One of my family’s favorite little stories comes from my grandfather, born in 1915. Well into adulthood, maybe in the late 1930s, he was on a vacation with family. He had a beer one evening, and a little later, he ordered a second. His mother, she of the Prohibition generation, was aghast. “Two beers? In one day?” Generations later, still a running joke.
Prohibition gets a bad rap, which is understandable, considering it was a spectacular failure. Spectacular, that is, in the sense that it was dramatic and eye-catching. Mob wars, bathtub gin, speakeasies… it all makes for great copy. It was a puritanical idea, leading to a poorly-written law, which created an underfunded mandate that too many people never really took seriously. That’s a bad combination.
But, like every story out there, Prohibition is more complicated than the headlines. The experience changed the who, what, when, where, why and how of alcohol, and left ripples that spread across American society. Most were unintended consequences of this chaotic experiment, but not all were bad. In fact, looking back 100 years on, the Volstead Act was the progenitor of substantial social and political progress.
I’m as guilty as anyone of oversimplifying and romanticizing this era. I mean really, a hidden bar, where you have to know which buzzer to press if you want in? That’s just fun. But the details can be pretty interesting, too. Here’s four to consider:
- Prohibition made us think before we drink. At least a little.
It’s important to remember that most Americans’ experience with Prohibition was nothing like Boardwalk Empire. Most folks quietly obeyed the law (or at least were quiet about their indiscretions), and the experience of going without for 13 years left a deep impression on people like my great-grandmother. We tread carefully for a time, and even when war and a cultural revolution or two brought us back to our drinking ways, we remained tolerant of a heavy governmental hand on the industry. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, we were in pretty bad shape before the 18th Amendment passed, and we came out the other side with our heads screwed on a little straighter. Cold comfort for Carrie Nation I’m sure, but hey, it’s something.
- Prohibition advanced gender equality
“Women come into this new barroom. They go right up to the bar. They put a foot on the brass railing. They order; they are served. They bend the elbow, they hoist, they toss down the feminine esophagus the brew that was really meant for men. Stout and wicked men. The last barrier is down. The citadel has been stormed and taken. There is no longer any escape, no hiding place where the hounded male may seek his fellow and strut his stuff safe from the atmosphere and presence of femininity. A man might as well do his drinking at home, with his wife and daughters. And there was never fun in that.” – Don Marcus, quoted in Ken Burns’ Prohibition[i]
Let’s all shed a tear for that poor sap.
Up until 1920, the feminist movement had largely been concerned with legal barriers, especially voting. But when suffrage passed, a younger generation was able to expand their attention to social and cultural barriers as well. How convenient that right at that moment, the greatest boys’ club in history—the saloon—came crashing down. All of a sudden, the country’s night life hit the reset button. While before, a woman in a bar would have been scandalous, now anyone in a bar was living on the edge. The 1920s are famous for the emergence of the independent young woman, and it’s hard to imagine that happening to the same extent without Prohibition.
- Prohibition launched organized crime to new heights
This one is old news, but it’s one of the most profound unintended consequences of Prohibition. There was so much money to be made from bootlegging that crime families were convinced to set aside their infighting. The wealthy criminal networks that arose have shaped law enforcement and legal codes ever since.
- Prohibition changed the way we view the Constitution
Finally, my own hypothesis. I am struck by the juxtaposition of Constitutional Amendments 1-19 compared with 20-27. The first group contains all the greatest hits. The Bill of Rights is home to classics like speech, religion, self-incrimination, and the right to arm bears. In the next seven we sort out our elections, end slavery, define citizenship, and decide to actually fund the government with an income tax, among other things. In 1919 the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, comes along, with the 19th (women’s suffrage) hot on its heels in 1920. All big, bold, important ideas.
After all that action, the most recent eight Amendments feel a little… meh. In 1933 the 20th moves inauguration day up a bit, limiting lame duck periods, and the 21st repeals the 18th. Over the next sixty years, we add another six: we limit presidential terms, let DC residents vote for president, abolish the poll tax, clarify presidential succession, drop the voting age, and delay congressional pay raises until after the next election. All good, but nothing exactly earth-shattering. A few bigger, bolder ideas, like the Equal Rights Amendment, had traction but failed to be ratified.
There are plenty of reasons for this shift. Government grew, and with it came the propensity to tackle problems with incremental regulation instead of Constitutional intervention. Mass media and communications brought millions more cooks into the legislative kitchen, perhaps limiting the potential for bold moves. But the years between the first group and the second, 1920-1933, are the years of Prohibition, the years of our most remarkable Constitutional failure. Much as Presidents have found ways to go to war without the draft since Vietnam, it makes sense that government would find ways to address bold, controversial topics without a Constitutional Amendment after Prohibition. The use of this important tool has faded to the point that no Amendment has been passed in 26 years, one of the longest droughts in our history.[ii] I don’t see that changing any time soon.
[i] Part 3, 00:34
[ii] Though nowhere close to the 61 years that passed between the 12th and 13th Amendments.