The Modern Effects of Prohibition
Prohibition: Focused on Alcohol but impacted everything from speedboats to income tax.
No other constitutional amendment (or law for that matter) in the history of this country has ever had more long-term impacts than that of prohibition. It might shock you that everything from personal property rights to the modern cruise ship industry was greatly transformed by the seemingly simple goal of eliminating alcohol from a new country. Fortunes were made by those that were able to capitalize on the new laws using both illegal but also legal methods. Tourist industry in Canada and Cuba boomed bringing new wealth from the United States to both locations in a completely legal manner. There was of course no lack of illegal profits being made by everyone from producers, to smugglers to sellers of alcohol. Many of these leaders turned legitimate after repeal, rarely admitting the source of their unbelievable wealth came from illegal operations. In fact the modern beer industry is living testament to a few producers who were able to gain tremendous market share when it was illegal to produce and yet proceeded all the same. Learn how all this took place and the impacts it had on this country, and the world.
Women's right to vote
One of the greatest challenges facing religious leaders and politicians who were in favor of prohibition (called Drys) was there just weren't enough citizens with the right to vote in favor of such a ban. So what do you do as a politician when you are trying to pass a law that voters don't want? Simple answer is you find new voters. In this case there was the realization that a vast majority of women would be in favor of such a law. They were wives who receive abuse from their drunk husbands or watch those same men spend their earnings on drink versus on the family. Or mothers who saw their children get addicted to the drink and not be the sons they hoped for.
Since the only way prohibition would work would be for the entire country to go dry requiring every state to ratify a constitutional amendment, politicians first worked to bring in the largest block of voters ever added in this country's history. Cloaked in the messaging of equal rights for women, politicians round the country fought to have women admitted to the polls, and of course won.
A new source of revenue: The Income Tax
The second greatest challenge to prohibition was financial. Keep in mind that until prohibition there was no such thing as an income tax. In fact it was deemed un-American to tax everyone regardless of what they partake in. The common belief was that it was much more fair to tax an item (alcohol, tobacco, etc) that if a person so chose they could abstain and avoid the tax. Tax revenue on alcohol was so tremendous at this time, it paid a great portion of expenses that the young United States faced. In fact as much as one third of America’s revenue came from custom duties around alcohol, thus if Washington was somehow going to eliminate this product they would have to find a new way of bringing in revenue.
This began the next phase of political maneuverings to bring a new type of tax to the population, a highly unpopular income tax. This tax would be based on how much an individual earns and thus would be more fair to the general population. Very quickly this new tax brought in tremendous additional cash into the treasury, as much as nine times the revenue from alcohol custom taxes. It did not take long until the financial argument against prohibition lost its validity. Sadly once prohibition ended, income taxes were far too entrenched to ever be repealed as well. However the concept of taxing items still remains with ‘sin’ taxes on alcohol and tobacco sales paying for schools around the country.
Adversity to Invention: The speedboat
Once prohibition passed it of course outlawed the sale of intoxicating liquors in the United States but that rule stopped at the borders of the country. It did not take long before individuals found out exactly where the borders were of the United States. Along the east coast especially in the South it was discovered that the border was only 3 miles from shore into the Atlantic Ocean. Soon large barges dropped anchor and became permanent floating liquor stores receiving liquor from the Caribbean. These barges were so close to shore that even the most modest boats could row out, buy their liquor and return back to shore in short order. So close in fact that lights that were mounted on the barges were clearly seen by shore showing they were open for business. Such flaunting of the ban on liquor made prohibition more inconvenient, but far from eliminating alcohol in cities close to the water. Trying to stem the tide of these illegal imports, the United States took the extreme step and moved the international border for all countries to 12 miles (from the original 3 miles). While there was quite a bit of disagreement from other countries, the United States had just finished helping Europe quite extensively during WWI and had the political and financial might to make this change stick.
It is said that adversity is the mother of all inventions and this was no exception. Within a short period of time a little know Naval Architect brought his V shaped design boat away from pure navy uses and into civilian life. His first successful design called "Kitty Hawk" was able to exceed 50 mph, once thought unthinkable. Soon "rum running" was even easier with these new classes of boats who could bridge that 12 mile border in minutes and outrun anything the police might have had to catch them.
The cruise to nowhere
Similar to the integration of the speedboat to civilian population to help smuggling operations so too did the cruise ship industry realize that they were sitting on a potential gold mine. A large ship could cross into international waters in an ever shorter period of time and as long as they were not flying a US flag of ownership could serve as much alcohol as their customers could consume. Soon the concept of a booze cruise, or a cruise to nowhere was become ever more popular. In fact, these cruises to no place was brought to the extreme with dinner cruises that went out just far enough to serve all types of alcohol over dinner with 'a view of the city from the water'.
So easy was it to circumvent the prohibition laws and with such popularity that the US passed a law that no cruise ship docking in the United States could contain alcohol onboard. Thus forcing British cruise ships to try to sell or dump all the alcohol before making port. Such was the outcry from other countries that the US had to modify the law that the alcohol would have to be sealed when they were within 12 miles of shore. This new form of vacation grew in the culture of the United States and is still enjoyed almost universally from everyone from college kids to families needing a break from their lives.
