“When business is outlawed, only outlaws do business.”
This book has everything. Organized crime. Federal taxation. Boats. Social Movements. A Grape Rush. Tropical Islands.
Okay. Quick ‘Fun Facts’ Round! The US Constitution has 17 amendments limiting the powers of the government, but only 2 limiting the private rights of citizens – do you know what you are not allowed to own as a US Citizen?
Bing bing. The answers are – a) Slaves (13th amendment) and b) alcohol (18th amendment).
Now you know.
Other fun fact? The 13th amendment is the only one to have been repealed!
So it is obvious that things happened a lot and fast. To be quite honest, I was never really VERY interested in the Prohibition Era – part of it might have to do with my European approach to drinking that always considered that exercise as a quintessential American experience – but turns out the Rise and Fall of Prohibition can explain a lot about America today.
So let’s get started.
IT’S THE TAXES, STUPID!
There’s no gentle way to say this – the US before 1919 (the year Prohibition was put in place) was awash in booze. Like, seriously. Everyone knows about Washington (yes, that Washington) bribing his voters with whisky. And that was very much on par.
During one dinner with the French Ambassador, the New York Governor invited 120 guests who together drank 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of Rum. Cheers.
But then, around the beginning of the 20th century, things got worse with the immigration wave from Germany, Bohemia and Italy. What do all those places have in common? Right, cheap alcohol (Beer and Wine). And that flood just drowned the US.
Saloons popped up at every corner, men spent their wages there, then went home completely drunk. Monday in most companies was a dead day, since it was widely accepted that employees wouldn’t show up or cure out their hungover at work. (Good old days.)
But joking aside – it was a huge problem. And as with all social problems, women had to bear the grunt of it. So women pretty much agreed that alcohol was the source of their problems (I’d make an argument that the actual source of their problems were men, but then, choosing not to get married wasn’t really an option back then.)
There was only one problem. Women didn’t have the right to vote. And this is where things get really, really interesting.
Because from the start, Prohibition was also a Women’s Rights Movement. To get Prohibition, Women had to get the right to vote. And to do that, White Women, as they always have and will continue to do, threw the rest of Women under the bus.
Because you see, it wasn’t just the women who were interested in Prohibition. The KKK loved it as well, because, as mentioned, a lot of the alcohol business was in the hands of immigrants. So Prohibition neatly aligned with their xenophobic agenda, and they jumped on the wagon.
Also on the wagon, so to speak, were Evangelical Christians, who saw this as an Anti-Catholic movement and used it for their own goals, as well.
Add some opportunistic Senators in the mix, and you got yourself a valid Social Movement.
The only problem? Liquor taxes were the main source of government income. (Lincoln introduced it to pay for the Civil War). But with 16th amendment, ratified in 1913, allowed the government to introduce an income tax. And suddenly, the road was clear and Prohibition was introduced in 1919.
IT DID NOT GO AS PLANNED.
Like, at all. In fact, it went very, very wrong.
Because… Suddenly, liquor dealers didn’t have to pay taxes on their goods, which meant that their profit margin jumped from more-than-decent to absolutely exorbitant – in fact, it was more than enough to pay cops, lawyers, judges and everyone else, pretty much.
So, within a very short span, bootlegging became the Nation’s favorite past time. And i’m not kidding. EVERYONE WAS IN ON IT.
People made wine in their bathtubs. Physicians wrote so many prescriptions for ‘medical liquor’ that Walgreens became a nation wide chain. Cross-border smuggling from Canada became so rampant that the export duty on liquor became Canada’s biggest source of government income. There was booze, there was lots of it, and it was all illegal.
And the #aesthetic of it all just added fuel to the fire. I mean, we still live with the glamour of that era – speakeasies and jazz and those mobsters in suits and Al Capone and all that. No wonder everyone wanted to drink. It was cool and looked great.
The numbers don’t lie, and they say that the overall alcohol consumption in the US actually fell during the Prohibition. But if you look at individual consumption, you’ll see that those who did drink, drank a lot more.
No wonder. The stuff was everywhere. There were no opening hours, no age restrictions – you could go to your grocery store, or pharmacist, or gas station, or wherever. Everyone had access to alcohol, 24/7. (There were also no quality control, so people died quite often from botched alcohol.)
If you did get caught (and you had to really try), you were highly unlikely to go to jail over it. Even though the Jones Act made infractions against Prohibition a felony, juries often let people go. They simply saw it as a ‘victimless crime’ and were unlikely to convict anybody of a crime that they themselves had just committed.
