100 Years After Prohibition: the Not-So-Noble Experiment
By Tim Bean
*This article is a sample chapter from an as-yet untitled book on Calumet City speakeasy owner Johnny Mundo, due for release this May.
A few weeks after taking office in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture, sale, and distribution of beers and wines. Among the confusion of questions shouted at the White House’s newest occupant, someone asked, “What now, Mr. President?”
President Roosevelt smiled and dryly responded, “I think now would be a good time for a beer.” The majority of the United States agreed with him. The day the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect, April 7th, remains memorialized as National Beer Day.
Even after its disastrous failure and repeal, Prohibition earned the moniker “The Noble Experiment.” Supporters believed the intentions behind the Eighteenth Amendment—safeguarding the morals, safety, and health of Americans—were just. Had those been the actual intentions of passing the amendment, calling it “the Noble Experiment” would be right and proper. But they were not, so it is not.
Of all the “collectives” supporting Prohibition, the temperance movement is the only one that truly had the best of intentions. The temperance movement (lowercase) wasn’t a single group, but a rotating collection of groups that opposed the use of alcohol. One of the first, the American Temperance Society, sprang from the Second Great Awakening, and opposed alcohol for the same reason it opposed slavery; both were seen as moral evils.
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This society began in 1826. Before 1840, it boasted well over a million members. That amount is staggering if you consider the total US population at the time was just over 17 million. The society actually never failed but faded into numerous temperance groups across the country. This movement gained so much traction that its message evolved from moderation in drinking to complete abstinence, or teetotalism.
Teetotalers advocated imbibing in only pure drinking water, although the origin of the name is highly disputed. In 1836, a North Carolina newspaper, The Charleston Observer claimed to have a scoop on that. According to their reporter, a temperance supporter named Turner was addressing a crowd during a group meeting. Unused to public speaking and nervously stuttering, Turner remarked that moderation in alcoholic beverages would not do, and that only “…tee-tee-total abstinence” would be acceptable. That anecdote is, of course, fiction.
Sects of Protestantism across the United States, led by Methodists, also opposed the use of alcohol in any form. Alcoholism in the 19th and early 20th century had become a national plague: by 1830, Americans drank 90 bottles of 80-proof alcohol per person per year, over three times the drinking rate today. No country on Earth drinks that heavily today. America’s history with alcohol is literally historic.
Colonial America saw alcohol as a “safe” beverage, and it was when compared to drinking water and milk in the days before modern germ theory. President John Adams started his day with roughly a quart of hard cider every morning. President James Madison sucked down a pint of whiskey a day, even while penning the Constitution. Washington ensured his troops daily ration included four ounces, or about three shots, of whiskey a day. The early days of America were stewed gently in a bath of pure alcohol.
American nativists embraced Prohibition. The nativist movement in the United States, which still rears its head from time to time under different guises, believed the success of the United States was due entirely to its presumed Anglo-Saxon origins, and that immigration weakened the country morally, economically, and culturally. It is no coincidence that the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan coincided with Prohibition and the wave of immigration from 1880-1920, a period referred to as the New Immigration.
Most of these arrivals practiced Catholicism, a favorite target of the KKK. Nativists like the KKK supported Prohibition simply because the immigrant populace, largely living in urban areas where saloons were a social necessity, opposed it. Nativists defended their actions by claiming urban political machines would buy immigrants’ votes with free drinks and glad-handing (a tactic employed in urban, suburban, and rural areas in equal measure). This anti-immigration stance was a quick, easy way to gain traction in rural areas.
Financed by the industrialists, who blamed alcohol as a chief cause of worker absenteeism and industrial accidents, these groups chipped away at the national opposition over decades, gaining enough momentum to inspire and endorse the Eighteenth Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act (collectively known as Prohibition), which went into effect on January 17th, 1920. This legislation did not make alcohol illegal in the United States; alcohol has never been “illegal” here. It did make the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages illegal. Liquor stores and saloons had to clear inventory by January 16th. The wealthy stockpiled alcohol. The poor drank it.
When the sun rose on January 17th, it rose on a hungover and an anxious America. The country would still drink, even at the risk of prison or the cost of lives. As if predicting this fifty years earlier, Mark Twain wrote, “Prohibition only drives drunkenness behind doors and into dark places, and does not cure it, or even diminish it.” Chicago, Calumet City, and Northwest Indiana would soon discover he was absolutely right.