Some of my favorite quotes
"We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the mod treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller." -John Strange a dry politician
"It was absolutely impossible to get a drink in Detroit unless you walked at least ten feet and told the busy bartender what you wanted in a voice loud enough for him to hear you above the uproar." newspaperman Malcom Bingay
"Take three ounces every hour for stimulant until stimulated" Doctor's prescription for alcohol
"There may be no clearer demonstration of the drys' pragmatic acceptance of every variety of ally than a common made by Mabel Willebrandt--a Federal official, a feminist, a progressive--when she was asked about the faithfully dry Ku Klux Klan: 'I have no objection to people dressing up in sheets, if they enjoy that sort of thing.'"
Mississippi was much more agreeable to this second constitution amendment ever to place limits on individual behavior than it was to be the first one. It didn't get around to ratifying that one--the Thirteenth, abolishing slavery -- until 1995!
Personal Property? Fair game to the authorities
Prohibition was supposed to stop the flow of alcohol, alas it did no such thing. In fact it gave life and greatly expanded the modern profession of smuggling. Prior to prohibition the concept of personal property (home, car, etc) was sacred and could not be breached by a police officer without a warrant. Many times police knew and could even see that a car had cases or even entire casks of alcohol in the backseat, but without a warrant, which took time, they had no right to arrest or seize. How frustrating must it have been to pull over a car and physically see entire casks of alcohol sitting in plain view and have no ability to do anything about it. By the time they got the warrant the alcohol would of course no longer be in the car. Suddenly there was great pressure to dramatically increase the power that police officers had to search without a warrant if they had probable cause and a charged congress was inclined to provide this power. Soon, and forever after, police were provided the power to redefine the limits of private property and what they had the right to search.
In a vacum power will find a way: Nationwide Crime Syndicates
As new enforcement abilities were passed, so too must criminals adapt and grow to face and surmount obstacles placed in their path. Initially, simple organization was enough to help face the police force. Crime families divided up cities and states to ensure they did not compete with each other and allowing for the smooth running of illegal operations. As alcohol smuggling and sales became ever more lucrative, these families expanded their territory until there were families that controlled sales in states spanning the entire country. This organization of crime never went away long after alcohol was re-legalized, they simply turned to new operations that continue to this day including guns, drugs and prostitution.
Never before has a single law caused such a dramatic rise in crime with such a lasting effect on a population. The ironic part is that it was believed by politicians and religious leaders that all crime derived from alcohol and once it was made illegal that the crime rate would drop to near zero. So confidant were some that within days of prohibition passing they were closing jails and selling them to private companies to be made into factories. Needless to say very soon they were purchasing those properties back.
What America needs now is a drink," Franklin D Roosevelt 1933.
Women re-inventing their role in society
Previously I mentioned that women were largely in favor of prohibition to keep fathers, sons and husbands away from alcohol and some of the terrible side effects it caused on family life. However many of those same women enjoyed the occasional drink from the privacy of their home long before prohibition. Once the ban was in-place those occasional drinks had to be procured in new ways. One way was with a doctor's prescription for a nip of rum or whiskey to help with nerves. But especially for younger women, going to speakeasies and other establishments became much more common. Soon society was lamenting that women were becoming much more outspoken and brazen, drinking in public and becoming much more involved in politics. Who could have predicted that a law passed by women whose place was in the home and rarely allowed to have a voice in public would actually lead to the greatest of societal changes ever seen to date, making acceptable for unmarried women to drink in public with unrelated men. It truly was a remarkable time.
What we can learn from this story
While every politician will admit they can not tell the future and know the full impact of any law that is passed, prohibition is the cautionary tale of unexpected consequences. The impacts I outlined above are just a few of the long term implications of prohibition that we are still experiencing today from what was supposed to be a very simple and straightforward piece of legislation. Let us take from this that any law, especially complex legislation that is so common these days can have tremendous impact far beyond the actual text. It deserves careful thought and consideration before citizens vote or voice their views as it is never quite as simple as it seems. This can include healthcare bills, gun control, or even mere budget changes. "Thought before action if time permits"
Get your own copy to learn more than I could share here
This was an incredibly fascinating book (as you can tell here), so you might want to pick up your own copy and read more about this subject.
Daniel Okrent's Prohibition story
Last Call by Daniel Okrent is an incredibly fun read that keeps you asking for more. Taking a tremendous amount of historical information and condensing it down to manageable bites is probably one of the greatest skills this former NY Times editor has. Daniel was editor of NY Times and later Time and Life magazine. Perhaps his ability to synthesize complex stories is the secret to his success in Last Call. He keeps the story moving without getting lost in the details, yet still takes the time to demonstrate the impacts of any given decision in a fascinating way. For all those interested in history, women's rights or their place in society, even those interested in politics and law I would strongly recommend this book.