Will Rogers once said, “Prohibition is better than no alcohol at all.”
Of course the ironic reference alludes to the abundance of alcohol during the years the United States banned the consumption of it with the 18th amendment in 1920 through December of 1933. The overall failure of prohibition reinforces the notion that we humans are most desirous to indulge in that which we cannot have.
Will Rogers went on to say that if the U.S. banned learning that we would be the smartest nation in the world within 5 years. Perhaps not a bad idea? Let’s talk prohibition kids; and learn something while it’s still legal.
When one mentions the word “prohibition” the first idea that pops into most of our minds is the greatest singular example of the “legislation of morality” gone terribly wrong. For example, today many will use the prohibition argument to make the case to legalize marijuana. Yet, upon closer examination, perhaps we have been too hard on the 18th amendment to the constitution over the past 9 decades. Prohibition was an earnest and genuine attempt to solve a woefully widespread social disease in the United States at the time, known as alcoholism.
Prohibition was not the spontaneous brainchild of a slick politician nor an ill conceived impulsive idea from our nation’s leaders spawned to foster political favor. The case for prohibition was being made a full century before it was enacted in 1920 by various “temperance” groups. Quite the contraire to being impulsive, if anything the country was extremely slow in attempting to solve a national crisis. In fact, the problems were so bad many alcohol drinking citizens in the U.S. were in support of prohibition.
How bad was this crisis that even drinkers were willing to make one of their favorite activities illegal? Alert: Hard core statistics ahead.
According to Dr. Jack Blocker (please see this very informative US National Library of Medicine journal article to support many of the claims contained within this blog entry), the problems with alcohol consumption were of epic proportion. Between 1900 and 1913, Americans began to drink more and more. Beer production jumped from 1.2 billion to 2 billion gallons, and the volume of tax-paid spirits grew from 97 million to 147 million gallons. Per capita consumption of ethanol increased by nearly a third, a significant spike over such a short period of time. With this rise in annual ethanol consumption to 2.6 US gallons per capita of the drinking-age population, the highest level since the Civil War, created a real public health problem. Rates of death diagnosed as caused by liver cirrhosis (15 per 100,000 total population) and chronic alcoholism (10 per 100.000 adult population) were high during the early years of the 20th century.
This high consumption of alcohol coupled with the historical context of the subjugation of women (women could not vote until 1920; ironically the same year prohibition was enacted) and the overwhelmingly patriarchal practices of the day, meant alcohol was the primary fuel that caused spousal and child abuse, while tearing up the home and sending shock waves through the entire social fabric.
The nation was like a high school kid that had not learned how to “maintain” and handle their drink.
Prohibition was not all bad, in fact in part it was good – it was like grounding the above drinking kid, sending him to his room and taking his car keys. It is not farfetched to contend that it could easily still be the law of the land today if it not for another major social slash financial crisis: The depression.
One of the primary reasons prohibition was repealed was not necessarily stemming from the unintended consequences of prohibition itself (namely underground organized crime); rather when the stock market crashed in 1929, the country lacked the necessary time and energy to devote its enforcement of prohibition while economical concerns became much more prevalent and the focus of our attention. Prohibition was not cheap and drastically effected the economy in negative ways. I believe it would be a reasonable claim for one to contend that if the stock market did not crash we could very well still be a “dry” country today.
It is my opinion that the mayhem that ensued during the 1920’s and the flourishing organized crime alcohol trade was bound to happen and such activity was to be expected as any major cultural shift has a transitory period in which the culture must adopt. It was growing pains for a transitioning wet to dry country…perhaps we eventually would have solved them had our economy not crashed.
Thus what did we learn from prohibition? Seven things:
1. We learned that many (not all) people will change personal destructive behaviors as a result of public legislation. The number of drinkers plummeted during prohibition and even after its appeal it rose…though never close to the level it was before prohibition (see above Blocker article). In this sense, prohibition worked. By nearly any historical account and quite contrary to what the Rogers above quotation above would have you believe, alcohol consumption and alcoholism drastically decreased during prohibition with a consequential benefit to families and communities.
