American Prohibition has come to be known as the “noble experiment”. Based on a quote from a speech by President Herbert Hoover, who characterized Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment with noble motives and far-reaching consequences.”
The motives were noble. Popular evangelical preacher Billy Sunday predicted at the beginning of Prohibition, “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and warehouses and food stores. Men will now walk upright, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will move away.’
Men were no longer to spend most of their wages in saloons, no longer to beat their children and wives, no longer were the manufacturers and sellers of “poisons” to profit from the addiction of people who saw no other joy and hope in their lives. The country was to turn again to the basic values, work and joy. She was supposed to be sober, healthy, kind and cheerful.
None of that worked. Prohibition failed miserably.
Judges and jurors also drank
The first settlers of the New World carried the problem of alcoholism with them on their ships. Yes, they were Puritans, very strict ascetic hardworking diligent people. But they had nothing against alcohol. They only hated drunkards. And so the ships that came to the American coast after 1620 had large supplies of wine and there was three times more beer than water.
In 1647, Peter Suyvesant, the governor of the then still Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later New York), stated that the entire city quarter was intended for the sale of alcohol, tobacco and beer.
Life for the new settlers was harsh. There was little rest, fun, joy. And alcohol was cheap. In the second half of the 18th century, it was cheaper than tea. And already at that time, a sharp discussion between opponents and defenders of alcohol began. Discussion at the highest level. One of the “founding fathers”, Benjamin Franklin, criticized excessive drinking as the cause of “indecency, poverty and apostasy”. The first American president, George Washington, who was an avid drinker of alcohol, disagreed with him. Historians have estimated that during the first months of his presidency, alcohol expenses accounted for a full quarter of all his personal expenses.
Back then, drinkers still prevailed. In some colonies, alcohol even functioned as currency. Especially when trading with Indians – whiskey for furs.
There was drinking everywhere. The workers drank on the construction sites, of course there was drinking at weddings and funerals. But there was also drinking in court, judges and jurors drank during the trial. And many workers were paid in alcohol.
This couldn’t end well. The original purity and strictness of the Puritan religious experience was not enough for that.
A taste of hell
In 1847, the influential preacher Justin Edwards published the Temperance Manual. Among other things, it describes a popular myth of anti-alcohol campaigners – immoderate drinking can lead to spontaneous combustion. Simply put: a drunk can burn. And to taste, even in a very mild form, what awaits him in hell.
Justin Edwards was an important representative of the “temperance movement” (Temperance Movement) and the American religious revival (Great Awakening). People believed him. Even some drunks were probably really afraid that they would catch fire. But in general, it was primarily an argument supporting those who were then fighting against alcohol, against alcoholism.
Many cultural and political movements converged in the “temperance movement” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It looked like that – it was contradictory, sometimes bizarre, it didn’t have a realistic program. But fundamental issues of American society at that time were discussed on its soil.
Let’s try to imagine it. The first ships with Puritans dissatisfied with the religious reform in England arrive in America. The people on their decks here want to build a New World. In accordance with his strict religious beliefs. But life is hard here. They fight with nature, the winter, the Indians, the English, the French, they fight with each other to ban slavery… They have to cope with the fact that more and more waves of immigrants are flowing here.
New world? Yes, it is new, but very different from the ideas they crossed the Atlantic with. And so many of them become cynics, murderers, thieves and drunkards. They become soldiers who shoot not only at “savages” but also at their own countrymen. They become racists. How to understand it, how to cope with it? One option is to roll around in delirium on the ground, beating women and children…
But that original spirit does not disappear. It is coming back.
Preachers preach that it is necessary to return to God. Abolitionists emphasize that the solution lies in the abolition of slavery. The first feminists – suffragettes in the language of the time – realized within the movement for the liberation of blacks that they too could think about liberation. And the nascent Ku Klux Klan wants to clearly show that blacks cannot think of any liberation. And everyone agrees on at least one essential thing: alcohol is evil.
Alcohol turns people away from God, leads to damnation. Alcohol turns men away from the family, leads to domestic violence and family breakdown. Alcohol disempowers slaves and disrupts the natural order of the white man’s rule. Alcohol-soaked new immigrants, especially the Irish and Poles, threaten the morality and safety of society.
Alcohol is a taste of hell. Whatever that means.
Here it comes
Of course, it wasn’t straight and simple. But various offshoots of the “temperance movement” gained strength throughout the 19th century. And they were joined by new powerful allies. Large industrial enterprises struggled with absenteeism from drunken workers or poor quality work from those who arrived at work hungover. Banning alcohol, at least for the poor, appeared to be a desirable option.
