When I was writing The Cartoon Guide to Recreational Drugs I scoured the local libraries and bookstores looking for useful and interesting historical works. Drinking in America: A History is one of my sources.
The parts I generally took notes from were either about the drugs themselves or the prohibition of drugs. You’ll find the information garnered from these books throughout the Prohibition Politics section of this site. It will also have informed some of my own postings stored in the older Prohibition Politics archive.
If you find this information useful, you will want to search out the books themselves to read the text in context. All of the books here are at least moderately interesting.
Mark Edward Lender & James Kirby Martin. The Free Press, New York, 1982. Seems almost pro-prohibition, and definitely pro-temperance, possibly even pro-legal-system-controlled temperance.
“What we have done in Drinking in America is to bring original research together with the best of the new historical and social science investigations and to put forth our own interpretation of what drinking (or, for that matter, not drinking) has meant to passing generations of Americans.”
The “Good Creature of God”: Drinking in Early America
Far away from traditional beer and wine sources, the colonies saw a lot of distilled liquor. Being on the rum route probably didn’t help.
“Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”—Increase Mather, Wo to Drunkards (1673)
Alcoholic beverages were a health necessity to the first European immigrants, who didn’t understand at first that water could also be a beverage.
In February 1621, the Mayflower was at anchor at Plymouth; most of the colonists lived aboard while shelter was built on land. “A raging “General Sickness”—no doubt a combination of exposure, scurvy, pneumonia, and other maladies—made death a common occurrence. To make matters worse, passengers and crew were almost out of beer.” The Pilgrims’ own beer had run out in December; the captain allowed them an “occasional sample of the crew’s stores. But now that supply was perilously low, and a crisis seemed inevitable.”
“It was an age that considered alcohol safer than water… Water had a bad reputation in seventeenth-century Europe, where much of it was polluted, and many colonists expected a similar situation in America. There was genuine surprise upon finding the stuff potable.” Also, liquor kept well at sea. Water fouled in wooden barrels.
The Arbella, carrying Puritans to Boston in 1630, “set sail with three times as much beer as water, along with ten thousand gallons of wine. Most settlers also brought along a ration of distilled spirits, which kept even longer than beer.”
Back to the Mayflower, “the sailors knew that if they continued to share their meager beer supplies with this band of religious dissenters, there would probably be no alcohol left for the voyage home. They were not prepared to take that risk, and matters came to a head. William Bradford, the faithful diarist of Plymouth and for years its able governor, recorded the scene. The settlers “were hasted ashore and made to drink water,” he lamented, “that the seamen might have the more beer.” Bradford’s pleas from the shore for just a “can” of beer brought refusal. If he “were their own father,” one sailor responded, “he should have none.” It was an inauspicious beginning to the new venture…. The suffering on the beach finally became too much for the Mayflower’s captain; he sent word that there would be “beer for them that had need for it,” particularly the sick, even if it meant his drinking water on the way back to England. His humanitarian gesture assured the Pilgrims that as they faced the “starving time” of Plymouth’s first winter, they would have an occasional taste of the Old World.”
Bad Beer and “Hot Waters”: The First American Beverages
As the settlers settled, they turned to local ingredients or planted foreign fruits in order to make applejack, mead, perry, and peach brandies.
“By the time the Mayflower sailed, the most popular brew [in England] was a dark, hearty drink, about 6 percent alcohol, that was made from barley malt and flavored with hops”, and evolved into the modern porter and stout.
A 1630s verse “applauded” the early ingenuity in brewing:
If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.
“One suspects that the beers produced from such recipes were little better than the poetry.”
“In 1662, for instance, John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Connecticut and son of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, brewed a palatable beer from Indian corn. This novel contribution ultimately got the younger Winthrop elected to the Royal Society of London—perhaps the highest honor the age could bestow on those who advanced the frontiers of science.” Benjamin Franklin came up with “a passable spruce beer.” Thomas Jefferson and George Washington also drank home brew (Washington’s a molasses-based).
While “aqua vitae” was a general term for distilled beverages, it usually meant brandy. “Hot waters” were grain whiskeys and other distilled drinks.
“Some of this so-called strong water was probably gin, which, like beer, had deep roots in English culture. Unlike beer, however, gin had a dubious reputation. Introduced in the 1530s by soldiers returning to England from the Low Countries, gin—grain spirits flavored with the juniper berry—was produced cheaply and easily and became highly popular among the urban poor (a provitable mass market for distillers, who could sell gin at prices lower than those of good beer). Gin drinking grew to an alarming extent and, in the view of many Englishmen, was thoroughly out of control by the 1730s. The “gin epidemic” ravaged the poorer districts at least until 1751, when a vexed government stepped in and placed controls on sales…. (This spirit remained a relative pariah [in America] until the twentieth century, when combined with vermouth and optional olives or onions it came into its own as the martini.)”
Backyard stills: “limbecs”
“In New England, pears emerged from the vat as “perry,” while settlers in the territory that ultimately became Vermont distilled honey into a mead so good, as local tradition had it, that drinkers could hear the buzzing of the bees (indeed, after a quart or so one could probably hear all sorts of buzzing).”
Cider ultimately rivaled beer in popularity; Hard cider fermented to about 7% alcohol; apples were not native to America, but European seeds did well. By the early 1700s “and probably before”, Anglo-Americans were distilling cider into “a potent applejack.” In the South, particularly Virginia & Georgia, the peach became a “distilling staple”, for peach brandies.
“Wo to Drunkards”: Early Use and Abuse
Alcoholic beverages were used in political gatherings, social gatherings, and even training gatherings.
“Both the Anglican and the Puritan church, for example, used communion wine. (The notion that Christ had broken bread with unfermented grape juice was a bit of nineteenth-century theological tinkering.)”
“One did not seek office at any level without “treating” the electorate during the campaign—that is, without providing all and sundry with generous libations. Polling places themselves were rarely dry: There was only one poll per county and after making the long trek to do his citizen’s duty, the voter expected some tangible reward. He usually got it. This meant that in order to qualify as a Founding Father, George Washington, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, and other Revolutionary leaders must have provided many a drink for the multitude.”
“Liquor often had a hand in reducing militia drills to something less than demonstrations of martial prowess. While militia training—particularly in times of Indian or foreign conflict—was crucial, many training sessions were little more than social gatherings, with liquor a central aspect. An eighteenth-century Virginia militia commander recalled that “for several years” he frequently gave his men alcohol and that afterward “they would… come before his door and fire guns in token of their gratitude, and then he would give them punch ’til they dispersed.” Crack regiments were not built in this fashion—but in this case at least muster-day morale was high. An entire sober drill was remarkable, and when Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts saw one on Boston Commons he was especially pleased.”
“Before and during the Revolution, for example, inns were favorite places for political discussions, and they served as rallying points for the militia and as recruiting stations for the Continental army.”
“While precise consumption figures are lacking, informed estimates suggest that by the 1790s an average American over fifteen years old drank just under six gallons of absolute alcohol each year. That represented some thirty-four gallons of beer and cider (about 3.4 gallons of absolute alcohol), slightly over five gallons of distilled liquors (2.3 gallons of absolute alcohol), and under a gallon of wine (possibly .10 gallons absolute). Because this is an average figure…, the level of consumption probably was much higher for actual drinkers. But even six gallons is a formidable amount. The comparable modern average is less than 2.9 gallons per capita.”