But it just got worse.
And the big opportunity attracted all kinds of unsavory sorts. It was a free-for-all on a gigantic seller’s market. Industry-sized crime syndicates started to spread across the nation. Prohibition served as a graduate class in crime for an entire generation of mobsters, a majority of which were immigrants. And the violence just increased.
In 1926, only 2 groups favored Prohibition any longer. One were Evangelical Christians. The other ones were bootleggers.
The nation realized that simply forbidding people to drink didn’t make them stop.
And then, in 1929, the Stock Market crashed.
Suddenly, the main government income stream – income tax – dried up. Unemployment rose, and the government needed money, fast.
And so, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed. The government got its liquor tax back, and everyone agreed that it was now much harder to get alcohol, with all the laws and restrictions back in place.
But the experiment left its traces.
LEGACY. WHAT IS A LEGACY?
The prohibition cleared the field for the big brewing companies. Small breweries had to close during Prohibition, the big ones (Bush-Anheuser, PBR, etc) could afford to keep their business open (not selling beer, but ice cream and ‘malt drinks’ and ‘home brewing kits’). So if you ever wonder why the US never really had micro-breweries before the hipsters started it, there’s your answer.
Don’t feel to bad for the bootleggers – they either became respectable liquor merchants or decided to invest their new-found income in a bigger opportunity. Together with most of the main crime families, they turned Las Vegas into the smelly pit of debauchery it is today.
And the boys who drove the super-charged boats and escape vehicles of the smuggling business? They couldn’t let go of fast cars, and started NASCAR.
Mixers became a staple bar presence. They were invented during Prohibition, mostly because the juices or soda would hide the taste of a bad gin batch, but it stuck around well after. So next time you’re having a G&T, have a glass for the bootleggers.
The Bahamas only really became a tax haven / tourist destination thanks to the Prohibition, too! So you couldn’t drink within 3 nautical sea miles of the US, but anything outside was fair game. So what would make more sense than jump on a boat, and escape the dreary reality by getting absolutely smashed on your way to, and on, the Bahamas?
Oh, and ever wonder why Americans are so fond of Italian Cuisine? That one is more of a theory, but tons of Italian restaurants served really good home-made wine. People came for the wine, and stayed for the pasta.
AND FINALLY, THREE THINGS I CANNOT LET GO
Just to give you an idea of the absolute abundance of alcohol during the Prohibition – Whenever Novelist Dawn Powell threw parties at her New York Townhouse, she filled her aquarium with gin. a) lifegoals b) i don’t know what happened to her fish.
There was a genuine ‘California Grape Rush’. Because the Volstead Act allowed the ‘fabrication of fermented fruit juice’ for private consumption, people suddenly became really interested in grapes. For whatever reason. Really weird. Californian grapes became so valuable they were stolen off the vineyards.
And finally – not relating to Prohibition, but Mississippi didn’t get around to ratifying the 13th amendment until 1995. No big deal, it’s only the Abolition of Slavery! Seriously, guys?!
NOTE TO SELF – THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS.
So this book taught me a lot of things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and what more can you ask for? But if we take the lessons from the Prohibition forward, and apply them to current events, it becomes even more interesting.
Let’s say, for example, just throwing this out there, if there was a demand to repeal another amendment. Let’s take the 2nd amendment. Just throwing this out there. What should the activists do, according to the lessons of the Prohibition?
a) Get organized. The reason women were able to get Prohibition passed (and repealed) was the strength of their social movement. They were able to bring all kinds of interest groups into their fold, which magnified their power. (Just, this time, perhaps say no to the folks from the KKK.)
b) Become a single-issue voter. Prohibitionists didn’t care how Senators voted on any subject but one – Prohibition. They allied with Republicans, Democrats, you name it. Do whatever is necessary.
c) Enforce existing laws. One main reason why Prohibition failed was simply because no money was allocated to law enforcement. Thirteen states didn’t budget a single dollar! Make sure the laws that are in place are followed. This goes for background checks, the federal database, and everything else.
d) The Constitution can be amended. If the Prohibition showed one thing, it is that the Constitution is not set in stone. It is a document made by people for people, and it can be changed according to the will of the people. We shouldn’t regard it as Holy Scripture, even if some politicians (looking at you, Lil’Marco) think so. If it doesn’t work, change it.
e) If you want to know more about the Prohibition, especially from a Constitutional Point of View, The Washington Post has a great podcast called ‘Constitutional’, with an episode especially about Prohibition. That’s how I found this book.
And next time… we’re drawing a line in the sand.