6 THE EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT
From 1920 to 1933 the Eighteenth Amendment to United States Constitution banned the sale, production or transportation of alcoholic beverage. Hostility to alcohol was not confined to the USA. Britain had its own temperance movement. Licences for the sale of alcohol are still required for British vendors. Regulated licencing hours disappeared in Britain as recently as 2003. Finland banned beverages that contained more than 2% alcohol until 1932. Norway prohibited distilled spirits until 1923. Prohibition was introduced in Russia in 1914 and continued until 1925. Wise guy historians have joked it was this innovation rather than communist ideology that precipitated the fall of the Tsar. The use of recreational alcohol was considered to harm public health and create problems within families. American saloons often housed working prostitutes, and from the end of the 19th Century the very large saloons provided bases for corrupt politicians. A 1909 survey discovered that 34% of the saloons in one working class Chicago suburb had prostitutes in residence. Before prohibition was introduced there was a fear that brewers would encourage excessive drinking. A similar fear exists today in the debate about the legalising of hard drugs. Emotions would have also played a part. Many of the pious would have found the behaviour of drunks distasteful.
Before the Declaration of Independence the favoured tipple for Americans was rum but that had been imported by the British. Whiskey had replaced rum as the preferred drink by the 1820s, and the average white American male was drinking half a pint of 50% strength whiskey a day. Today whiskey contains between 35 to 40% alcohol. For both cultural and economic reasons African Americans drank less alcohol. Whiskey existed as a safe alternative to water and taking it at meals mitigated the effect. But there were still enough glassy eyes and slurred words to produce concerns. Following a campaign for voluntary abstention, half the population had stopped drinking by the 1840s. In the next decade eleven States passed prohibition laws. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874. In Britain the temperance movement had aspirational hopes for the English working class. In the USA the Women’s Christian Temperance Union demanded suffrage for women. The Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893. Prohibition was advocated by Quakers, Protestants and Methodists. Catholic immigrants from Europe clinged to the drinking habits that had existed in their homelands. Perhaps the religious element and division within the temperance movement caused a hardening of attitudes. The initial concerns were the rowdy saloons and the consumption of whiskey and hard liquor. As the prohibition movement grew, so did the demands. The word teetotal was invented and a total ban on alcohol was advocated.
Working men also had temperance organsations. The Washington Society was launched in 1840 by six workers. Seven years later it had 600 members. The Sons Of Temperance had 220,000 members. Alcohol consumption dropped by half between the 1820s and the !850s but imported coffee had become a substitute for whiskey at meals. Teetotallers had higher credit ratings. Temperance organisations established dry steamboat lines, dry hotels and restaurants. In Britain local temperance societies built recreational halls. In both countries the temperance movement lacked appeal for those that lived in the cities. In 1910 half of all Americans lived on farms or in small towns. Massachusetts passed the first coercive law for prohibition in 1838. The law specified that distilled spirits could only be sold in 15 gallon barrels. This prevented saloons selling single drinks to customers. Medicinal alcohol was different, and landlords would give free shots to customers whilst making the customers pay for something bogus. One saloon landlord provided a free drink but only if his customers paid to see his blind pig. Saloons were important to the Irish, and both saloons and beer gardens were popular amongst the Germans. By 1860 these two ethnic groups were 10% of the population and large enough to make compliance with prohibition a problem.
Extra revenue was needed to fund the cost of the Civil War. High taxes on alcohol contributed and were welcomed by the ‘drys’ because it was believed that the extra taxes would reduce consumption. In 1873 and inspired by an itinerant lecturer called Dio Lewis a group of evangelical Protestant women began to enter saloons in Hillsboro, Ohio. The women would drop to their knees and pray. Saloonkeepers were pressured into closing. Hillsboro became dry. The campaign spread to other small towns in Ohio and reached upstate New York. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was launched in 1874 and campaigned under the slogan ‘Home Protection’. By 1891 35 States had adopted temperance education in problem schools. Not a woman that a man would want to meet on a blind date, Carrie Nation launched herself into the twentieth century and achieved notoriety by taking a hatchet into various legally licensed saloons and causing wreckage. In 1907 the Anti-Saloon League had 300,000 monthly subscribers for its American Issue. Two years later circulation of the magazine had increased to sixteen million.