“But America’s colonists were not problem drinkers—at least not if social policy directed at alcohol abuse is any indication…. the provincials heard little public outcry against alcoholism…. A general lack of anxiety over alcohol problems was one of the most significant features of drinking in the colonial era.”
“An even more serious expression of concern emanated from Boston in the 1670s, when the town exiled Alice Thomas after the courts had had her jailed, flogged, and fined for permitting conduct in her tavern so scandalous that it resulted in the first Massachusetts law against prostitution.”
Alice Thomas later “regained the good graces of local New England magistrates.”
The Exceptions: Indians and Blacks
Whites were not allowed to sell liquor to blacks; and Europeans quickly took on an a paternal attitude at best towards the Natives.
Sailors, too: “Plymouth once temporarily revoked all tavern licenses in Yarmouth when some mariners got particularly roudy; the inns reopened after the seamen sailed away…. But, most of all, white colonials worried about Indians and blacks”.
“Some Indians appreciated the colonial beverages and did not drink to excess. Samoset, for instance, the tribesman who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter, was particularly fond of beer. The first Thanksgiving saw red and white men happily downing gallons of liquor together. But the picture changed rapidly as the settlers became convinced that Indians, for reasons the Europeans could not explain, were especially prone to drunkenness…. Many early settlers believed Indians to be uncivilized—nothing more than “savages”; therefore, any sign of intemperate behavior served to confirm that image. Some modern anthropologists have termed the so-called Indian drinking problem the “firewater myth.” This stereotype not only followed the white frontier line to the Pacific but in many respects has survived into the present.”
‘Modern research has failed to explain the firewater myth. Some Indian groups today do have unusually high rates of alcoholism, while others do not. There is no positive evidence indicating a greater physiological propensity to alcoholism in Indians than in whites, nor is it absolutely clear how cultural conditioning factors may have distinguished Indian drinking reactions from those of other groups.”
“On occasion, the colonists moved forcefully in situations they considered particularly serious. Even tiny Plymouth got bellicose at one point. In 1628, the settlement sent Captain Myles Standish and an army of eight men against the Merrymount colony of Thomas Morton, several miles north. Morton, an ex-lawyer turned renegade colonist—he recognized no authority save his own—had an unconcealed contempt for the godly mores of his Pilgrim neighbors. He maintained his colony as a fur trading center and also as America’s first den of iniquity (or so the Plymouth magistracy believed). Morton liked Indians—especially Indian women—whom, in return for animal pelts, he liberally plied with all manner of alcohol. Setting up a maypole (a throwback to paganism in the eyes of William Bradford), Morton and his company took to “drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices. As if they had anew revived… the feasts of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practicies of the mad Bacchanalians.” In addition, Morton wrote mundane poetry in which he satirized the Pilgrims with as free a hand as he gave the Indians drink. Then he went too far; he gave his Indian friends guns. For most colonists, savages with alcohol were bad enough, but redmen with alcohol and guns were intolerable. “O, the horribleness of this villainy!” Bradford wailed, and, after obtaining the support of other settlements, he dispatched Captain Standish (Morton called him “Captain Shrimpe”) to clean out Morton’s nest.”
“Colonial governments also kept a watchful eye on drinking among blacks.”
Overall, bonded laborers probably received as much as was considered healthy; laws existed to prevent them from getting more. Slaves and indentured servants were often barred from inns/taverns, and fines as high as £30 on whites selling liquor to free or slave blacks.
The Rise of “the Demon”: Early Distilling
The lack of good beer turned the colonists more and more to rum, and rum was a gateway drug to whiskey.
“By the late seventeenth century, a fundamental shift in colonial drinking preferences was well under way. As has been seen, new settlers had quickly turned to distilled spirits—mostly out of necessity. As this taste matured, it gradually led the colonists away from their traditional cultural allegiance to beer.”
Rum was the first beverage to “directly challenge” beer. “Rum, a distillate of sugar refining by-products, principally molasses, usually has a strength of 100 to 200 proof (that is, anywhere from about a 50 percent to a pure alcohol content). First distilled from West Indian sugar cane in the 1640s, rum was soon produced throughout the Caribbean; from there it traveled to the Northern colonies, primarily as a trading product. Rum was cheap and had a pleasant taste, and Anglo-Americans warmed to it. They drank it straight, spiced it, poured it into punches, and learned to enjoy hot buttered rum and eggnog on cold evenings.”
The first commerical disillery in America opened in Boston in 1700, using cheaply imported molasses. It “turned a huge profit for its owners”, and other distilleries sprang up throughout New England, and “within a few years the region was exporting some 600,000 gallons annually. Although historians have long been aware that commerce in this beverage formed an integral part of the infamous “triangle trade,” which supposedly saw merchantment carrying sugar and molasses from the Caribbean to New England, rum from there to Africa, and slaves back to the West Indies, recent research has shown the triangle trade to have been largely a myth. Nevertheless, rum was one of New England’s major trading commodities—a demonstration that colonial thirst could help sustain one of the era’s major economic activities.”
By the early 1700s, “rum probably had become the single most popular beverage in the colonies and has generally received most of the credit for weaning the colonials once and for all, from the tastes of the Old World.” Hardly surprising, since the colonial beers were “not good replicas of those brewed in England.”
As settlements spread West in the 18th century, grain whiskeys began to compete with rum, which was too bulky and expensive to ship far inland. “Grain was plentiful—much more was harvested than farmers could eat or sell as food—and a single bushel of surplus corn, for example, yielded three gallons of whiskey…. The arrival of the Scotch-Irish, who flocked to the frontier beginning in the 1730s, dealt rum a further blow. These immigrants had enjoyed reputations as whiskey lovers in their northern Irish homes, and they brought their distilling skills across the Atlantic with them. By the late 1700s they had given American grain spirits a new quality in taste.”
During the Revolution, the Royal Navy blockaded American ports, so rum and molasses imports from the West Indies (British territory) became scarce. “Profits were handsome indeed, and so much grain ended up as whiskey that the Continental Congress, fearing food shortages, occasionally moved (although in vain) to limit distilling.”
“The nationally legislated end of the slave trade in 1808, and thus of the commerce in rum associated with it, also hurt.”
Rye whiskey today is a combination of rye, corn, and barley malt; at least 51% of the mixture must be rye. “Who distilled the first batch is also obscure. One version gives credit to farmers in western Maryland and Pennsylvania—Scotch-Irish territory. On the other hand, a more pleasing account honors none other than George Washington. One of Washington’s overseers, a Scot, supposedly persuaded him to plant some otherwise unprofitable land in rye for the express purpose of distilling. The resulting spirit is said to have made a fine impression on Mount Vernon’s guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette. Rye whiskey then spread to Maryland, so this story concludes, when the overseer set up shop there after Washinton’s death. In any case, Maryland and Pennsylvania soon became national centers of rye production.”
“Bourbon [65-70% corn, getting its flavor and dark color from aging in charred oak barrels] was born in Kentucky, taking its name from Bourbon County, where it was first produced in 1789.” Kentucky bourbon became an important regional industry.
