• 75 years since ‘The Noble Experiment’ fizzled
Rarely do we make a big deal about the fourth anniversary, or the ninth, or even the 24th of some event. Ah, but let us get busy when it comes to the fifth, 10th or 25th.
So, imagine all the hoopla that will be going on around the country tomorrow, Friday, December 5 — the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Let the happy hours begin!
Officially, the prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, with a rare few licensed exceptions, was a result of the National Prohibition Act of 1919 — commonly called the Volstead Act, after U.S. Rep. Andrew J. Volstead, R-Minnesota, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the bill that went into effect in 1920.
This came about in a period in our history in which religious organizations and anti-drinking societies abounded and had plenty of political clout. Chief among them were the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, all of which had gained phenomenal influence.
According to the National Archives:
“Between 1905 and 1917, various states imposed laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. … In 1917, the House of Representatives wanted to make Prohibition the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Congress sent the amendment to the states for ratification, where it needed three-fourths approval. The amendment stipulated a time limit of seven years for the states to pass this amendment. In just 13 months enough states said ‘yes’ to the amendment that would prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic liquors.
“The amendment worked at first, liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell, and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford. Alcohol consumption dropped by 30% and the United States Brewers’ Association admitted that the consumption of hard liquor was off 50% during Prohibition. These statistics however, do not reflect the growing disobedience toward the law and law enforcement.
“The intensity of the temperance advocates was matched only by the inventiveness of those who wanted to keep drinking. Enforcing Prohibition proved to be extremely difficult. The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the national government did not have the means or desire to try to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.
“The demand for alcohol was outweighing (and out-winning) the demand for sobriety. People found clever ways to evade Prohibition agents. They carried hip flasks, hollowed canes, false books, and the like. While Prohibition assisted the poor factory workers who could not afford liquor, all in all, neither federal nor local authorities would commit the resources necessary to enforce the Volstead Act. For example, the state of Maryland refused to pass any enforcement issue. Prohibition made life in America more violent, with open rebellion against the law and organized crime.”
Finally, the political pendulum swung far enough in favor of ridding the nation of what came to be called by some “The Noble Experiment.” As many anti-Prohibition organizations popped up as had anti-drinking groups. The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an anti-Prohibition plank and Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for the presidency promising repeal, which occurred on December 5, 1933.
The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74% in favor, 26% opposed. Thus, by a 3-to-1 margin, the American people rejected Prohibition. Only two states opposed repeal.
Crowds raised glasses and sang “Happy Days are Here Again!” and President Roosevelt, referring to what he called “The damnable affliction of Prohibition,” sipped a martini at the stroke of midnight, what was widely reported as the first legal cocktail since Prohibition began.