Two years after Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in Federal prison (only one year of his sentence was for bootlegging), alcohol prohibition was repealed. The Noble Experiment failed at every level. It neither curtailed drinking nor did it reduce alcoholism. It didn’t end poverty, and it certainly didn’t end crime as proponents had passionately proclaimed.
Instead, violent crime rose to staggering levels, homicides increased dramatically, and respect for law enforcement officials plummeted. Alcoholism rates soared as people switched from beer to booze, and deaths from tainted merchandise became commonplace.
Journalist, H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925, “Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle
Citizens from every level of society simply refused to embrace Prohibition. Most people continued to drink as usual and record numbers of new enthusiasts joined them - including legions of newly liberated women. The laws were so blatantly abused that a foreign dignitary visiting New York City in 1925 inquired, “When is Prohibition scheduled to start?” not realizing it already had been in effect for years.
Prohibitionists argued for tougher enforcement, but increased efforts to control alcohol only resulted in greater government expenditures, peaking at $40,000,000 in 1932 as the number of Americans being incarcerated grew to record numbers. By 1932, over two-thirds of the inmates in this country were being held on alcohol and drug related charges.
There is no question that the Great Depression helped spur the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform estimated $861,000,000 was lost in federal tax revenue during our country’s thirteen year experiment. The politics of the Progressive Movement expected the top income earners to make up the deficit; and when the Federal government raises tax rates on the wealthy, change is around the corner.
It is interesting how the same cast of characters keeps reappearing throughout Prohibition history. Although a lifelong teetotaler, Rockefeller’s early support for Prohibition was clearly a matter of self-interest. Henry Ford’s cars were designed to be affordable to the common man and they could be fueled by either renewable, farm-based bio-fuels (ethanol) or petroleum. Rockefeller lobbied through the ASL's Wayne Wheeler to ensure that the 18th Amendment outlawed the production of farm alcohol (ethanol) along with bootleg booze.
Ten years later, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wrote a ground breaking letter that was republished in 4,509 newspaper editorials calling for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Junior presented repeal as a clean slate on which “practical measures for the promotion of genuine temperance” could begin.
The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment was largely bankrolled by the influential duPont brothers who played a major role in outlawing marijuana a few years later. By some accounts, Pierre S. duPont earned more and paid more in taxes than any other American in 1929. His views on prohibition had less to do with moral outrage and everything to do with creeping government control over corporations. In The Corporate State and the Broker State: the du Ponts and American National Politics, 1925 - 1940, author Robert F. Burk offers several compelling reasons for duPont’s opposition to prohibition, but he tends to see it as a prelude to a larger crusade against mass democracy and toward a corporatist-elitist state.
With slippery-slope logic, they asked: if the government persisted in enforcing a law that was unenforceable because
it interfered with long-established private activity and custom, what was to stop it from further interfering with people’s civil and economic liberties? Unless, of course, those laws financially favored their bottom line.
It took less than a year for 36 states to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment that repealed the Volstead Act. In a strange twist of fate, Utah, a state habituated with teetotaling Mormons, provided the final vote to end Prohibition.
Excerpt from NY Times, Dec. 5 1933:
Washington, Legal liquor today was returned to the United States, with President Roosevelt calling on the people to see that "this return of individual freedom shall not be accompanied by the repugnant conditions obtained prior to the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment and those that have existed since its adoption."
President Roosevelt at 6:55 P.M., signed an official proclamation in keeping with terms of the National Industrial Recovery Act, under which prohibition ended and four taxes levied to raise $277,000,000 annually for amortization of the $3,300,000,000 public works fund were repealed.
He enjoined all citizens to cooperate with the government in its endeavor to restore a greater respect for law and oder, especially by confining their purchases of liquor to duly licensed agencies. This practice, which he personally requested every individual and every family in the nation to follow, would result, he said, in a better product for consumption, in addition to the "break-up and eventual destruction of the notoriously evil illicit liquor traffic" and in tax benefits to the government. As a means of enforcing his policy, the President has the Federal Alcohol Control Administration ready to take control of the liquor traffic and regulate it at the source of supply.
There is little doubt that Prohibition failed to achieve what it set out to do, and that its unintended consequences far outweighed its few benefits. According to historian Michael Lerner, the ultimate lesson is twofold: “Watch out for solutions that end up worse than the problems they set out to solve, and remember that the Constitution is no place for experiments, noble or otherwise.”
Patricia Smith is Chair of Americans for Safe Access- Nevada County. For more info, please visit www.asa-nc.com