The End of an Era
I suspect that while the “new” drinks did come with fewer social norms to control their usage, we were also seeing worries about the drugs that other people use, especially those other people who couldn’t afford beer and wine.
“As the eighteenth century advanced, it became increasingly clear that the social norms that previously had controlled individual behavior with remarkable success were loosening.” During the 1750s and sixties, John Adams of Massachusetts “expressed concern over the abusive consumption of “spiritous liquors”…. Adams directed most of his ire at the taverns…. under the influence of hard liquor… they were fast becoming nothing more than dens of iniquity.” However, he knew that “his concerns carried little weight. In fact, he thought that they were earning him the “reputation of a hypocrite and an ambitious demagogue.””
In 1774, Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia Quaker, published the “first full-scale assault on American drinking habits”—The Mighty Destroyer Displayed. He argued that distilled liquor was unhealthy, degrading, and immoral for individuals and society. It “was widely read, although with undetermined effect.” By 1784, both the Quakers and Methodists had urged their members to abstain from hard liquor and its manufacture and sale.
An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body, in 1784, by Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. He was “an ardent republican,… active in Revolutionary politics, signed the Declaration of Independence as a Pennsylvania delegate, and served for a time as Continental army surgeon general. Rush enjoyed a reputation after the war as perhaps the new nation’s foremost physician…. Rush had spoken out publicly against the use of hard liquor since at least 1772, but his masterpiece was the Inquiry.”
He had “no quarrel with beers and wines, which he believed healthful” in moderate amounts. But “ardent spirits”, consumed in quantity, could destroy a person’s health and even cause death. He described an addiction process (“appetite”, “craving”) and identified alcohol as the addictive agent. “Once addicted, even a saint would have a hard time controlling himself.”
He had a “long-standing friendship with Anthony Benezet and early Methodist leaders”. He saw that “the movement from beer, cider, and other light alcoholic beverages to distilled spirits had not resulted in new social controls to limit drinking excesses.”
Metamorphosis: From “Good Creature” to “Demon Rum,” 1790-1860
Desire for temperance led to desire for the complete abstinence from liquor; from liquor abstinence arose desire for abstinence from any alcoholic beverage. From calls for abstinence there arose calls for discouragement and finally prohibition.
Portland, Maine, 1851
Portland’s mayor Neal Dow was among the first to confuse virtue (temperance) with law (prohibition).
On June 2, 1851, a Maine law was signed “prohibiting the sale of beverage alcohol in the state.” They had tried a similar provision in 1846, but it had been mild, “striking no terror to the hearts of the liquor dealers,” as one temperance worker put it. The 1851 version “provided for the destruction of any liquor confiscated after the bill became law.” It was America’s first statewide prohibition statute. “All eyes were at once turned to Maine,” an antiliquor crusader said. But actually, they were on one city: Portland. Portland’s mayor was Neal Dow, the “Prophet of Prohibition”, and the “Father of the Maine Law”, as he was known in his time. He issued an ultimatum: liquor dealers had sixty days to get their stocks out of town.
“As a patriot and a Christian (the two were one in his mind), Dow felt called to oppose anything inimical to his vision of a virtuous United States. He was active on a number of reform fronts, but he was first and foremost a temperance man.”
“Alcohol even damaged his own family: He once tried to dissuade a publican from selling to one of his wife’s relatives; the taverner refused, the in-law went to a drunkard’s grave, and Dow swore vengeance.”
“If we believe the temperance commentators of the day, including Dow himself, wonderful things began to happen in Portland. With temptation out of the way, drunkards reformed, jails and poorhouses emptied, crime and poverty halved, and families stabilized and used their wages to purchase necessities rather than whiskey. These same reports also claimed that only hardened partisans of the traffic resented Dow’s crusade. One old woman, watching as the confiscated alcohol met its demise, supposedly cried “that [had] this… been done twenty-five years ago; my husband would not have died a drunkard, and I should not have been [in the almshouse] with my children!”” By 1855, twelve additional states and two Canadian provinces enacted Maine Laws of their own. The “general outlook for temperance appeared bright.”
Strong Drink, Strong Drinkers
High taxes on alcohol first created rebellion; when rebellion ended, the black market began.
“the period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation’s history.” Mean absolute alcohol intake frose from 5.8 gallons in 1790 (people aged 15 or older) to 7.1 gallons per year in 1810; it held at that level, “with minor fluctuations”, until “at least 1830.” Samuel Dexter noted in 1814 that “the quantity of ardent spirits… surpasses belief.” While he was the president of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, his data “closely approximate modern consumption estimates”. By 1800, about half the absolute alcohol consumed was distilled liquor. It was well over half by 1810. In 1830, 4.3 gallons were hard liquor and 2.8 were beer, cider, or wine.
Why? “The old notion that alcohol was necessary for health remained firmly fixed. It was common to down a glass of whiskey or other spirits before breakfast, “and so conducive to health was this nostrum esteemed,” noted a journalist in 1830, “that no sex, and scarcely any age, were deemed exempt from its application.” Instead of taking coffee or tea breaks, Americans customarily stopped every morning and afternoon for eleven o’clock (“eleveners”) and four o’clock drams. At the appointed hours, laborers in fields, offices, and shops halted and picked up the jug. Even school children took their sip of whiskey, the morning and afternoon glasses being considered “absolutely indispensable to man and boy.”
“Most people thought that whiskey was as essential as bread.”
“Some whites, for a variety of motives, encouraged binge drinking among the Western Indians. Not all tribes succumbed… But others, like many of the Eastern Indians, fell afoul of fur traders and land speculators who employed established methods of getting Indians drunk before making deals with them. The shrewdest traders refused to negotiate with a sober Indian.
‘They knew that, aside from trade with the whites, the tribes had little or no alcohol and that they usually drank all of what they received at one sitting… This pattern frequently resulted in the violent intoxication of the tribesmen, making them prey to any manner of fraud. In exchange, the Indians did not even get good whiskey. Instead, traders generally substituted their own blends of “Indian whiskey,” some of which, as the following example illustrates, were toxic:”
You take one barrel of Missouri River water, and two gallons of alcohol. Then you add two ounces of strychnine—because strychnine is the greatest stimulant in the world—and three plugs of tobacco to make them sick—any Indian wouldn’t figure it was whiskey unless it made him sick—and five bars of soap to give it a head, and half a pound of red pepper, and then you put in some sagebrush and boil it until its brown. Strain into a barrel, and you’ve got your Indian whiskey; that one bottle calls for one buffalo robe and when the Indian got drunk it was two robes.
The Whiskey Rebellion: The trans-Appalachian farmers turned “much of their grain into whiskey”, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania. They “sold their product far and wide.” The new national government decided to tax distilled liquors. “Alexander Hamilton, the new nation’s first secretary of the treasury, rightly foresaw a bonanza in revenues on distilled liquor, although there are also hints in the documents that temperance sympathies in men like Hamilton and James Madison of Virginia helped place whiskey on the list.”
