When America Went Dry 100 Years Ago

Prohibition was enacted 100 years ago with hopes of giving the country a fresh, sober start. Its failure and repeal seemed to kill the temperance movement. But America’s anti-alcohol reformers were working on the problem long before Prohibition, and they haven’t given up yet.

Prohibition agents break open barrels of illegal alcohol

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This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine to read the entire article.

The first step is to admit you have a problem. And America, you have a problem. Each year, alcohol abuse costs us $249 billion in lowered productivity, higher healthcare costs, added law enforcement expenses, and motor vehicle accidents. Every year, thanks to booze, 88,000 of us die. And we drink more every year, as the rates of associated liver disease and cancers, as well as fetal alcohol syndrome, increase as well.

Our drinking problem has been with us for as long as we’ve been a nation. Various solutions have been attempted, the most famous being Prohibition, which went into effect a century ago and failed spectacularly.

Alcohol wasn’t always a problem. In colonial times, it was considered a friend that dulled pain, brightened spirits, fought fatigue, and soothed indigestion. It was a medicine with many benefits, and often safer to drink than water. Even the Puritans, for all their disapproval of self-indulgence, didn’t outlaw liquor — there was more beer than drinking water on the Mayflower. In a sermon, Puritan minister Increase Mather referred to alcohol as “a good creature of God,” though drunkards were “from the Devil.”

Drunkenness wasn’t considered a social problem in those days. When people drank to excess, the community dealt directly with them. Drunkards were placed in stocks in the center of town for public humiliation, fined, or whipped. Robert Coles of the Massachusetts colony, who was known for his drunkenness, was made to wear a “D” of red cloth on a white background for an entire year “for abuseing himself shamefully with drinke.”

But as alcohol became more plentiful in the New World, so did its abuse. Within 20 years of the first Kentucky whiskey being distilled, over 2,000 distillers were annually producing over two million gallons of the spirit. Such a large supply drove down its price, so whiskey was not only abundant, but cheap.

One of the first to warn us about the dangers of alcohol was Dr. Benjamin Rush, former surgeon general of the Continental Army and signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1784, he spoke out against this national pastime, declaring that liquor led men to “immodest actions … roaring, imitating the noises of brute animals, jumping, tearing off clothes, dancing naked, breaking glasses and china,” he wrote. Worse, it robbed men — women had limited access to liquor then — of the power of self-government, a necessity for citizens in a democracy.

His warning was almost totally disregarded. Alcohol was commonly given to women in labor, put in babies’ bottles, and served in business offices. Kegs of liquor were left open for anyone to help themselves to in stores and on steamboats. It was served to judges and juries during trials and considered a legitimate court expense. By 1830, Americans were drinking an astounding 7 gallons of pure ethanol per year per capita, the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of 80-proof whiskey per week for every adult, including the abstainers.

As the nation grew and the population became more mobile, communities lost their ability to regulate intoxication on their own. Heavy drinking could be observed anywhere, even in church. Renowned Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher declared that liquor led Americans to become immoral and self-indulgent. “Drunkards reel through the streets,” he said, “day after day, and year after year, with entire impunity. … We are becoming another people.”

In 1826, to halt this moral corrosion, Beecher founded the American Temperance Society. Its cause was quickly embraced by many Americans who shared Beecher’s alarm. Within 10 years, the Society had convinced over 1.5 million Americans to never touch another drop of liquor.

“The temperance movement was a faith-based initiative that demonized drinking,” says historian Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover. “It assumed there was no safe level at which anyone could drink any alcohol at all. Start drinking and you were on the road to being a drunkard.”

By the 1850s, the Temperance Society had built up enough support that 13 states passed some form of prohibitory law. Most of these states gave local authorities the right to dictate how liquor would be sold and consumed. New York, New Hampshire, and Delaware had statewide bans on the sale of alcohol. Maine and Tennessee prohibited manufacture and sale.

None, however, made drinking a crime.

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine to read the entire article.

Featured image: Who’ll stop the drain? Local police in Scranton, Pennsylvania, empty barrels of illegal booze seized from a train during the Prohibition era. (Arthur Miller / Alamy Stock Photo)

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