Throughout the 19th century, moralizing Temperance crusaders poked and prodded at governments of all levels, fighting for a variety of legal changes they believed were needed to restore the moral fiber of our populace—especially the poor part of that populace. One of the first of these schemes to actually become law was an 1838 Massachusetts rule that came to be known as the 15 Gallon Law. The law said that anyone was free to buy liquor, so long as they bought at least 15 gallons of it at a time.
Now, I have been known to reach for a shopping cart in the liquor store on occasion, but I can say with quite a bit of confidence that I have never purchased 15 gallons of spirits at one time (unless it was for a bar where I worked). I was a little curious, so I did the math on this. The cheapest per-unit booze at my local store is a $12.99 1.75-liter bottle of Crystal Palace Gin. To get 15 gallons’ worth, I’d need to buy 32 of those bottles, which comes out to $415.68 plus tax. That puts a drink out of reach for a lot of people, but not for everyone. If you’re middle class and up, you could probably save enough to buy yourself a year’s supply of shitty gin. If you’re paycheck-to-paycheck, not so much.
You see what I’m getting at here. This law was designed to keep poor people from drinking while providing a way for the rich to continue to indulge. This was Prohibition for the huddled masses only.
It ran into trouble from the beginning. The law was a reflection of the national party politics of the time: it had been passed and signed by a Whig-controlled legislature and governor, and was vehemently opposed by the populist Jacksonian Democratic minority.[i] Even among the Whigs, who generally supported government intervention in the name of public welfare, there were many who felt the law went too far. It didn’t help when enforcement immediately became an issue. There weren’t that many police around in that day, so temperance-minded vigilantes did the work of finding lawbreakers and gathering evidence against them. I can’t imagine that was good for community relations.
When cases did reach the courtroom, it was hardly smooth sailing. There was no consensus about whether the law was actually constitutional, so the primary defense strategy was to drag your heels, hoping the law was voided or repealed before you were convicted. Sure enough, over the two years after the law was passed, the Democrats took political control of the state, and they repealed the law in 1840.
This was, of course, only the beginning for the Temperance and Prohibition movements. The constitutional uncertainty surrounding the Fifteen Gallon Law is a prelude of what was to come, as movement leaders increasingly began to feel that the only sure way to make their sober little dreams come true was by changing the Constitution itself. Personally, I think maybe they should have paid attention to some of the other lessons this experiment had to offer—lessons about the societal rifts created by that kind of law, for example, or the difficulty of enforcing it. Alas, no such luck.[ii]
*The subtitle of this article is a highly appropriate pangram (a sentence containing all 26 letters).
[i] The Whig Party was a brief but influential political party in the mid-19th century. It was formed when several political groups united in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s brash populism. The term Whig, in American Revolutionary and British political history, is associated with opposition to a king or other autocratic ruler. The Whigs believed in the rule of law, institutions, and in guarding against the tyranny of the majority. What they couldn’t agree on was slavery, an issue that broke the party up in the 1840s-50s. The anti-slavery portion of the Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln, went on to found the Republican Party.
[ii] Sources: The Sage Encyclopedia of Alcohol, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: A Global Encyclopedia (pg. 233), and an 1839 tract called “Investigation Into the 15 Gallon Law”