Western Pennsylvania farmers protested. They saw it “as unfair (it may have been) and economically disastrous (it certainly was).” This turned to open rebellion after 1791; some of the inhabitants organized and drove federal collectors out. “President Washington now faced a dilemma. He did not want to act the part of tyrant in the republic or move precipitately against the “whiskey rebels” for fear of giving his Jeffersonian political opponents—many of whom also criticized the tax—an issue. Yet he felt obligated to uphold the authority of the fledgling central government.” He did finally dispatch a “strong militia force.” Opposition melted before the invading army, and the tax was sustained. “But from that date on, “moonshiners” began dodging revenue agents, placing America’s beloved whiskey at the center of one of the nation’s oldest illegal businesses.” [Remember that if you want more info about the Whiskey Rebellion, you’ve got that ‘Political Letters’ book with letters from the Governor of Pennsylvania, and Jefferson too.]
The Reverend Dorchester recorded some slang terms “for getting drunk, including “half shaved,” “cut in the craw,” and “high up to picking cotton.””
“”Good rye whiskey,” one patriotic toper advised in 1814, “or high-proof apple-brandy,” rather than wines or imported spirits, were the drinks for loyal men and women of the republic. Corn whiskey, particularly bourbon, earned yet more honors as a national drink.”
“The social context of drinking, as historian W. J. Rorabaugh effectively argued, was in a sense (albeit a perverse sense in some eyes) an assertion of individuality, of freedom from communal restraints. Even the drunkard, in essence, was a pluralist—free under the laws of the nation to pursue his or her own lifestyle no matter what others thought. After all, might the alcoholic not argue, was the nation not conceived in and dedicated to liberty? On the other hand, sharing drinks took on connotations of friendship and equality; refusing liquor could be a real insult. One minister who rode a circuit in the trans-Appalachain West remembered a parishioner saying that “if I did not drink with him, I was no friend of his, or his family, and he would never hear me preach again.””
Captain Frederick Marryat, a British officer touring the States in the 30s reported that one local greeting went “Stranger, will you drink or fight?” And “there is at least one grisly story of a group of Kentuckians who roasted one of their number to death when he refused to join them for a hospitable dram.”
“Treating”, as recalled by the governor of Illinois (1830s treating; who knows when the governor was governor):
In many counties the candidates would hire all the groceries in the county seats and other considerable villages, where the people could get liquor without cost for several weeks before election. The voters in all the neighboring country turned out every Saturday to visit the towns, see the candidates and hear the news. The candidates came also, and addressed the people from wagons, old logs, or stumps newly cut, from whence comes the phrase “stump speeches.” The speeches being over, then commenced the drinking of liquor, and long before night a large portion of the voters would be drunk and staggering about town, cursing, swearing, halloing, yelling, huzzaing for their favorite candidates.
It was also a way to demonstrate ties with the people. “Politicians in the Midwest, for example, knew the story of an old Baptist preacher, seeking a state governorship, who went “electioneering with a Bible in one pocket and a bottle of whiskey in the other; and thus armed with ‘the word of the Lord and the spirit’ he could preach to one set of men and drink with another, and thus make himself agreeable to all.”
“In the presidential race of 1840, the Jacksonian opponents of William Henry Harrison printed an article alleging that the old man would be better off in a log cabin with a jug. The insult was a monumental blunder. In the “log cabin campaign” that followed, Harrison’s managers played up the imagery—it had a certain common touch that voters liked. Harrison’s supporters even passed out thousands of small bottles of hard cider just to make sure the voters remembered who their best friend really was. Harrison won easily.”
Immigration and Antebellum Drinking
German immigrants adapted their favorite lagers to the needs of native-born Americans, resulting in the “light-bodied, golden brew popular today”.
Almost two million Irish came to the U.S. between 1830 and 1860. “Overwhelmingly, they were poor, and while some of them moved west or south, most remained in or near Eastern ports of entry…. The immigrants lived virtually on the bottom of society’s social scale.”
Besides being poor, the Irish were “almost invariably Roman Catholic…. The United States was largely a Protestant nation and had mistrusted anything connected with the Roman Catholic church ever since the beginning…. Indeed, cities like Charlestown, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia saw serious anti-Catholic rioting before the Civil War.”
“The Irish ultimately founded their own parochial schools, their own social organizations, and even their own militia regiments, and when they entered American politics, they did so in blocks under the tutelage of Irish ward politicians.”
In Ireland, heavy drinking had become part of “bachelor groups”. Ireland was land hungry; the practice of subdividing land among sons had reached the point where parcels were too small to support a family, except through intensive potato culture. With the famine, one solution was to delay marriage. For these men, drinking within the group turned into a communal ritual of belonging. It “was also a form of de facto social control. In a manner of speaking, it kept Irishmen “off the street and out of trouble”—or at least out of trouble unrelated to alcohol. In contrast, one could never be sure about what nondrinkers were doing. Out of sight of the bachelor group, they often were suspected of sexual promiscuity or other undesirable behavior.”
In America, Irish drinking “took on greater symbolic and emotional significance. Faced with an openly hostile environment, and both unable and unwilling to Americanize, the immigrants seized upon drinking as a major symbol of ethnic loyalty. That is, they drank hard to assert their Irishness; the harder they drank, the more Irish they supposedly became.”
Between 1830 and 1860, 893,000 Germans came to the U.S., and over three million more by the end of the century. They had better experiences than the Irish; many were skilled workers, who took better industrial jobs, or they had the financial means to open their own businesses. Some even bought farms. There were “some nativist grumblings” but “the fact that fewer German settlers were Catholic” spared them much of the prejudice directed to the Irish.
“The Germans, like the Irish, also brought their traditional drinking habits with them. They preferred beer, but not the warm, heavy brew of the colonial period (which still had its partisans in the nineteenth century). The German drink was “lager beer,” and the best was made from only water, hops, and malt. Lager means to ripen, and lager beer was allowed to age to a mellower flavor than that of previous American brews….
‘As the beverage became popular with native-born Americans, lager beer quickly evolved to meet their preferences. Native Americans drank more and faster than did the Germans, habits that demanded a lighter and colder beverage than the original lager. Consequently, as one liquor dealer of the period noted, “a new American type of beer came into being”—the light-bodied, cold, golden brew popular today. Alcohol content in these beers ran roughly between 3.5 and 8.25 percent, and their flavor compared well with that of German products. Being plentiful wherever there were German-Americans, and fairly cheap to produce, beer became a favorite of wage earners of all national origins.”
Because distribution costs were high, local, family-oriented brewing became the rule. “Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schmidts, Coors, Schlitz, and indeed most of modern America’s popular beer labels are legacies from these early German-American brewers.”
Immigrant drinking contributed to a diversification of American drinking patterns. “By the 1840s and fifties, American tippling was more heterogenous than it was in any of the more culturally homogeneous European nations.”
The Antiliquor Response: The Origins of the Temperance Movement
It wasn’t long before democratic government attracted “stewards”: politicians who “honestly thought that they knew best how to order the affairs of others”.
While drinking was acceptable to most Americans, it had its critics. Methodists had, in the 1780s (along with the Quakers) “denounced” distilled spirits “for religious reasons”. Their tenet of abstinence spread as their sect “experienced an explosive growth in numbers after the Revolution.” In Litchfield County, Connecticut, “some two hundred of the “most respectable farmers,”… concluded that drinking on the job did more harm than good and, in 1789, discontinued the customary liquor rations for farm labor. In 1808, a small group in Moreau, New York, founded the nation’s first temperance society, also citing the deleterious impact of liquor on farm productivity.”
