The Aristocracy vs. Prohibition

May leveler, wealthier, brutally capitalist heads prevail

While most people in the late 19th and early 20th century agreed that our national drinking habits had gotten a little out of control, the notion of completely banning the stuff was generally the province of the socially-reforming middle class, not the upper crust. Many of the business titans and political elites of this most stratified of eras preferred a gentler form of control, with taxes and governmental involvement nudging us towards sobriety without upturning any social orders. In the 1890s, a group of businessmen and academics formed the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem, aiming to counteract the fervor (and scientific nonsense) of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union by conducting rigorous studies and arriving at thoughtful (read: economically efficient and order-preserving) conclusions about control. They put out a series of very official reports that recommended government takeover of alcohol sales as an alternative to total prohibition. That idea didn’t catch hold, and soon these powerful men saw the writing on the wall. Notions of moderation were quieted as the WCTU and their ilk won the day.

Fast forward to 1929, and the Prohibitionists’ victory wasn’t looking so sweet. Maybe you could tolerate the scofflaws, the violence, and the loss of tax revenue while the economy was humming, but the stock market crash changed the conversation entirely. Running around chasing your citizens for wanting a dram felt a little silly when no one could afford to feed themselves. Murmurs about a different solution began to surface again, and the intellectual descendants of the Committee of Fifty were ready to take the lead. Two new committees were formed: the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (led by Pierre DuPont) and the Liquor Study Commission (John D. Rockefeller). These wealthy fellows recommended essentially the same thing as the Fifty had: a heavy governmental hand, with control especially over the actual point of sale to the consumer (the bar or liquor store). More than a little ironic coming from the leading capitalists of the day, but I dare say it’s not the only time you’ll find a bit of hypocrisy among the money-grubbing set.

Initially, these committees did not find a lot of support in Washington. President Herbert Hoover was, after all, a man of principles, and no depression, Great or otherwise, was going to force him into new ways of thinking. But then came the election of 1932 and a wave of new politicians, led by a man who was not only a card-carrying member of the Upper Crust, but who enjoyed a good Manhattan. Or a bad Manhattan. Or a Rum Swizzle. Whatever you got, really. With FDR in the White House, Prohibition’s demise was swift, and a new set of rules were needed to replace it.

The AAPA and Rockefeller each took a key roll in crafting those rules. Rockefeller commissioned a report, called” Toward Liquor Control”, that laid out guidelines for post-Prohibition regulation. DuPont’s speeches and statements were also published, as were model laws for governments’ consideration. The 21st Amendment had pushed the authority over alcohol control to the states, and when the most powerful businessmen in the world made suggestions, most of them listened. To varying degrees, they adopted their recommendations, with 17 of them taking control of the retail market, just as the Committee of Fifty recommended at the beginning of the century. (I wrote about those 17 in my Introduction to Control States article.) The Committee might not have had much luck at the time, but their ideas still have some sway 120 years later. Those 1%ers know how to play the long game.


The main source for this piece is the work of Harry Levine, and especially two articles he wrote in the early 1980s: “The Committee of Fifty and the Origins of Alcohol Control” and “The Birth of American Alcohol Control: Prohibition, the Power Elite, and the Problem of Lawlessness.” His faculty page is linked on my sources page.

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