I’ve spent this summer doing a lot of reading. It’s cheap and helps me unwind after a day in front of a computer or crowd of people.
One book I just finished was “Prohibition” by Daniel Okrent, which details the rise and fall of the temperance movement in the United States.
Americans in 19th century drank. A lot. There was no clean tap water and no bottled beverage industry. So drinking alcohol was not just an escape from drudgery; that was the liquid at hand. And public drunkenness was a major problem in nearly every city and town.
The “Progressive Era” in American politics came about after the Civil War, when progressives believed that government could truly make a better life. The progressives fought for safer working conditions, child labor laws, free public education and votes for women.
But, most of all, they fought to prohibit the sale of alcohol.
It’s incredible today to see that religious and intellectual leaders across the board, especially on the liberal side, consolidated to make temperance the #1 public issue, even as the world was industrializing and becoming more modern.
The Anti-Saloon League and its head Wayne Wheeler had a Rolodex on Capitol Hill that blows away anything we know today. In the South and West (and most the MidWest), you could not get elected if you were “wet” on the alcohol issue. Using modern “single-issue” techniques, the ASL got the people it wanted in the state legislatures and in Congress.
Once Prohibition passed Congress by a 2/3 vote, it was rapidly enacted by three-quarters of the states and became Federal law in 1920. It was a total victory.
But enforcement was impossible. First of all, there were more loopholes than laws: religious use and private stocks were exempted from the laws. Second, it was impossible to cover the U.S. border and keep out foreign trade. Third, the nation itself did not take the law seriously. Too many people, including drys, kept right on drinking.
When the Great Depression came around, Congress defunded the enforcement agencies which meant that the law had become a joke. When FDR was elected in 1932, he rapidly moved for repeal and nearly all states agreed. (A few stayed “dry” into the 1940′s, and some counties are still dry today).
In the end, Prohibition was the ultimate unsuccessful social experiment. Alcohol, which was the subject of the first miracle by Jesus Christ at Cana, could not be legislated out of existence. Government had truly met its limits.