April 7 is a day worth toasting. Eighty years ago this Sunday, Americans could once again legally imbibe in their favorite pub. On March 23, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the law altering the Volstead Act and allowing for commercial production and distribution of beer and wine to begin 15 days later. Eight months after that, the 21st Amendment completely repealed Prohibition.
The idea of Prohibition had been kicking around for decades. Various groups such as the Prohibition Party, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League espoused the banning of alcohol because of its detrimental effects on health and family life, its association with immorality and prostitution and its financial impact on the poor.
Much of the support for Prohibition came from rural state Congregationalist Protestants, like Baptists, and “nativists” who attributed the crime and “moral decay” occurring in the nation's large cities to the waves of new immigrants, primarily Irish and Italian Catholics who crowded into urban enclaves and, what's worse, drank booze. Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans generally opposed Prohibition.
Americans have had an awkward relationship with alcohol since colonial days, when Puritans passed laws to prohibit consumption. During the mid to late 1800s, temperance movements evolved throughout the country, drunkenness was scorned and saloons were picketed — where vigilantes like Carrie Nation sometimes used hatchets to wreck bars and smash liquor bottles. Even the Supreme Court debated the issue.
Finally in December 1917, a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to prohibit “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” or their importation was passed overwhelmingly by Congress with substantial support from both political parties. The ratification of the 18th Amendment by 36 states made it official Jan. 16, 1919. After the Volstead Act set the rules for implementation, Prohibition became law on Jan. 17, 1920.
Thus passed the only Amendment to the Constitution that restricted Americans' rights and freedoms rather than expanding them.
Interestingly, medical doctors opposed Prohibition because alcohol was widely prescribed at the time for a range of ailments. Congress actually held hearings in 1921 on the medicinal value of beer. Can you say medical marijuana?
Of course, we all know how this experiment ended: badly. Mobsters supplied the forbidden fruit while killing hundreds of rivals and innocents as racketeering exploded; bootleggers corrupted police and public officials with bribes; otherwise upstanding citizens became disdainful of government meddling and broke the law; breweries closed and jobs were lost; thousands of illegal speakeasies sprang up.
Ultimately, the “wets” won out over the “dries” and the great social experiment in government-directed personal behavior modification ended. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the futile war on drugs, we haven't learned our lesson.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in New Port Richey.