Podcast #50: The 18th Amendment and Prohibition

Temperance Movement The 18th Amendment and Prohibition

In order to talk about the 18th Amendment, we have to first discuss the Temperance Movement. The Temperance Movement was a social and religious campaign against the consumption of alcohol that began in the early 1800s.

It’s important to understand that drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water in the early years of the United States as many water sources were contaminated. There was no understanding of water purification and bacteria. People just knew that when they drank the water it made them sick. They thought it was unhealthy. As a result, most people drank alcohol instead. By the 1830s, statistics show that on average, Americans were drinking around 7 gallons of alcohol a year. That’s a lot of booze.

A variety of groups and organizations worked to ban alcohol in the United States. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was created in 1873 in Ohio and still exists today. You can go to their website WCTU.org and learn more about them. Its second most famous President, Francis Willard advocated a “Do anything” policy. She remained President until her death. The WCTU supported a number of movements like Suffrage, the 8-hour work day and of course Temperance. Its members and chapters could support the movements of their choice. Many of course advocated for Temperance. They would often have “pray-ins” at local saloons. To understand why mostly women dominated this movement, we have to discuss the plight of women at this time in history. Women were seen as children under the eyes of the law. Women didn’t have the right to vote and lacked the political influence needed. They had to start on a grass roots level. Creating local chapters and slowly and steadily gained support. The Prohibition Party was established in 1869, worked to have a constitutional amendment passed that would ban the creation, consumption and sale of alcohol.

Years earlier in 1840 – The Washington Movement was created by 6 men who were battling alcoholism. The theory was that if they could get together regularly discuss their problems and encourage each other not to drink; they could stop drinking. This was the precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous or AA.

The Anti-Saloon league was established in 1893 and worked to promote the temperance movement through various forms of propaganda like stories, poems, songs and fliers describing the goals of the movement.

One of my favorite leaders of the Temperance Movement was a woman named Carrie Nation. She was a member of the WCTU in Kansas but felt as though their approach wasn’t heavy handed enough. Carrie Nation was known for going to into local saloons with a hatchet and smashing the bottles and the bar.

Arthur’s 10 nights in a Bar Room – written in 1854 was the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Temperance Movement. In the book the tavern is depicted as the ruination of society. Drinking shops corrupt men’s body and soul. Women believed their male children weren’t safe. The book was turned into a play and was used to promote temperance.

It would not be until The Progressive Era and WWI that temperance advocates and supporters would reach their goal with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. The victory would be short lived as it was overturned by the 21st Amendment.

With the U.S. involvement in WWI, certain food items were limited to ensure that soldiers fighting abroad would have enough. One of those items was grain. Grain in addition to makings bread and pasta, was also used to make alcohol. So from 1917- 1919 there are various types of slogans and propaganda posters saying things like “Food will win the war” “Save a loaf a week” Herbert Hoover who was the head of the US Food and Drug Association at the time, got Americans to voluntarily give up certain foods without the formal rationing that was required during WWII. By the time the US became involved in WWI, a number states passed Prohibition laws and the movement for a nationwide ban gained further support. Alcohol consumption was also linked to domestic abuse, increased poverty rates, a variety of illnesses and prohibition was linked to patriotism and good old fashion family values. The Progressive Era and WWI proved to be the perfect backdrop to prohibition legislation. Not only did we need to preserve grain to feed our own soldiers, but we needed to help our Allies defeat the Germans.

The 18th Amendment was the only amendment to the Constitution that had a time delay. The amendment was passed by Congress on January 16, 1919 but it wouldn’t go into effect until January 17, 1920. “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” There were some limitations to the amendment. Alcohol could still be used for medical and religious purposes.

Support for the Volstead Act or the National Prohibition Act

The Volstead Act charged the U.S. Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions, and defined which “intoxicating liquors” were forbidden and which were excluded from Prohibition (for example, alcoholic beverages used for medical and religious purposes). President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, but the House of Representatives overrode the veto, and the Senate did so as well the next day. The Volstead Act set the starting date for nationwide prohibition for January 17, 1920, which was the earliest day allowed by the Eighteenth Amendment.

The Volstead Act defined “intoxicating liquors as anything with over .05% alcohol. President Woodrow Wilson, vetoed the Bill not because he disagreed with Prohibition but he specifically disliked the part of the law that enforced wartime measures. He felt it was a limit to civil liberties. His Veto was overturned in just 2 hours and the Volstead Act was passed. Imagine Congress working that quickly today!

With the passage of Prohibition laws, the country was divided into Drys and Wets. States had to enforce the law and some states, chose not to enforce it. When discussing Prohibition, it is often said that it turned law abiding citizens into criminals. Prohibition gave rise to organized crime, bootlegging, rum runners and speakeasies. Today, we are joined by Travis Spangenburg from the Prohibition Museum. Travis, thank you so much for joining us today!

Our family has some links to bootlegging and prohibition. Our great uncle, our grandfather’s brother, owned two speakeasies in downtown Brooklyn during prohibition. Our great-grandfather sold fruits and vegetables in Manhattan. He would make these ornate sample baskets and sell them to business owners and people in NYC. His eldest son, worked with him for a time, but quickly realized there were easier ways to make money and not only easier but he would make more money as a “Bookie” He would take people’s bets on different sporting events. When Prohibition started, he opened two speakeasies. One day, a young man came into our great uncle’s shop looking to see him soda for his speakeasies. That young soda distributer was a man by the name of Al Capone. He worked with our great uncle for years and they remained friends. Al Capone would often invite him out to Chicago or to sit ring side at a boxing match with him, but our Great Uncle didn’t want the notoriety of sitting to his left or right. You start to have people saying wait., who is that guy? He was interesting character our great uncle. By the time we knew him he had mellowed out and was just a sweet and loving old man. I remember sitting on his knee and him always being so happy to see us and spend time with us. He always dressed in suit, even older. I don’t think I ever saw him without a collared shirt and a tie. But in his younger years he was force to be reckoned with. It was said that he could knock someone out with one punch. It gave him the nickname ‘Nap’ after a famous boxer of the time period. He didn’t have a driver’s license but he instead had the business card of the mayor that was signed asking to have every curtesy given to Mr. LaSalle. He also had a number of members of the police department on his payroll. His wife, our great aunt would wear an apron with two pockets. In one pocket was silver pieces and in the other was gold pieced. Depending on who you were, that would dictate which pocket she would go into to pay your bribe. As we mentioned before, incredible amounts of corruption during the Progressive Era.

So there you have it. As Travis mentioned earlier, women brought about Prohibition and also brought about its end!

One of my favorite quotes on Prohibition comes from Former President of Mexico, Vincente Fox. Just to give you some pretense about it, he was discussing his views on the legalization of cannabis. He said “Prohibition didn’t work in the Garden of Eden; Adam ate the apple”.

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