Mrs. Peterson is a free lance author and reviewer. This article is an abstract of a chapter from her forthcoming book, The Regulated Consumer, Nash Publishing Company.
Fifty-one years ago the
The late newspapers of
The Prohibition movement began in earnest around the turn of the century. Hatchet-wielding Carry Nation, with public prayers and condemnations of Demon Rum, set out with her pre-Women’s Lib disciples on a whiskey-bottle beer-keg smashing crusade through the nation’s saloons. Other Drys, led by two powerful lobbies—the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—steadily built up political power in Congress and state legislatures.
The movement was ready for a show of strength when President Wilson in 1919 vetoed the Volstead National Prohibition bill, originally a World War I food conservation measure. Congress promptly overrode the veto, rejecting the President’s forebodings of national scandals and Federal enforcement fiascos. Later the requisite 36 states ratified the new law, which read simply enough:
"The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the
Prohibition was hailed by the triumphant Drys as the dawn of a new era, a time of a new moral code of decency and sobriety. "The reign of tears is over," declared the nation’s No. 1 evangelist, Dr. Billy Sunday, and added: "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."
The Age of the Gangster
But somehow experience did not follow this happy prognosis nor the jubilant prediction of the Anti-Saloon League of New York that America was about to enter an age of "clear thinking and clean living." Instead it became an age of the gangster and the rum-runner, the bootlegger and the hijacker, the bathtub gin artist and the crooked judge.
Millions drank who never drank before. Alcholism, always a problem, became practically a national disease—and a national killer. Of 480,000 gallons of booze confiscated in New York in one "dry" year and subjected to chemical analysis, 98 per cent was found to contain poison.
A vast illicit industry on land and sea arose as supply attempted to meet demand. The Coast Guard became known as "Carry Nation’s Navy" as it pursued the sleek and swift, armed and armoured craft of Rum Row inside the 12-mile limit. Corruption and scandal dogged politician and policeman alike. During the first four dry years, some 140 Prohibition agents were jailed. In April 1925, a Federal jury in Cincinnati convicted 58 agents and policemen (two Pullman cars were needed to haul the miscreants to the Atlanta Penitentiary), and in the same month the Prohibition director for Ohio was found guilty of conspiracy with the underworld.
Underworld figures became national celebrities. Just about everyone knew about Waxey Gordon, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone. Capone, not always enjoying his fame, complained: "I call myself a businessman. I make money by supplying a popular demand. If I break the law, my customers are as guilty as I am. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality."
As lawlessness came to characterize the Roaring Twenties, the army of Wets and Prohibition’s disaffected grew. Ardent Prohibitionists joined the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (known among the Drys as the Bacchantian Maidens).
And, if war paved the way into Prohibition, depression paved its exit. The Wets, displaying not exactly sound economic thinking, blamed the Great Depression on the Noble Experiment, arguing, among other things, that Prohibition was foreclosing thousands of jobs and costing the taxpayer millions of dollars in fruitless enforcement and lost liquor taxes.
In 1932 both Presidential candidates Roosevelt and Hoover called for repeal. In April 1933, beer of not more than 3.2 per cent alcohol was authorized by Congress and later that year the Twenty-first Repeal Amendment became law. Prohibition was dead.
If any lessons can be drawn from Prohibition, it may be that the easy call to "pass a law" to bring about a millennium does not always work, that the supposed cure can be worse than the disease, and that the economic law of supply and demand can be a lot more pervasive than the countervailing legislated law of the land.
Dependence or Liberty
The two notions—one to regulate things by a committee of control, and the other to let things regulate themselves by the conflict of interests between free men—are diametrically opposed; and the former is corrupting to free institutions, because men who are taught to expect Government inspectors to come and take care of them lose all true education in liberty. If we have been all wrong for the last three hundred years in aiming at a fuller realization of individual liberty, as a condition of general and widely-diffused happiness, then we must turn back to paternalism, discipline, and authority; but to have a combination of liberty and dependence is impossible.
WILLIAM GRAHAM SUMNER, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other