All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1971

“Thou Shalt Not Drink”

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 United States embarked upon a Noble Ex­periment: a millennium of social betterment could be brought about by Constitutional amendment and repeal of the law of supply and demand. It was the time the Eight­eenth Amendment began, and Pro­hibition became the law of the land.

The late newspapers of January 16, 1920—the very day Prohibition went into effect—reported that trucks loaded with contraband liquor had been seized in Peoria, Illinois, and New York City by Fed­eral agents. Other first-day accounts told of clandestine stills being raided in Indiana and Michigan, and the issuance of warrants for arrest of violators of the liquor law throughout New York State.

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 United States and all territory subject to the juris­diction thereof for beverage pur­poses is hereby prohibited.”

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.”

Eventual Repeal

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