2. Hundreds of counties today still opt to go “dry.” Perhaps prohibition, despite its national fallout, provided dry options for the country and should one want to live in a dry area, they have the freedom to do so -approximately 10% of the US population today live in a dry county.
3. We learned that people have a strong tendency toward a bipolar self: A public persona and private persona -church by day, speakeasy by night. Many drinkers actually supported prohibition because they believed it would better for society as a whole…of course with the promise that it was still not illegal for one to make their own alcohol for their own personal use. The grape growing and malt industry flourished in the 1920’s. Perhaps what some may consider a double-standard was in reality a willingness by drinkers to sacrifice convenience for the better public good – this assisted by the new presence of women in saloons, see below.
4. Many people want to be governed and have the government’s assistance in self-policing. After its repeal, the threat of prohibition coming back loomed on. It is believed that approximately 40% of Americans supported the return of prohibition in the late 30’s.
5. Say what you will negatively about prohibition though at least it was an attempt to solve one of the largest and widespread problems in our nation’s history. In addition, prohibition was a major wake up call for this country. We had a problem and we needed to confront it. It is no coincidence that when it was repealed December 8, 1933, only 2 years later, in 1935, what is arguably the most effective program to deal with alcoholism in the world, Alcoholics Anonymous, was born. Perhaps without such a drastic measure, prohibition, we would not have seen the creation of effective alternative solutions to deal with alcoholism. Prohibition was an excellent motivator and the fuel for the creation of innovative, non-legislative programs to deal with the problem of excessive alcohol consumption, such as the aforementioned Alcoholics Anonymous -not to mention nearly countless other substance abuse programs.
6. Is it a coincidence that during prohibition we saw the subsequent rise of female rights and powers? The 1920’s was a revolutionary period for women’s rights. Women were finally heard in terms of both supporting prohibition and bringing it to an end. Prior to prohibition women were not allowed in saloons and the unchecked masculine energy ran rampant, hence male-like problems. During the illegal speakeasys, women were as much a part of the saloon scene as men…the feminine energy providing the much needed checkpoint for inebriated male behavior. Prohibition provided the unintended consequence of saloon equality for women -who witnessed first hand the hypocrisy of public abstinence and private drink- which provided a primary motivation leading to prohibition’s demise…a female led endeavor.
7. Finally, the great majority of us believe in in the concept of prohibition- we just differ over what should be prohibited and why. A nation where crystal meth is injected in the streets concerns me. In this sense, I am for prohibition of certain mind altering substances. My guess is so are you. Thus the concept of prohibiting certain items for public use is agreed; we may just disagree on what is prohibited and where.
So next time someone wants to use the “just look at prohibition” argument with you to suggest the legalizing of a substance, tell them to think again or better yet, read my blog. Prohibition was not all bad. Sometimes keeping something underground is the best place to keep it. After all, we were all just one less stock market crash away from being a nation of soft drinks ourselves.
Though to be fair and not perpetuate the schism between public and private selves, I did write this blog for the first time while slightly buzzed. Though if you passed a law prohibiting “blogging while buzzed” I can guarantee more entertaining blogs from this point forward. Hehe.
Though not historically accurate, in many ways, Boardwalk Empire, kicks ass…kind of like Jager-bombs.
So I have heard of this HBO program….good to read the facts before enjoying the show. Sounds like fun 🙂
Diane Groom…where did your comment go??
so if we decide legalize pot we’ll soon have a nation of stoners? I don’t think it will create more spousal/child abuse, but we could see a rise in 7-11 robberies.
I haven’t read much on the topic, but I find #1 to be debatable at the least. Where is the evidence that the “number of drinkers” plummeted? The .gov site that you linked uses the dramatic decrease in the number of distilleries, or wholesellers, or retailers, combined with federal tax receipts to extrapolate some fuzzy math. How does any of this prove that the number of drinkers plummeted? Of course all of those “legal” entities would decrease, they had to, by law. But if the dea.gov took inventory of the “legal” cocaine refineries, wholesellers, and retailers, along with federal tax receipts received for cocaine sales and told you that there was no one using cocaine based on that evidence, would you believe them?