The U.S. was about to enter an era of “intense social reform” which would see temperance merging with such goals as school reform, abolition, and women’s rights.
“For many neorepublicans [a term the authors made up?], safeguarding society depended, as they frankly admitted, upon social and governmental leadership by men such as themselves—men of proven distinction, who would set high examples of personal conduct and had the courage to act vigorously in defense of accepted standards. Historians have termed this strain of thought the “stewardship tradition”; that is, a moral elite would act as stewards for the rest of the nation, guiding and correcting their behavior. The elite would also lead a mass reformation in American values, thus assuring a citizenry of sufficient virtue to sustain the republic in the face of potentially disruptive pluralist influences. Such reform ultimately stressed the elimination of all social evils, at least those that bothered the neorepublicans.
‘These moral stewards honestly thought that they knew best how to order the affairs of other men and women.”
Before the Civil War, “Any condition or situation labeled evil generated an effort… to set it right. Temperance… Peace, abolition, the elimination of profanity and Sabbath-breaking, women’s rights, mental health, the rekindling of orthodox Protestantism, concern over immigration (including, in its extreme forms, some of the anti-Catholicism noted earlier), education…”
Temperance reform became one of the most popular.The first major attempt to unite the temperance voices was in 1811, at the annual meeting of the general assembly of the Presbyterian church in Philadelphia. Dr. Rush (two years from death) sent the assembly 1,000 copies of the Inquiry, and “urged the gathered clergymen to take a strong protemperance stance…. Rush knew that any cause espoused from the pulpit would become a cause to be reckoned with.”
The Presbyterian clergy were also concerned with “the social forces being let loose upon the land…. they feared the loss of national stability and of time-honored values and social relationships. Accordingly, the assembly issued a statement denouncing the drinking habits of the day, lamenting that “we are ashamed but constrained to say that we have heard of the sin of drunkenness prevailing… among even some of the visible members of the household of faith.””
The Connecticut state Presbyterian association called for excluding spirits from the family diet and church gatherings, and for employers to end liquor rations for workers. The Society for the Promotion of Morals appeared in 1813, “to combat the related vices of intemperance, Sabbath-breaking, and profanity.” The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance was formed the same year, the first statewide temperance organization.
In 1816, the Methodists “pledged to redouble their temperance efforts” and did so throughout the Midwest and South. Congregationalists, some Baptists, a few Anglicans, and many evangelical sects “took up the crusade as well.” The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (later the American Temperance Society) emerged in 1826. The goal was still abstinence from ardent spirits.
“Pure Water”: Temperance Becomes Total Abstinence
As alcohol became more easily available, people drank less on average. It was no longer a draw for employers to offer alcohol on the job. But nobody stopped drinking, and that bothered prohibition advocates, for whome it was the government’s duty to take care of its citizens by infringing the rights of individuals.
“Even before the 1820s, some temperance advocates had insisted that prohibition was the only logical way to eliminate drunkenness: Alcohol was alcohol, they argued, whether in the form of beer, wine, cider or distilled spirits; if alcohol was addictive in one beverage, why not in another? Beers and wines, from this more extreme perspective, were especially pernicious. They promised safety and health while they slowly brought about the drinker’s doom. There was “no safe line of distinction between the moderate and the immoderate” use of alcohol, a Methodist report noted in 1832. That moderate use led to immoderate drinking “is almost as certain as it is insensible.””
In 1826, Lyman Beecher’s Six Sermons on Intemperance “took their place with Rush’s Inquiry as temperance movement classics. Any drinking, he argued, was a step toward “irreclaimable” slavery to liquor; people simply could not tell when they crossed the line from moderate use to inebriety—could not tell, that is, until too late.”
The Hector, New York, teetotaller etymology (T for Total abstinence).
In 1833, a motion for total abstinence (the American Temperance Society) was put “down to a quick defeat”. In 1836, at the national temperance convention in Saratoga, NY, “the delegates formally endorsed total abstinence”. There was still some resistance among “the rank and file”, but by the end of the decade the issue was closed.
Drinking was dropping. “From a high of just over seven gallons of absolute alcohol per capita annually in 1830, consumption estimates fell to slightly more than three gallons by 1840”.
Few employers provided their workers with eleveners or four o’clock drams. “Increasingly, too, there were objections that drinking was something immigrants, as opposed to “true” Americans, did.”
The first legal attacks came because publicans operated under licenses from local authorities (county courts or city governments). Temperance advocates pushed for a wholesale rejection of new licenses and nonrenewal of old ones.
“Theodore Parker of New England, one of the greatest of the antebellum reformers, admitted that prohibition indeed seemed “an invasion of private rights.” But he reasoned that it was “an invasion… for the sake of preserving the rights of all.”… “The evil is monstrous,” he concluded, “so patent, so universal, that it becomes the duty of the state to take care of its citizens; the whole of its parts.”
[In the 1830s? 1840s?] politicians on all levels ended treating in their campaigns.
Redeeming the Lost: Revivalists and Republicans
Prohibition forces were also often anti-immigration forces. Germans and Irish might have been open to calls for moderation, but not to calls for full prohibition.
The Washingtonians focussed specifically on the individual, and were “cool” to the idea of legal suasion. They often forbid clergy and officials of other, established temperance movements access to their meetings. Founded in 1840, they provided support to the individual, much like AA today. However, the movement lost momentum by 1844, and by 1847 almost all the local societies had stopped meeting (the Boston chapter continued until 1860). The ebb of the Washingtonians swelled the ranks of temperance lodges, such as the Sons of Temperance, the Good Templars, and the Temple of Honor and Temperance, analogous to “dry Elks or Moose lodges”.
But temperance held second place to abolition, and the parties (Whigs and Democrats) “were beginning to feel the strains of the growing antislavery crusade, making it increasingly hard to keep the party faithful in line—and the last thing party managers wanted was another divisive issue.”
“Recent immigrants also formed a major opposition block. The reformers had found considerable early sympathy in some German communities. However, when presented with total abstinence, most Germans clung stubbornly to their lager. Nor would the Irish give up their drinking. In return, dry frustrations with the immigrants frequently took on an antiforeign cast, and temperance and nativist reformers often joined forces in political contests.”
However, after the Maine Law in 1851, similar laws were passed in Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota Territory, and Rhode Island (1852); Michigan (1853); Connecticut and Ohio (1854), and Indiana, New Hampshire, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, and New York (1855). The provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick became dry as well.
Presaging what was to end national prohibition, state interest in prohibition faded whenever there were real problems to deal with, such as slavery and secession.
But popular interest faded as “Southern rumblings about secession began to dominate newspaper headlines” and “European medical reports that concluded that alcohol, while dangerous in excess, was not deleterious in moderation”.
The Whig party fell apart, and the new Republican party, initially warm to drys, chose to focus solely on the slavery issue. In “state after state, Maine Laws crumbled to dust. Legislatures either repealed them outright, or modified them to permit liquor sales with minimal interference, or allowed them to languish virtually unenforced.”