In the southern States in the 1870s there was only minority support for temperance but by the 1880s there was growing influence from campaigners. Prejudice in the South against African Americans attracted support to the prohibition cause. Supporters in the South included the Ku Klux Klan and the less progressive. High licence fees were imposed on those that sold alcohol, and communities implemented local prohibition. Large geographical areas within southern States became dry. Where alcohol was permitted some communities banned its sale near schools, churches and colleges. Rather than providing a ‘local option’ for prohibition the rural states of Kansas, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and North Dakota were completely dry. Maine had been dry since 1851. Native American Reservations were deemed dry in 1892.
Henry Ford prohibited alcohol in his factories, and John D Rockefeller operated the same rule in his oil refineries. The dry crusade also appealed to those male labour leaders that were sympathetic to women’s suffrage. Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labour declared that the money working men spent on drink was money robbed from families. By 1900, 37 States had permitted local options that allowed individual counties to ban alcohol if they wished. 23 of the States were dry in 1917. The country was divided. New York had 17,000 saloons. In the 1860s the taxes on alcohol had provided 40% of Federal revenue. This had declined to 35% by 1914 but in a growing economy the number of saloons doubled in the twenty years before the end of the 19th Century, The implementation of income tax on the wealthy was important because it permitted revenue-hungry counties to go dry.
In 1909 the brewers controlled 70% of the saloons in the USA. The large brewers had German roots and suffered because of the anti-German feeling that prevailed in the first world war. Although not true the American public was told that the money spent by the brewers to support wet politicians in prohibition referenda was being supplied by the Kaiser founded German-American Alliance. The USA government declared war against Germany on April 6th 1917. American shipping and food imports were targeted by German submarines. The Lever Food and Fuel Control Act was passed in August and stated that no foodstuffs could be distilled. Alcohol was banned from military training camps and adjacent areas although not all training camp commanders observed the restriction. Congress on December 17th passed the Eighteenth Amendment and referred it to the states for ratification. The House of Representatives voted 282 to 128. The Senate voted 47 to 8. Ratification happened just over one year later in January 1920. Ratification was prompt for the same reasons the amendment had been approved. There was enthusiasm for progressive reform and social and economic alternatives, the battle for prohibition had begun in the middle of the previous century and had determined, able and relentless advocates, a wartime population had adjusted to making sacrifices, and the traffic in liquor was regarded as pro-German.
The Eighteenth Amendment did not ban the drinking or purchase of alcohol. Storing pre-prohibition alcohol was also allowed. J P Morgan, the banker, ordered 1000 cases of French champagne and unless he was a generous host his stock should have been sufficient for the years of prohibition. Farmers were also allowed to make cider for their own consumption. Nor was it illegal to purchase the ingredients for home brewing. The Eighteenth Amendment defined intoxicating liquor as a beverage that contained more than 0.5% alcohol. The Amendment had three objectives. These were one, prohibition of intoxicating beverages, two, regulation of manufacture, use and sale of alcohol, and three, ensuring an ample supply of alcohol for industry and scientific research. The Eighteenth Amendment is also known as the Volstead Act. Senator Andrew Volstead steered the legislation through Congress. Andrew Volstead had better days. He was responsible for legislation that outlawed lynching and he was also co-author of the Capper-Volstead Act. This allowed farmers to form combines and not be liable for prosecution under the Sherman AntiTrust Act. How well he understood human appetites is not known but Andrew Volstead did grow an abundant moustache. Alcohol consumption did reduce under prohibition. The unintended consequences of the Eighteenth Amendment appeared within weeks and these led to the repeal of the legislation in 1933 by the Blaine Act. Prohibition and what preceded the Eighteenth Amendment, though, has left a legacy. Organised crime is entrenched in American cities, drinking habits changed in response to prohibition, and there still exist dry counties in the American South.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.