It also talks about “public opinion”. I’m guessing that maybe some polling was done (doubtful). If it was, what percentage of pre-1960’s Americans would admit to doing, or even being,”for” something that was illegal? I’d say not many.
Anyone who thinks that the black market couldn’t produce 100+% of what was being produced has never tried to make alcohol. My cousin made his first homebrew when he was 19 in his college dorm room closet. And this was a time when people were still growing their own food and cooking their own meals. How hard would it be to throw a batch of booze in a bucket to the corner?
The .gov site also tries to cite some hospital stats. This is a time when the majority of women didn’t even go to the hospital to deliver their own babies. So who in the hell was going to the hospital for a “drinking” problem, especially if the price is going to prison?
Thank you so much for the feedback! I genuinely appreciate the time and effort it takes to respond with such critical inquiry and passion.
First off, I believe some clarification of the primary source is in order. Sources are everything. You continually mention the .gov site, which I interpret from your use (perhaps wrongly) may be a “suspicious” source (again, I may be reading too much into this) that somehow cannot be trusted. The article was first published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2006. However the .gov site does have an author, Dr. Jack Blocker, who is a professor of history at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario. Does this Canadian resident have an agenda? Perhaps, though I have no reason to suspect he does. He is an accomplished historian with his latest book being A Little More Freedom: African Americans Enter the Urban Midwest, 1860-1930 (URBAN LIFE & URBAN LANDSCAPE). I do believe the source is SO important because I know I am NOT an historian, only a guy with an opinion. Like you, I have not read a lot on the topic either. As no one can be an expert on everything, we must seek credible sources and experts who have devoted their lives to such study. Of course this does not mean blind allegiance – though a certain amount of critical trust is in order with sources that have credibility. This work has been cited in two other professional journal publications as well, Worms and Germs, Drink and Dementia: US Health, Society, and Policy in the Early 20th Century and The Diffusion of Public Health Innovations and appears to be a very respected source. Hell, unlike yours truly, the guy even has high ratings on ratemyprofessor.com!
Most of your skepticism rests in Blocker’s methodology, which I cannot speak to precisely. I do know his citations are credible and, though perhaps circumstantial, reasonable. For example, when drinking WAS legal in 1915 per capita consumption was 2.4 gallons; in 1939 when it was once again legal, per capita consumption was 1.2 gallons. What happened in between? Prohibition. I do not believe it unreasonable to believe a cause and effect relationship. Once again, these are legal periods when the underground trades were all but non-existent. Were people brewing their own booze in 1939 thus these records are unreliable? Probably – though not much. But they were also home brewing in 1915….so it comparing apples to apples. I would agree that some home brewing went on even when it was legal, though once prohibition was repealed, booze once again became cheap and available. My suspicion is home brewing decreased considerably as you could walk to the store for probably less money to get your drink on.
You question whether a public opinion poll was done and then contend that was doubtful. Again, I have no reason to question the professor’s credibility in this way. You say, “If it was, what percentage of pre-1960′s Americans would admit to doing, or even being,”for” something that was illegal? I’d say not many.” I am a wee bit confused here…are you referring to alcohol? If so, it was legal and I am certain people would confess to it. If you are referring to something illegal…depending on the nature and type of polling conducted, I would contend under the right conditions of privacy, people would confess to such things.
In regards to hospital records, the article primarily refers to them between 1900 and 1915. The article states, “Death rates from cirrhosis and alcoholism, alcoholic psychosis hospital admissions, and drunkenness arrests all declined steeply during the latter years of the 1910s, when both the cultural and the legal climate were increasingly inhospitable to drink…”. Again, not referring to the period of prohibition but before and after. I would agree that such records during prohibition would be skewed.
