Monday, November 15, 2010

Prohibition 1920-1933

The 18th Amendment brought in an American-wide Prohibition that lasted 13 years and changed America in ways that are still reverberating, would probably never have happened at any other time in U.S. history, including embedding organized crime into the fabric of America. It was the culmination of a number of historic events and the oddest fusion of parties normally on opposite sides of the political and moral fence. It brought Republicans and Democrats, suffragettes and the KKK, unionists and industrialists together to form uneasy alliances to enact the first Amendment designed to impinge on the individual rights of Americans. The 18th Amendment was actually unconstitutional in doing this.

Racism on many levels played a huge role in the passage of the Amendment. Rotten-borough legislatures in existence which gave unequal voting powers to low population rural over heavily populated urban areas gave the rural, and mostly dry, votes more power than the wet urban groups. This reapportioning would have been corrected following the 1920 Census, at which point urban votes would have overpowered the dry rurals. It was literally city versus country.

That the larger urban areas was made up of immigrant Irish, Italian, German, Greek, Jewish and other alien groups and the rural areas were more often nativists was another huge factor. Heavy drinking was linked with these immigrant groups and they favored saloons and pubs as the center of their community. These places were more than pubs, they were employment centers, mail drops and political stumps. Political alliances and votes could be bought and sold at local saloons. Patrick J. Kennedy owned a pub in Haymarket Square in Boston and from there launched the Kennedy dynasty. Northern Democrats were more often than not supported by these immigrant groups, whereas Southern Democrats were more often made up of conservative nativists who also supported segregation and were dry. On both sides there were wet-drys and dry-wets, those who voted one way or the other depending on political needs and whichever way the wind was blowing.

And in the early 1900s it was blowing a dry wind. There had been numerous ongoing movement toward prohibitions, and many states were already dry by the turn of the century. At the same time there had always been a suffragette movement seeking the vote for women. Prohibition and Votes for women moved along a parallel path. The drys knew they needed the women’s vote to get their measure past. The wets opposed the passage of such a law for the exact same reason.

Rising Anti-Semitism and the hostilities in Europe further played into the hands of the drys. Most distilleries were owned by Jews, and most breweries were in the hands of Germans. The French, Italians and all Catholics were wine drinkers and were disliked by the newly reborn Ku Klux Klan who had more than the now free black population on their minds. Racists and progressives alike saw alcohol as the demon rum that unleashed the simple minds of black men and turned them into animals.

When America was drawn into the First World War ant-German sentiment soared. They were demonized in papers and from pulpits as Reverend Purley A. baker, a methodist minister who was the national superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League, the driving and unifying force being Prohibition, said they were “a race of people... who eat like gluttons and drink like swine.”

Socialists hated alcohol because they thought a mind clouded by intoxicants was more easy to control. Industrialists voted dry because drunken workers cost them money.

One other major event had to occur before Prohibition would be supported by so many. The 16th Amendment. Until an income tax could be levied, the sales tax on liquor was the primary source of revenue for the federal government. The only other income came from import tariffs, which raised the cost of imported items and were unwelcome by consumers, so the sale of alcohol was necessary to fund a federal government. Once that was eliminated, the way was open for a push to prohibit alcohol country wide.

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