In honor of the 84th anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition it seemed fitting to take a stroll through the dry years, revisiting some of the motives and debacles of a failed experiment. The Volstead Act was brought before the United States Congress to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages in the United States. It was ratified on October 28, 1919 despite a presidential VETO, and went into effect as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. One has to question how this got traction, and why the government would support it.
Initially the movement was known as ‘temperance’, indicating a lessening of manufacturing, sales, and consumption. This in no way was originally intended to ban alcoholic beverages. The early intent of the temperance movement involved improving the troubles within society. The mindset of those (predominantly women) supporters was that men would become better citizens and husbands if they limited or even suspended their alcohol intake. This bloomed into a vast and incorrect conviction that ALL of societies’ ills would be cured if alcohol were removed from the equation. The list is extensive but includes the belief that:
1) Domestic violence would end
2) Penury would cease as all men would be employed
3) Divorce rates would drop substantially
4) Literacy rates would skyrocket
5) Crime would diminish drastically, and the list went on, and on…
We were in for a true Utopia if the Volstead Act passed. Adding fuel to the temperance (now Prohibition) fire in the early 20th century was the anti-German sentiment sweeping the United States (and the world) because of the Great War. In Maryland, and much of the USA, a vast migration of Germans in the 19th century equated to a cataclysmic rise in the number of breweries. Prohibition certainly would have an impact upon German interests across the nation. German societies and newspapers were silenced along with the US Brewers Association when they dared speak in opposition to the proposed legislation. The KKK also supported Prohibition as they too were both anti-German (anti-immigrant), and anti-Catholic. The Catholic Church of course opposed Prohibition, as the body and blood of Christ is taken in the form of a wafer and wine as an intrinsic part of ritual.
What was never truly factored into the equation was the loss of jobs, and revenue. It wasn’t just the breweries, wineries, and distilleries that would be impacted, it was all of the affiliated industries that would feel the loss, over 200 to be precise. Coopers, glass manufacturers, sign painters, liveries, cork manufacturers, and a host of others were deleteriously affected by this legislation. Fiorello La Guardia of New York served in the US House of Representatives, and as Mayor of NYC during Prohibition. He commented on the loss of local, state, and federal revenues particularly when alcohol was still being manufactured, sold, and illegally distributed across America. He also noted that the Federal Government KNEW this and accommodated it by printing large bills ($5,000, and $10,000 bills) in much greater quantities than ever before. Why? This was done specifically because bootleggers only dealt in cash, hence large bills. This was just one glaring witness to the failure of the experiment. Another came in the form of job loss. This was wide spread. The Federal government was told by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, the Anti-Saloon League, and other Prohibition organizations that job loss resulted from machines replacing humans, not Prohibition closing businesses. A federal study was commissioned, followed by hearings in 1926 that proved otherwise, yet the 18th Amendment remained.
Challenges were made across the country, and in Maryland by our Governor Albert Ritchie, who never employed dry agents at the state level, leaving enforcement entirely up to the feds. The veil was finally lifting on the reality of the experiment: IT FAILED. Literacy rates did not rise, nor did divorce rates decline. Domestic violence continued, and crime flourished. Most know that organized crime and the ensuing bloodbaths like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre brought attention to the widespread illegal trafficking of booze. In addition, during the dry years people were drinking alcohol that was much more potent (often deadly) than they had been drinking before 1920.
The Crusaders were just one of many organizations that demanded the Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Concern over the deaths of young people due to deadly, illegal booze coupled with the anger at the increased, unceasing bloodletting between rival crime factions in New York and Chicago. Many notable and powerful people across the country supported the Crusaders. Albert Ritchie ran for President on a platform of Repeal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initially did not run in support of wet party efforts, eventually came around to Ritchie’s way of thinking, even asking him to run on the same ticket. Ritchie refused and Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. On April 7, 1933 3.2% beer was legalized, ushered in with the signature of FDR. Not all states immediately took advantage, but most, including Maryland did. Globe Brewing Company’s Arrow Beer was served just a few minutes after midnight at the Rennert Hotel in Baltimore. In attendance was another wet party advocate, H.L. Mencken.
The 21st Amendment to the Constitution was proposed to Repeal the 18th Amendment. It would be the ONLY Amendment created to repeal another. It took 36 states (a 2/3 majority) to ratify it, thus making it law. Utah became the 36th state on December 5, 1933. This week, grab a nice beverage of your choosing, a locally crafted Maryland beer perhaps, and raise a glass to Utah, FDR, and the 21st Amendment! Happy Repeal Day!