except for the Episcopalians and German Lutherans was largely successful. The creation of the Anti-Saloon League also coincided with a new period of mass-immigration to the United States that was to change the arguments surrounding the issue of prohibition and the focus of the campaign. it was no longer just to be about whether America should be dry or wet but what was considered American and what was not.
The majority of new immigrants to the cities of the United States were Catholics from Italy and Ireland and Jews escaping the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Prohibition now became an argument not just about alcohol. It was Protestant against Catholic, foreign versus native born, and the city in opposition to the small town and rural America.
The immigration issue added new impetus to the Prohibition Movement and reinforced old prejudices that saw the overwhelmingly white and Protestant South and mid-West view the cities of the Eastern Seaboard as seething cauldrons of vice populated by foreigners who were damaging the moral and public health of the nation.
Christian Evangelists such as the popular and influential Billy Sunday who spread the temperance message far and wide were listened to and heard but the Anti-Saloon Leagues most effective campaigner was Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, he targeted local politicians who were known to oppose prohibition but only those with majorities that could conceivably be overturned, and he did so with startling success. Indeed, it came to be seen that to oppose Wheeler and his army of moral crusaders was to effectively put your political career on the line and many not wanting to do so changed their views.
The Prohibition Movement was given a further boost when it at last gained the support of the Christian Evangelist and three times Presidential candidate who would later become Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. He had initially seen prohibition as a local issue to be settled county by county and State by State, but he had since been won over to the need for a national ban.
One of the leading politicians of his day and known as the “Great Commoner” for his trust and belief in the simple wisdom and honesty of the ordinary people he was also hugely popular as a celebrated orator, and people flocked to hear him speak.
William Jennings Bryan with his zeal for campaigning and great oratorical skills was to prove a great asset to the prohibitionists.
The brewing and distilling industry fought back against the prohibitionists, but they also fought among themselves.
Those who brewed beer in America were overwhelmingly German, the most powerful of whom was Adolphus Busch who took it as his personal mission to keep America wet and he spent a fortune on advertising and lobbying politicians. The beer he produced was promoted as the healthy alternative to spirits which was the real cause of alcohol related problems in the country, and he even went as far as to accuse the distillers of poisoning America. He also paid for poor immigrants to register as voters sweetening the occasion with beer at a knock-down price.
In October 1901, he played a pivotal role in the formation of the German-American Alliance to promote beer drinking and oppose prohibition which it saw as an attack upon German culture and values. It soon had a membership of 2 million.
To the rest of America, it merely highlighted the argument that alcohol consumption was a foreign vice and essentially un-American.
The fight-back by the alcohol producing industry cemented its position in the cities but made little impact elsewhere in the country. Nonetheless, they felt confident that they could see off the Prohibition Movement if only because they knew that a full third of the Government’s revenue came from taxes on alcohol.
In early 1913, however, Congress passed the 16th Amendment permitting the levying of a nationwide income tax. States, some of which received more than 70% of their revenues from excise duties, were also now able to tax incomes. The Anti-Saloon League which had vigorously supported the measure had won a momentous victory.
The alcohol producing industry had lost its security blanket.
On 10 December 1913, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League marched on Washington not merely to demand a law to prohibit alcohol but rather an amendment to the Constitution; with them they carried cards for the public to sign and take the pledge.
That same day Senator Maurice Shepherd from Texas proposed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and Representative Richmond B Hobson of Alabama introduced it into the House. The motion was supported by such powerful people as the industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford.
It was a massive breakthrough for the Prohibition Movement, but it still remained a tall order to change the Constitution. They would need to achieve not just a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Congress but also the same majority in two-thirds of the States - but they now had the momentum.
Already by 1913 the States of Maine, North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia had already changed their Constitutions to ban the production and sale of alcohol and they were soon to be joined by Arkansas, Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, Washington, Nebraska, Oregon and Colorado.
In January 1916, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated President for a second term and though he was personally opposed to Prohibition his Democratic Party much of whose strength and support came from the Deep South no longer was, and the Congress he had to work with was by now overwhelmingly dry.
He did little, and probably could do little, to challenge those who wished to make America dry and his declaration of war on Germany in April 1917, only served to give it further impetus.
