The History of Prohibition – Pt 06

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The Noble Experiment

Alcohol Prohibition is the most successful single issue lobbying effort in the history of this country, but efforts to legislate morality are seldom the answer.  Our “noble experiment” with Prohibition shattered the notion that federal regulations can replace personal responsibility.

Certainly alcohol was causing social and economic problems in this country.  Alcohol abuse was wreaking havoc on many American families in the early 1900’s.   Consumption per capita was three times higher than it is today.  Reports of domestic violence were on the rise and drunken spouses were more apt to lose their jobs in a time when women were utterly dependent on their husbands for support.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union

WC Fields quipped, "There's not enough alcohol in the world to get me to kiss those lips."

From the start, the WCTU was at odds with science and facts.  Their solution was, “when facts collide with our beliefs, facts be damned.”  This stance caused some deft maneuvering to justify their cause.

Because the temperance movement taught that drinking alcohol was sinful, it was forced to confront the contrary fact that Jesus drank wine.   Their deceitful solution was to insist that Jesus drank grape juice.

The Biblical admonition to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake" (1 Timothy 5:23), was more difficult to explain away.   The WCTU insisted that the Bible was actually advising people to rub alcohol on their abdomens.  To avoid having to deal with these contradictions, they hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible to eliminate all references to alcohol. (Edwards, G, “Alcohol, The World’s Favorite Drug”)

The WCTU wrote the book on propaganda tactics that are still being used today.  They championed campaigns to demonize alcohol in schoolrooms across the country.  A popular demonstration had school teachers put half of a calf’s brain in an empty jar and slowly cover it with alcohol.   As the color of the brain turned from pink to gray, pupils were warned “this is your brain on alcohol,” which is eerily similar to the “this is your brain on drugs” campaign that featured an egg frying in a pan.”

Thankfully, not all their tactics were sucessful.  Temperance Leader Lucius Manlius Sargent’s campaign to get secondary schools, colleges and universities to eliminate all references to alcoholic beverages in ancient Greek and Latin texts failed to gain support.

WTCU propaganda poster.

The Anti-Saloon League

The Anti Saloon League managed to turn a moral issue into a Constitutional Amendment.  Wayne Wheeler, the politically astute de facto leader of the ASL, was the Grover Norquist of his day.  He required politicians to sign abstinence pledges and had the political clout to vote them out of office if they refused.

Wheeler formed alliances with interests as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP.  He got Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie, the leading industrialists of the time,  to join forces with the International Workers of the World to support the cause.

According to Wheeler's former Publicity Secretary, Justin Steuart:

Wayne Wheeler was described as the most important man in America

"Wayne B. Wheeler controlled six congresses, dictated to two presidents of the United States, directed legislation in most of the States of the Union, picked the candidates for the most important elective state and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”

The one major impediment standing in the way of Prohibition was the tax revenue that liquor sales generated (estimated at $500,000,000 annually); but once the income tax amendment was ratified in 1913, the ASL kicked into high gear.

Wheeler wasn’t above using any tactic to further his cause and the outbreak of WWI  gave him an opening to rail against beer and saloons.  To garner support against drinking, Wheeler exploited the growing ill-will toward Germans as America geared up for war.

The Influence of World War I

Anti-Saloon League propaganda poster.

Although most people in this country opposed entering the conflict overseas, Irish and German-born Americans suffered massive discrimination during the build up to war.   A 1910 census reveals that one-third of the inhabitants in this country were foreign-born or the children of immigrants, and a large majority of them came from Germany, Austria, and Hungary (the Central Powers).  There were also millions of Irish-born Americans whose hatred of the English led them to support the Central Powers against the Allies.

Both groups spoke out strongly against our government loaning money or supplying arms to the Allies as a violation of neutrality.  President Theodore Roosevelt questioned their loyalty to this country, declaring “that hyphenated- Americans who terrorize American politicians by threats of the foreign vote were engaged in treason to the American Republic.”

Once America entered the War, the hunt for spies and saboteurs escalated the backlash against the German culture.  Towns and city streets with German names were changed; Luxenburg, Mo was renamed Lemay.  In St. Louis, home to the Anheuser-Busch brewery, Berlin Avenue became Pershing Avenue, Kaiser Street was changed to Fourth Street, and in a monument to silliness, Dachshunds were renamed “liberty dogs.”

Anti-German feelings raged as America entered WWI.

ASL propaganda effectively connected beer and brewers with Germans and treason in the public mind.  Juries regularly acquitted defendants for acts of violence against German citizens.  It was forbidden to speak German on the telephone so American-speaking operators could eavesdrop on their conversations.  To avoid persecution, many Germans anglicized their names, Schmidt became Smith, Rau became Rowe.

Bad Business Practices

The alcohol industry did not help itself in courting public favor. Breweries realized they could increase profits by selling beer and whiskey by the glass.  Competition among distillers to increase their market share resulted in a flood of saloons across the country.   Saloons soon outnumbered all other retail businesses combined in most major cities.

The market over-saturation promoted cut throat business practices.  Distillers bribed saloon keepers to stock their brands exclusively.  If a saloon balked, it was not unheard of for the brewer to steal their best bartender and set them up in a business next door.  Saloonkeepers would try to lure patrons, particularly young men, by offering free lunches, gambling, cockfighting, prostitution and other "immoral" activities in their establishments.  It wasn’t difficult to persuade people to join the fight to stamp out saloons.

The Volstead Act

Although President Woodrow Wilson ordered a temporary prohibition on alcohol to save grain for the war effort in 1917, he vetoed the Volstead Act after Congress voted to amend the Constitution to prohibit alcohol.  The 18th Amendment only became law after Congress overrode Wilson’s veto.

By the time Representative Andrew Volstead submitted the 18th Amendment to Congress to ban the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol, thirty-three states had already passed laws to restrict alcohol - just shy of the 36 states needed to ratify the amendment.  Congress allowed a period of seven years for the ratification process, but the amendment garnered the support it needed in just under thirteen months.

The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 29, 1919 and went into effect a year later.  Prohibitionists rejoiced at what they believed would usher in a time of prosperity caused by sobriety and improved national morals.  Some towns even sold their jails after Volstead become the law of the land in the belief that Prohibition would lead to a sharp reduction in crime.

The Evil Consequences of Good Intentions

The reality proved the opposite.  Just a few minutes after the law took effect, six masked bandits armed with pistols emptied two freight cars full of whiskey from a rail yard in Chicago.  Another gang stole four casks of grain alcohol from a government bonded warehouse, and still another hijacked a truck carrying whiskey.

Prohibition created the environment for organized crime to flourish, but gangsters were only one side of the problem.  Federal agents routinely broke the law themselves. They shot innocent people and regularly destroyed citizens' vehicles, homes, businesses, and other valuable property.  International tensions boiled over when agents sank a Canadian ship which resulted in the death of a French sailor.

Pandora was freed from her box.  American was about to discover that making Prohibition the law of the land was one thing; enforcing it would be a different matter altogether.

by Patricia Smith,
Chair of Americans for Safe Access-Nevada County,

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