Today is the 80th anniversary of Repeal Day, when America finally lifted its disastrous, 13-year experiment with alcohol prohibition. Here are a few facts about booze and Prohibition you may not have known:
-- Though Prohibition led to a spike in homicides, widespread corruption, alcohol poisonings, and undermined respect for the rule of law, its repeal wasn't motivated by any of those things. Rather, lawmakers came around because during the Depression, cash-strapped states needed money, and legalizing and taxing alcohol was a promising source of revenue. There are lessons here, and the drug war reform movement has learned them well.
-- The narrative of Eliott Ness as the crusading fed who brought down Al Capone is a myth -- a myth fabricated by Ness himself.
-- In some places, Prohibition wasn't enforced at all -- Pittsburgh for example. In Kansas City, Missouri, the Pendergast political machine kept the taverns open and the booze flowing in spite of the federal ban. When the infamous temperance activist Carrie Nation brought her bottle-smashing hatchet over from neighboring Kansas, she was arrested, and barred her from ever stepping foot in the city again.
-- Federal Prohibition didn't ban the possession or consumption of alcohol, only its manufacture, import, and sale. (Though some state and local laws went farther.) That may be why the government wasn't as successful at demonizing drinkers as it has been in vilifying and dehumanizing drug users. You could still drink without getting arrested. It's also why we didn't see the sorts of violent raids on private homes that we've seen with the drug war.
-- Alcohol was still available for use as medication. This of course led to a variety of dubious alcohol treatments for various ailments, similar to what we've seen today with medical marijuana (although there are certainly legitimate medicinal uses for both). But because it was illegal to make or import alcohol, the legal prescriptions were typically filled with domestic booze that had already been distilled, most notably bourbon. This drained the country's bourbon reserves. When Prohibition was then lifted in 1933, there was little aged bourbon left in America. Meanwhile, Scotch whiskey continued to be distilled and aged throughout Prohibition. The stills were barely dripping again before World War II hit, during which many were converted to make fuel and penicillin. It took bourbon decades to catch back up.
-- Despite the spike in homicides, the corruption, the alcohol poisonings, and the erosion of respect for the rule of law, some modern-day drug warriors from moral conservatives on the right to public health progressives on the left still insist that Prohibition "worked" -- that it did indeed significantly cut down on alcohol consumption in America. (I'd argue that making overall consumption your only measure of success -- while ignoring all of the costs -- doesn't speak well of your priorities.)
-- As with the campaigns against cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, the march to Prohibition included appeals to bigotry and racism. And as we've seen recently with the federal government's efforts to link drug use to today's terrorist bogeyman, in the early 20th century, Prohibition was tied to America's World War I villains, the Germans. American breweries were commonly owned by German immigrants and their ancestors. So the Anti-Saloon league appealed to nationalism with slogans like, "Sobriety is the bomb that will blow kaiserism to kingdom come." As Eric Burns writes in his book Spirits of America, Anti-Saloon League spokesman Wayne Wheeler once wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to inform him that "there are a number of breweries in this country which are owned in part by alien enemies. It is reported to me that the Anheuser-Busch Company and some of the Milwaukee companies are largely controlled by alien Germans . . . Have you made an investigation?"
Burns writes that many German-Americans even changed their last names out of fear of harassment and persecution. One of them was Frederick Mueller. You've probably consumed some of the beer produced by the company he founded -- it's now called Miller.
Temperance advocates included eugenicists and future Nazis among their ranks. The Ku Klux Klan was a prominent temperance advocate, and often collaborated with groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. In the early days of the movement, advocates played to white fears about allowing freed slaves to consume alcohol. Temperance activists also pushed stereotypes and fears about American cities teeming with boozy Catholic immigrants from Europe.
-- Another area where Prohibition wasn't enforced? The halls of Congress.
-- The legacy of Prohibition of course remains with us, mostly in the form of the amusing, often absurd blue laws still in effect across the country. At the federal level, it took Congress until 1978 to finally legalize home brewing and wine making. It's still illegal to distill your own liquor, even if only for your own use. More bizarre still, if you want to open up a commercial distillery today, you still must attest to the federal government that (a) you have the knowledge and skill to distill alcohol properly, and (b) you've never distilled alcohol before.
I for one plan toast tonight . . . to my freedom to toast.