More than ever the Catholic and Jewish dominated cities and the large German population in the mid-West were seen as alien, un-American and even dangerous. Drinking alcohol was considered to undermine the war effort and was seen as an un-patriotic act.
The brewing industry dominated by German owned companies became a particular target of abuse and the German-American Alliance which had been formed to defend German culture and their right to drink beer had unfortunately also been vocal in their support of the German war effort, was now seen by many to be an untrustworthy, if not a downright traitorous organisation.
Though the motion for an amendment to the constitution to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol had been put on the back-burner due to the war effort and had stalled as a result, a majority remained in favour of it in both Houses of Congress. Meanwhile, the Wets had not given up hope of derailing it altogether.
The Republican Senator for Pennsylvania, Boyes Penrose, threatened a filibuster unless the Dries accepted a time limit for them to get the amendment passed in the legislatures of the 36 States required to make it law. He set this limit at seven years believing that it could never be achieved in such a short period of time. Much to everyone’s surprise Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, who was by this time the de-facto head of the Prohibition Movement, agreed to do just that and a suitably delighted Penrose proceeded to celebrated Wheeler’s seemingly reckless decision with a drink.
With the threat of filibuster withdrawn on 18 December 1917, the amendment was passed in the House of Representatives by 282 votes to 128 and sent to the States for ratification.
In fact, it took Wheeler and his associates just thirteen months to obtain the two-thirds majority required when in January 1919 Nebraska became the 36th State to pass it into law.
The Volstead Act, named after the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Andrew Volstead, who steered it through Congress but better known as the Prohibition Act, was ratified by both Houses on 16 January 1919, but was not due to become law until January 1920.
It continued to be bitterly opposed however, and a last ditch attempt to veto the legislation in October 1919, by President Woodrow Wilson was overwhelmingly overturned in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Volstead Act stated that: “No person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver or furnish intoxicating liquor except as authorised by this act.” This covered any beverage that contained more than 0.5% alcohol. The new Federal law overrode any existing State legislation, but at no point did it make the actual consumption of alcohol illegal.
On the night of the 15 January 1920, the great and the good of the Prohibition Movement gathered at the First Congregational Church in Washington to worship and to celebrate the crowning moment of what they had fought so long and hard to achieve. The keynote speaker was William Jennings Bryan and as the clocks struck midnight he brought his speech to a resounding crescendo as quoting from the Book of Matthew he said: “They are dead who sought to take the young child’s life. They who would kill us we have killed them.”
The passage of the Volstead Act had been a remarkable achievement and those who had campaigned for it believed it would usher in a new golden age for the United States. A return to the solid, sober Protestant values that had made America great, and that idleness, sloth, want and squalor would be eradicated forever. America, they believed would undergo a new moral re-birth, that they had changed the country forever, after all no amendment to the constitution had ever been revoked.
The same night that Prohibition was being celebrated with such fervour at the First Congregational Church in Washington distilleries were being raided, breweries broken into, and trucks transporting liquor hijacked on the streets of Baltimore, New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
Prohibition had been passed but the new law was riddled with inconsistencies from the outset.
Doctors could still prescribe alcohol for medicinal reasons and the number of such prescriptions was to quadruple in the next few months; wine could still be used in religious ceremonies and church services were soon being attended as never before. The amount of wine ordered was way above what was required and many a diocese got rich on the surplus. It was also still possible to produce up to 200 gallons of your own wine and cider for personal use as long as the ingredients used did not infringe the law.
The delay of a year before the law was enacted also allowed those who could afford to do so stockpile their own supply of alcohol and saloons and liquor stores were stripped of their produce. Also, little provision had been made to enforce the new law.
The United States Bureau of Prohibition that had been created to do so had only 1,500 Officers to cover the entire country and was woefully underfunded. Many States, particularly those that had opposed the passage of the Volstead Act, were unwilling to spend their money on enforcing this unwanted and unpopular Federal law, they didn’t see it as their problem and the porous borders of Mexico and Canada where alcohol remained legal saw liquor flood into the United States where it soon made its way to the big cities. It was also smuggled into the States in large quantities from the Caribbean through the long and largely unprotected south-eastern seaboard.