The primary reasoning here is comparing society before and after prohibition, not during, as you suggest, as keeping tabs on such things was sketchy at best. Though I do believe the before and after statistics to be somewhat reliable and is the primary logic for the argument.
If you want to learn more on this fascinating subject and you have Netflix, check out the Ken Burns 3 part documentary, entitled “Prohibition”…I think it will shed a lot more light on the subject and is a really enjoyable watch. Thanks again!
Prohibition is a topic that I have researched and written about, although it was in the context of drug offense recidivism (I have chosen this particular work to use as my persuasive speech). Many of the points presented in your blog are logically sound, but I will say this: they come from the perspective of a person who considers addiction the problem, and not the symptom of a problem. Most people are reactive in nature, so it is intuitive that this view would prevail.
I could go on and on about the dollars and man hours spent on punishing nonviolent minor drug offenders, and the damage it does to their families, and the fact that in many cases the punishment is to spend time amongst hardened, or what I call “actual” criminals. I could talk about the fact that punishments for the possession of illegal substances have (until very recently) gotten progressively more strict while usage only skyrockets. I could talk about the private, publicly-traded corporations profiting from and lobbying for the retention of these ineffective (and yes, they are ineffective) laws. Those who believe wholeheartedly in restricting the use of a substance seem to ignore all of this, while simultaneously forgetting that morality is subjective. I personally find professional bodybuilding a disgusting, unhealthy, addictive, self-indulgent pastime. If I were in the majority in that regard, we could use the gnarliest and most disgusting bodybuilders as examples and make bodybuilding illegal. But check me out, being all reactive in nature.
I like to look at the cause of a problem before I attempt to solve it, especially when the solution may involve the judgement and punishment of an individual I don’t even know. Substance abuse is definitely a problem; but what causes it? In short, factors that were present far before the addiction.
One factor is social and ideological isolation. Others include upbringing, genetic inheritance (sad, isn’t it?),a lack of coping skills, and, as with crime in general, the main contributing factor seems to be poverty. I know, these are huge social problems and how can we tackle them when there are alcoholics and drug addicts to deal with? Reactive, I tell you.
So what is my solution? I don’t have one. But unlike some, I don’t claim to. I just won’t marry myself to a crime-and-punishment system that has failed society in the addiction regard (and as far as I can tell, every other… has even one crime ever been eradicated?) for very close to a century. In this time, the harshness of the punishment has gone up right along with organized crime and usage of each illegal substance. So, what’s the definition of insanity again?
I am well into my second rum and coke, which is when I do my most passionate writing. I do usually get the opportunity to wake up sober and edit what I wrote, though. I hope I didn’t come off as too preachy, although I am the son of a preacher man.
Thank you so much for the reply Bill as it so eloquent and rich with great thought and information. I love the way you think! I would have responded to you sooner though I was into my third Jack and coke last night when I read it and probably would not have been coherent 🙂 I hate to be a one upper though I actually used to be the preacher man….SOOOOOO there. Yes, I agree with you in part and I certainly am not a proponent of prohibition, rather, we are all well versed in it’s ills though have we ever considered an upside to it? Critically looking at both sides of an issue is really the nature of this blog. At the very least it was the country TRYING to solve a major problem. As far as we know drinking did go down during prohibition and stayed down after it -thus there is SOME cause and effect relationship connecting the availability of an item with its use. Perhaps the root of the problem is simply that we are human beings. Human beings love to escape for a wide variety of reasons. Always have and always probably always will. The ways our laws are set up now is there are legal means to escape and there are illegal means to escape. Perhaps this divide is inconsistent and rife with problems; however, what is alternative? All legal? Though there is a part that can entertain that notion, ultimately it would scare the hell out of me to think one could walk into the grocery store and buy crack. That said, perhaps that is indeed the solution…not a perfect one though, as you mention, look what is happening now and it is not good. Thank you so much the response Bill! I think between the both of us we could solve the majority of the worlds problems.