Then the First World War began. The embodiment of the enemy was Germany. And the hatred quickly turned against German beer, which was very popular in America at that time. After all, no one will drink “imperial” beer. And from there it’s just a step to not drinking any beer.
And there were high expectations. Not just the idealistic one about the demise of prisons, upright men and laughing women. But also completely pragmatic, at first glance logical expectations of entrepreneurs. When people don’t spend on alcohol and pubs disappear, real estate prices will go up because the neighborhood will be more pleasant. Chewing gum, juices and non-alcoholic beverages will be sold. More will be spent on culture, in general on entertainment other than sitting in a pub, on clothes…
The alliance of passionate Christians, pragmatic entrepreneurs, suffragettes and racists was unstoppable. On October 28, 1919, congressmen overrode a presidential veto and passed the law that defined Prohibition. Simply put: the production and sale of all alcohol was banned. Only beer with an alcohol content of 0.5 was allowed to be brewed.
But there were still exceptions: alcohol could be prescribed for medicinal purposes by doctors and pharmacies, it could be used by Catholics and Jews in religious ceremonies, it could be used in industrial production. It was not forbidden to own and drink alcohol at home from stocks created before the beginning of prohibition. This showed the social dimension of the law – the rich who managed to react in time had cellars stuffed with whiskey bottles.
A taste of reality
Historians disagree on whether and to what extent prohibition brought about a decline in alcohol consumption. Of course, it’s not just that some historians cheer prohibition and others don’t. The problem is with the statistics – the production and sale of alcohol has moved “underground” and official reports are not available.
But some things are obvious. The closing of distilleries and restaurants led to the loss of thousands of jobs. The boom of other industries did not occur – theaters went bankrupt, sellers of soft drinks did not make any progress. States lost one of the main sources of income. For example, in New York, alcohol taxes made up 75% of the public budget.
Pharmacies enjoyed greater interest, in New York their number quadrupled during Prohibition. And the great temptation had to be resisted even by Catholic and Jewish clergy who could legally handle wine. In any case, mass attendance increased massively.
Prohibition cost the United States 11 billion dollars in lost taxes, at today’s exchange rate it is approximately 169 billion dollars or less than four trillion crowns. But come on, it’s just money. Healthy, upright, happy, honest, hardworking people would certainly be worth it.
Yes, it’s just money. Then there’s the alcohol. Without going into details: people did not stop drinking alcohol. The rich had full cellars. The poorer ones went to illegal underground shops and bars instead of legal pubs. Alcohol was more expensive, spouses spent more of the family budget. Drinking was of lower quality and more often led to serious health complications or death. And the alcohol was harder, in improvised conditions where you had to look around for a federal agent lurking somewhere, light drinks did not hold up. More and harder spirits were drunk, wine and beer consumption declined.
And then there are those prisons turned into food warehouses. No, that didn’t work either. 1,500 special agents were deployed to oversee Prohibition. Their wages were low, their willingness to be corrupted high. Smuggling, illegal alcohol trade, corruption flourished. The state prisons were overcrowded, the courts did not have time to judge.
One of the symbols of Prohibition is The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald published one of the most famous American novels in 1925. According to a number of historians and critics, the main character of the novel is inspired by the character of George Remus, the “king of bootleggers” during Prohibition. Remus took advantage of an exemption in the law and officially supplied whiskey to pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies. But most of the alcohol went to illegal bars. At the height of its business, Remus employed up to 3,000 employees. And like the Great Gatsby, he threw lavish parties. Of course there was a lot of alcohol on them. And of course, politicians and police officers also participated in them.
After all, historians claim that President Warren Harding, who held office from 1921-1923, shamelessly served alcohol confiscated by the state during police raids at parties in the White House.
It did not work out. And on March 22, 1933, President Roosevelt signed a law that allowed the production of beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% and similarly strong wine. Prohibition was slowly ending.
Today, American alcohol prohibition has above all the reputation of a failed noble experiment. This does not mean that it ceases to be interesting as a cultural and historical lesson. The discussion about it returns, for example, in connection with the ban or legalization of cannabis: Does it make sense to ban some drugs across the board? Won’t this always lead to the uncontrolled growth of the black market?
But above all, there is another important discussion. How is it with lofty ideals in confrontation with everyday life and the operation of the economy? Do they have a chance? Or are they rather bizarre and comical phenomena on the fringes of society, which moves at its own pace and according to different laws? In addition, with the godlike watching of drunken and corrupt politicians…
And what about those ideals in the environment of confrontation of different cultures? Where is the line between “sublimity” and bigotry?
This is simply worth thinking about. And even over a glass of wine.