The Prohibition Era, the Jazz Age or the Roarin’ Twenties as it became known, rather than seeing the expected reduction in crime saw it increase by on average 25% in most cities with a 44% rise in drug abuse. It was also a law that was soon being honoured mostly in the breach. In Chicago alone there were estimated to be more than 10,000 Speakeasy’s, or illegal drinking dens.
Gangsters such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran who had previously made their living off prostitution and gambling were now making unprecedented fortunes supplying the alcohol their fellow citizens craved. Indeed, many people did not even consider them to be breaking the law, or if they were it was breaking a bad law. Instead, they were thought to be providing a public service, modern day Robin Hood’s opposing law enforcement on behalf of the common people. As a result, in the eyes of many they were heroes, some even became celebrities in their own right.
Such was the amount of money to be made it was easy to bribe city and town officials to turn a blind eye to their activities and pay police officers to look the other way. It was also to be the cause of inter-gang rivalry that soon spread onto the streets. The drive-by shootings and machine-gunning to death of rivals in broad daylight and the incidents that also claimed the lives of innocent bystanders could not be ignored. Chicago was to become known as the “Murder Capital” of America.
The extent of the violence was to lead one politician to suggest to President Calvin Coolidge that he withdraw U.S Marines who were then engaged in Nicaragua, to patrol its streets.
Gangster films were to become the popular new movie genre of the day and it all soon added up to make a laughingstock of the very idea of prohibition. Even in the rural heartland where support for prohibition was at its strongest illegal stills were commonplace and as the satirist Will Rogers remarked: “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.”
When Woodrow Wilson left the White House, he took his personal stock of alcohol with him. President Warren G Harding’s regular poker game was fuelled by alcohol supplied by a local bootlegger. Hypocrisy and cant was rampant.
By 1925, just five years into prohibition it was already being widely seen to have failed. Some believed that the law needed to be adapted so as alcohol consumption could continue to be restricted without there being a blanket ban, but the Prohibition Movement would not budge on the issue. Even though organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan were using the prohibition issue to garner political support, violent crime in the major cities was spiralling out of control and corruption in political life was rife the Prohibitionists remained adamant – there could be no dilution in the ban on the production and sale of alcohol. It was all or nothing.
Stung by the criticism the Government strengthened the powers of those responsible for enforcing prohibition, more officers were employed and to prevent bootleggers from stealing and using industrial alcohol to make illegal hooch the Treasury Department ordered manufacturers to poison it with potentially lethal methyl alcohol. It was hoped that this would stop it being used as a source of illegal liquor, it did not, and it is believed that as many as 10,000 people died from the results of drinking contaminated alcohol during the prohibition period.
Despite the greater resources provided to those Agencies charged with implementing the law and the much-publicised displays of successful raids by Prohibition Agents on warehouses which saw barrels of beer smashed and bottles of alcohol shattered many stage-managed often with the complicity of the bootleggers themselves, little changed.
On October 24, 1929, Black Tuesday, Wall Street crashed. The Roarin’ Twenties were over and the United States along with the rest of the world was plunged into what was soon to become known as the Great Depression. Millions of Americans were to lose their jobs along with their life savings and the very idea that prohibition was the heralding of a new dawn of prosperity for America seemed so much hooey.
On 4 March 1931, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated President, promising a New Deal for the American people. His predecessor Herbert Hoover had been heavily criticised for not seeming to do enough to help those who had fallen on hard times. Roosevelt would be more pro-active and interventionist using capital projects to create jobs where there were none. This however took money and the coffers were empty. The potential tax revenues from the production and sale of alcohol would be immense as would the savings made in the enforcement of prohibition. It would also create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce the influence of organised crime.
The repeal of the 18th Amendment seemed to make sense on almost every level except perhaps the moral one.
On 22 March 1932, President Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act which permitted the sale once more of beer along with a number of wines. The law was greeted with relief as much as enthusiasm and Roosevelt was applauded when he signed off with the words: “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
At the same time as the Cullen-Harrison Act was becoming law the process to repeal the 18th Amendment was already underway.
Few people thought that prohibition was anything but dead in the water and despite a great deal of wailing from its ever-declining number of supporters and threats that the Wrath of Jehovah would befall America if it reneged on its deal with God there was little organised resistance against it.
On 17 January 1933, the 21st Amendment ending prohibition was ratified coming into immediate effect.
America’s attempt at a great moral re-awakening had come to an end.
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