The Maine Maine Law was replaced in 1858 “by a measure that kept prohibition on the books in name alone.”
The main effect of this early struggle: “Few temperance advocates in subsequent years would seriously advance any other than legal prohibition as a solution of the liquor question.”
Search for Consensus: Drinking and the War Against Pluralism, 1860-1920
Home protection was the slogan of the anti-immigration and pro-prohibition forces; on the surface it was about saving homes from the drunken father; but that drunken father was often “a low class of foreigner”.
“Mental suasion for the man who thinks,
Moral suasion for the man who drinks,
Legal suasion for the drunkard-maker,
Prison suasion for the statute-breaker.”
—A. L. Benton, The Century of Temperance Reform, 1885.
Hillsboro, Ohio, 1873
Early public protests took forms we recognize today as sit-ins and demonstrations such as those used by anti-war protesters and anti-abortion protesters.
In 1873, Dr. Diocletian Lewis, a reform lecturer, spoke about his mother, Dilecta Barbour Lewis, who “met the liquor traffic head-on in a novel way: She pleaded with a hardened publican to stop selling to little Dio’s drunken father; the saloonkeeper refused; and, in desperation, Dilecta Lewis led a band of women into the bar to pray—a tactic that melted the publican’s heart and prompted him to take the pledge and forsake his evil ways.” Many of the women in the audience met the following day, and decided to follow this example, asking Eliza Jane Thompson to serve as leader.
The word spread, and in other regions women did the same; what became known as the “Woman’s Crusade” or the “Woman’s War” continued throughout 1874. [See Currier & Ives 1874 engraving, “Woman’s Holy War”]. See also, the Thomas Nast sketch for Harper’s Weekly, 1874, showing the Cincinnati ethnic Germans as ‘pigs’ selling ‘schwein kopf lager’.
“Mother Thompson” participated in the founding of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and retired to Hillsboro.
Drinkers and Reformers: The Origins of Postbellum Temperance
When voters start doing things you don’t like, call them unpatriotic and their actions a danger to public morals. Nineteenth-century prohibition advocates sound like Reagan-era prohibition advocates when they argue that people who use recreational drugs responsibly are a danger to the nation: they set a poor example. It’s a circular argument: they set a poor example because drinking is bad; their drinking is bad because it sets a poor example.
Edward B. Sutton, Michigan clergyman and Prohibition Party member: “The question is not, is public sentiment ready for prohibition, but is prohibition right? Public sentiment was not ready for the Ten Commandments when they were first given.”
The new immigrants did not generally contribute to national alcohol problems: the Italians and Jews enjoyed alcohol, but both proscribed intemperance. With probably fewer total abstainers than other communities, “their rates of alcoholism were among the lowest (if not the lowest) in the country.”
Wine began to grow, especially with the acquisition of California from Mexico in the 1840s Mexican War. From one plant—the “mission grape”—immigrants from the wine regions of Europe cultivated fifty-odd Old World varieties. Frenchman Paul Masson had a prospering vineyard by the second half of the century.
“Yet it was precisely this foreign image associated with drinking that alarmed many temperance workers. Much of the antebellum temperance campaign had drawn life from native-born citizens, and a sentiment often expressed was that drinking was “unrepublican.” With the prevalance of drinking in the postbellum immigrant population, such feelings intensified. Much of the nation’s tippling, or so the Reverend Dorchester insisted in the 1880s, was rooted in “the reactionary tendencies” of “the free-and-easy drinking customs of Europe.” While he acknowledged that America welcomed all immigrants who became “law-abiding citizens” and that “narrow prejudice” should not cloud the issue, he felt compelled to point out that much of the country’s liquor trade was “in the hands of a low class of foreigners,” whose names topped the doors of most saloons, beer gardens, and “low groggeries.””
Americans were mixing cocktails by the early 1800s.
“Like Benjamin Rush, postbellum temperance advocates feared that liquor would corrupt the most responsible elements in society, set an anarchical example for the lower classes, and, finally, lead to a general collapse of civic virtue and to a new form of tyranny—that of the traffic. The so-called refined, well-to-do drinker therefore was as much a threat to the fabric of the republic as were whiskey guzzling Westerners, tippling immigrants, and poverty-stricken drunkards.”
The New Society, Booze, and Social Disorder
Like those who promise to leave the country when the other candidate is elected president, Ford did not stop automobile production when repeal ended prohibition.
“The rise of “skid rows” in many cities was yet another sign of the prevalence of alcohol problems. The term derived from Seattle’s Skid Road (a name still used there) that track lumbermen had built to “skid” timber downhill. As Seattle grew, the section of town near Skid Road deteriorated, becoming a low-rent district of seedy bars frequented by derelicts and transients. Skid row soon became a popular term for similar areas in other cities, such as New York’s Bowery.”
“Still other techniques kept liquor flowing. Many saloons lured customers with offers of a “free lunch”—usually well salted to inspire drinking (the saloon “bouncer” was generally on hand to discourage hearty appetites). New patrons also were given free drinks. As one Brewers’ Association spokesman explained, this tactic extended even to children: A few cents on free drinks for boys was a good investment; the money would be amply recovered as these youths became habitual drinkers!”
“Home protection”, the motto adopted by the WCTU, meant protecting wives and children from becoming destitute due to a man’s drinking.
“A medical journal noted in 1904 that “inebriate and moderate drinkers are the most incapable of all persons to drive motor wagons” and that society should restrict the operation of its new automobiles to “total abstainers.””
“Ford was so adamant that after the enactment of National Prohibition in 1920, he threatened to halt automobile production should the nation ever think of repeal.”
The Dry Offensive: The 1870s and 1880s
From its beginnings, state-run public education was used as a means of shaping policy by indoctrinating students towards a particular view.
The “Social Purity Department” of the WCTU “sought laws against seduction, rape, prostitution, and sexual intercourse with women younger than eighteen.”
The 1880s campaign also fizzled, after some impressive victories, but “the resultant cooling… was deceptive in that it hid a real turn in popular opinion against the demon. School children throughout the land were learning the lessons of scientific temperance instruction—and would, or so dry leaders hoped, grow up to vote as they had been taught.”
Helping the Fallen
There is a danger, if the goal is to help people, of making their activities something they want to hide.
Women who were alcoholics kept their condition hidden for fear of social disgrace; as a result, their medical complications when they did seek help were more severe.
The Keeley Cure
Glycerine? Coca? Strychnia? Taken every two hours?
Dr. Leslie Keeley, in 1880, announced a “specific remedy” for alcoholism and drug addictions, and opened the Keeley Institute at Dwight, Illinois. The secret was “bichloride” or “double chloride of gold” (hence the term “Gold Cure”). Other cures included Dr. J. L. Gray’s, with the formula (freely publicized): “Twelve grains “chloride of gold and sodium,” six grains “muriate of ammonia,” one grain “nitrate of strychnia,” one-quarter grain atrophine, three ounces “compound fluid extract of cinchona,” and one ounce each of glycerine, “fluid extract of coca,” and distilled water—a teaspoonful to be taken “every two hours when awake.””
Dr. Haines’ Golden Specific was another cure. Wives were told to secretly put this in their husbands’ food.
Keeley organized former patients (calling them “graduates”) into “missionaries on behalf of the cure.” It was wildly successful; however, it did not survive Keeley’s death in 1900. However, eleven Keeley institutes survived into the 1920s. The original facility at Dwight has dropped “all pretensions of offering any specific remedy for inebriety” and still operates today.
Consensus: The Anti-Saloon League and the End of Pluralism
Heh. The biggest news story since World War I, and the New York Times didn’t recognize the importance of it.
In 1899, Carry Nation in Kansas launched her “hatchetation campaign”.
The movement had enough popular support now, and wanted to move firmly into the political arena. To avoid running afoul of Republican and Democratic sensibilities, they formed the Anti-Saloon League, which organized a non-partisan base for temperance. Part of the League’s message was “local option”, a county-by-county or town-by-town basis. The second tenet was non-partisanship: the league would support any (among the two parties) who was willing to vote dry.
By 1903, over a third of the nation lived under some type of prohibitory law. About half did by 1913. 1913 saw passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act, banning the shipment of liquor from wet to dry states.
“The demon, in fact, died a largely quiet death on January 20, 1920. As notable a newspaper as the New York Times saw no reason to give its demise more than a single column.”
“To the Heights of Mount Sinai”
“You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down!”
“In a retrospective look at the temperance crusade, dry journalist W. R. Scott summed up the pattern this way: The old ideals had at last carried “the American people… up to the final heights of Mount Sinai.” It remained to be seen what they would do at that elevation.”
Drier and Drier, and Wetter and Wetter: Drinking and the Pluralist Renaissance
Prohibition lobbyists screamed that liberalizing drinking laws would mean blood in the streets; but ending prohibition on alcohol didn’t increase violence or crime any more than liberalized concealed carry has. But fears of angry drunken blacks didn’t stop repeal, and the day after prohibition ended was just another day.
The White House, 1933
The Anti-Saloon League never recovered from getting their desire. The reality of alcohol prohibition showed everything they said to be false; when the last necessary state voted for repeal at 6:32 PM Eastern time, President Roosevelt was ready; he signed the official proclamation at 6:55 PM.
“December 5, 1933, was a day of waiting. The Twenty-first Amendment, which would repeal the Eighteenth Amendment and end National Prohibition, was on the verge of ratification. Congress had sent the new amendment to the states in March, and thirty-three state conventions had quickly and overwhelmingly voted for repeal. So the pro-liquor movement needed only three more states—for a constitutional minimum of thirty-six—to assure victory. Ohio and Pennsylvania fell into line early on the fifth, and late in the afternoon the Utah convention neared a final vote. The nation watched carefully…. In Maryland, the state legislature fired its “State House bootlegger,” anticipating the enjoyment of “patriotically… legal liquor.”… The Columbia Broadcasting System had put the White House in direct contact with Salt Lake City, and the president was eager to announce at the earliest possible moment that the book had been closed on the sober republic.”
“At 3:32 1/2 P.M. Mountain Time…S. R. Thurman of Salt Lake City cast the deciding vote for repeal. National Prohibition was dead. FDR probably got the word less than three minutes later. At 6:55 P.M., the president signed an official proclamation of repeal.”
“The Anti-Saloon League screamed that repeal meant “War… NO PEACE PACT—NO ARMISTICE” and that the temperance forces would soon be ready to resume the “offensive against the liquor traffic.”… But, on the whole, Americans took the news calmly…. Even in New York’s Times Square [where the entire police force was on duty] the police reported no more than the usual number of arrests for an average evening…. Pauline Sabin, the astute leader of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, which had worked as hard as any other group to make the events of December 5 possible, seemed best to capture popular sentiment on the occasion. Sabin expressed her hope that celebrations would “be short-lived, and that once the custom of drinking” was again open and accepted “we shall settle down to temperance and moderation.””
Drinking in the Sober Republic: Did Prohibition Prohibit?
I’m not sure what he’s trying to say here; death rates by cirrhosis make no sense without also knowing how long it takes cirrhosis to develop.
“The judgment of Robert Lewis Taylor, in his delightful biography of Carry Nation, is fairly typical of the modern public view: “On the night of January 16, 1920, the country had gone to bed fairly sober; next morning it awoke, grabbed a red tin New Year’s Eve horn and blew it without interruption for the next fourteen years, or until President Roosevelt picked up a pen and revoked the holy crusade.”
John C. Burnham studied medical complications of problem drinkers in a 1968 article. [John C. Burnham, “New Perspectives on the Prohibition ‘Experiment’ of the 1920s,” Journal of Social History II (1968): 51-68]
From the Census Bureau mortality figures, Forrest Linder and Robert Grove compiled the following statistics in 1943, in Vital Statistics Rates in the United States, 1900-1940:
|Year||deaths from chronic or acute alcoholism|
Linder and Grove also did a chart for cirrhosis of the liver, a possibly more accurate account of alcoholism rates:
|Year||deaths from cirrhosis|
“In 1976, historian Norman Clark reviewed the literature and concluded that estimates that placed annual absolute alcohol consumption rates at between 50 and 33 percent less than those of the preprohibition years were essentially correct.”
“The Gennas (and gangs like them) either sold the alcohol to a distributor, who would make gin from it, or made the gin themselves for resale. The most common recipe was simple: Mix the alcohol with 30 to 50 percent water, then add a few drops of glycerine and juniper juice to simulate the flavor of gin. The concoction went into bottles or jugs too tall to fill with water from a sink tap, but they fit under bathtub taps, whence the term “bathtub gin.” The gin maker got about $6 a gallon from speakeasy owners or other retailers, who in turn sold the liquor by the glass for a whopping total of $40. It was good business for all but the consumer. (Prohibition probably made distilling more prevalent on a small-scale, family basis than at any other time since the frontier days of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.)”
Not Quite Dry: Neorepublicans in a Changing America
Prohibition itself stimulated drinking as a status-based consumer activity.
Economic changes stimulated pluralism in the 1920s. Business prosperity hinged “not so much on funds for investment as on mass purchase of consumer durable goods.” Drinking patterns fit into this “emergent pluralism. Tippling in defiance of the law became something of a symbol of individualism. As such, neorepublican social norms appeared increasingly outdated, unnecessary, and even repressive (an echo here of Jacksonian days)…. [a] new rage for status gradually applied even to drinking; for drinking, thanks in great measure to the Volstead Act, had indeed become an activity most visibly associated with the affluent (who could afford liquor), thus meriting emulation in a consumer-oriented society.”You can see this in contemporary literature such as The Great Gatsby, where alcohol consumption was used to signify the relative status of the characters.
“Their Best Endeavors”: Enforcing the Volstead Act
Enforcement costs for alcohol prohibition resemble the pattern we’ve seen recently for prohibition of other drugs: an initial high price followed by astronomical prices.
From an original estimate of $5 million, the treasury secretary in 1923 told congress that they needed $28 million to fund the Prohibition Unit adequately; a few years later “one enforcement official suggested an annual figure of $300 million!”
Irving Fisher: “Personal liberty is… limited to boundaries set by the welfare of the social group”.
“Perhaps the most vocal advocate of the personal liberty position was the Association against the Prohibition Amendment, founded by retired naval officer William H. Strayton in 1918. Although vociferous for liberty where the Eighteenth Amendment was concerned, the AAPA was not, however, a particularly liberal group. A thorough conservative, Strayton had been unhappy with most legislation of the Progressive period, which he declared had threatened such fundamental American tenets as states’ rights, unfettered private enterprise, and minimal federal interference with the lives of local citizens. But he denounced prohibition as the most offensive reform of all. It was, he insisted, “a symptom of a disease” in the land, “the desire of fanatics to meddle in the other man’s affairs and to regulate the details of your lives and mine.””
From Reform to Reaction: The Sober Republic at Bay
What’s fascinating to me is how much we’ve changed since repealing alcohol prohibition: there was once a time when appeal to racism did not suffice to keep bad laws. The calls for killing drug users when the drug was alcohol match almost exactly modern rhetoric. From adding poisons to the drug, to increasing penalties far beyond the bounds of the crime, we’ve seen all this before.
“Drys continually called for stiffer jail terms for incorrigible topers, and by the late 1920s there was considerable talk of amending the Volstead Act to make drinking itself a felony. One essayist, writing in a competition on Law Observance (1929) sponsored by automobile industrialist W. C. durant, suggested that drinkers be exiled to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands.”
Crusade leaders, Wayne Wheeler among them, “continued to insist that the government maintain the practice of adding denaturants to industrial alcohol, despite protests that poorly washed moonshine was killing or blinding scores of Americans.” [Washing meant chemically removing the denaturants.] “In 1929, the WCTU’s president, Ella Boole, learned of a raid in which prohibition agents had clubbed a suspected bootlegger unconscious and then gunned down his unarmed wife when she ran to his aid. “Well,” Boole coolly observed, “she was evading the law, wasn’t she?””
“In the South… a number of temperance leaders raised the banner of racism in efforts to maintain white support for the cause. As historian Andrew Sinclair emphasized, some drys had long played on white fears of drunken blacks “getting out of control” as a recruiting ploy, but the later Volstead years saw this theme become especially pronounced. To cite one prominent example, Georgia Congressman William (“Earnest Willie”) Upshaw—a man with impeccable antipluralist credentials and a long association with the Anti-Saloon League—routinely conjured up horrific scenes of besotted blacks rising in violence against whites should legal liquor ever return. Upshaw, known in Congress as “the dryest of the drys,” combined his temperance views with overt support for the Ku Klux Klan and later with a virulent anticommunism.”
Return of “The Demon”
“The final blow came with the Great Depression.”
Epilogue: The Age of Ambivalence
Following repeal, alcohol sales helped pay our way out of the Great Depression.
“A Congressman was once asked by a constituent to explain his attitude toward whiskey. “If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life and inflames sinners, then I’m against it,” the Congressman said. “But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I’m for it. This is my position, and I will not compromise.”—Popular anecdote.
The Decline of Temperance
Prohibition killed temperance.
“Choate and others in the Roosevelt coalition were by no means sure that their liquor control policies would prove popular over time. Acclaim for repeal let them set to work amid a burst of popular support—but what would happen if this initial enthusiasm cooled? Many wets frankly predicted a continuing fight with the prohibitionists: The magnitude of the proliquor triumph was not entirely apparent even by the late 1930s.”
Efforts to revitalize temperance as a patriotic measure during World War II “fell on deaf ears.” The ASL’s call for a new constiutional prohibition in the forties never got off the ground. The WCTU, by the mid-sixties, was down to about 250,000, “a number that has risen slightly since then.” The ASL struggles on as the National Council on Alcohol Problems, “but with few members.”
The Return of “the Traffic”
Taxes are apparently a good way to deal with the problems of drug use—as long as we’re willing to collect them.
“The national government estimated that its $2.60 per gallon tax on distilled liquor would bring in close to $500 million a year. The windfall went largely to fund depression relief projects under the National Industrial Recovery Act.”
After personal and corporate income taxes, levies on alcohol are the largest single source of federal revenue today.
Drinking in Modern America
I wonder how much it would cost nowadays to re-enact and enforce alcohol prohibition? It would, I suspect, dwarf prohibition of little drugs like marijuana and probably even cocaine.
“There was, in fact, no dramatic post-repeal increase in annual per capita consumption, which rose only slowly from approximately one gallon of absolute alcohol per capita in 1934 to roughtly 1.5 gallons in 1941. The figure then climbed to pre-Volstead levels of about two gallons per capita (1916-1919) by the mid-1940s.”
“Trends in beverage preferences since repeal reflect a gradual shift toward distilled spirits at the expense of beer.”
“Annual financial losses attributed directly or indirectly to alcoholism and problem drinking have climbed to some $43 billion—roughly $13 billion in health care costs, $20 billion in lost production, $5 billion in traffic accidents, $2 billion in social attempts to deal with drinking-related problems, $3 billion in violent crime, and another $430 million in fire losses.”
The Posttemperance Response
Saying that Alcoholics Anonymous is more impressive than other approaches doesn’t say much unless we know how well these other treatments work.
“One of the most notable efforts [to help alcoholics] was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), an organization with an unlikely beginning. William Wilson, an alcoholic stockbroker, and Dr. Robert Smith, a besotted surgeon, met in Akron , Ohio, in 1935 by coincidence. They spoke at length about their drinking problems and of the notion that they suffered from a disease. The two men concluded that they were powerless in the face of alcohol—and so was any other alcoholic. Resolving to help one another remain sober, “Bill W.” And “Dr. Bob” then carried their message of self-help and hope to other alcoholics…. the name Alcoholics Anonymous was adopted in 1939.”
“AA has consistently produced more impressive results than any other alcoholism treatment approach.”
Appendix: Apparent Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages
Apparent Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages and Absolute Alcohol in Each Class of Beverage, in U.S. Gallons per Capita of the Drinking-age Population, U.S.A. 1790-1978
Source: Except for the prohibition period, this appendix is reproduced, with permission, from a table in Merton M. Hyman, Marilyn A. Zimmermann, Carol Gurioli, and Alice Helrich, Drinkers, Drinking, and Alcohol-Related Mortality and Hospitalizations: A Statistical Compendium (New Brusnwick, 1980) (copyright 1980, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Inc.).
Through 1973 the drinking-age population was the population aged 15 years and over; data since 1973… are based on a drinking-age population aged 14 and over. [The table does] not show the illegally produced alcohol that enters consumption; [it is] based on “tax-paid withdrawals.”
Through 1971 the average absolute alcohol content in distilled spirits was assumed to be 45%; beginning in 1972 that percentage has been changed to 43. Through 1951 the average alcohol content of wine was assumed to be 18%; in 1952-68, 17%; in 1969-71, 16%; beginning in 1972, 14.5%. The beer data through 1840 essentially reflect consumption of cider, the average alcohol content of which was assumed to be 10% by volume; through 1919 the average alcohol content of beer was assumed to be 5% by volume; since 1934, 4.5%.
For the prohibition years, we have adapted the total absolute alcohol figures provided in W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York, 1979). Between 1930 and 1933, absolute alcohol consumption probably rose slightly, perhaps to just over one gallon per year.
U.S. Gallons per capita. One U.S. Gallon=3.785 liters.