Dispatches from the Potomac#31 | Prohibition: A Glimpse into American Political Dynamics

This is a translation of an article originally written in November 2019 for publication in the January 2020 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Yoichi Mineo

Prohibition – the legal banning of alcohol – is not a thing of the past. Of the 50 states that make up the United States of America, 30 of them have local laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in particular counties or other local areas; more than 100 years after the infamous “Prohibition Era” of the 1920s and early 30s, there still exist more than 500 cities, townships and counties whose laws regulate the sale of alcohol. In fact, even Moore County, the birthplace of the famous Jack Daniel’s whiskey, and home to its headquarters, is itself a “dry” county.

Constitutional prohibition in the U.S. took place from 1920 to 1933 and was enacted ostensibly as a response to pre-existing social issues like domestic violence and child abandonment whose presumed cause was alcohol. But prohibition and temperance (self-imposed abstinence) are not uniquely American ideas, nor are they particularly recent. In fact, the first official prohibition and temperance movements, which were based in moral philosophy, occurred during the enlightenment period.

Standing across the ring from moral prohibition, however, were pro-alcohol justifications like the economic impact of alcohol sales and the alcohol tax, which provided a steady stream of cash into government coffers. Unfortunately, the existence of these economic factors gave rise to the image of industry and politics being attached at the hip. One group that greatly contributed to the fruition of prohibition was the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), who made the claim that establishments where alcohol was sold were actually unofficial lobby rooms for industry, and therefore breeding grounds for political corruption. The beer industry however, which was centered primarily around German-Americans, attempted to put up a fight against the ASL, but their resistance was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 (a war that pitted the United States and other countries against Germany), and in 1920 the constitution was amended to include prohibition.

As it turns out, American women, disproportionately victimized by alcohol induced domestic violence and child abandonment, were one of the largest lobbies that contributed to the success of prohibition. Carrie Nation (1846-1911) became a well-known activist for the prohibition movement due to her experience being married to an alcoholic husband. Nation was known to enter bars and sing hymns, but would also destroy liquor bottles and furniture in the bar with a hatchet. Having been arrested 30 times, Nation paid her penalties and fines with money earned from lecture tours, and also by selling hatchets with the words “Death to Rum” engraved on the handles. Even after Nation’s death, women in America played a large role in the prohibition movement. The aforementioned ASL, in an attempt to whip up the votes of pro-prohibition women, proactively supported women’s suffrage; the 19th Amendment (women’s right to vote) was secured in the year following the passing of the 18th amendment (prohibition).

What was originally a morally based position quickly picked up support from progressives of the time, who were also proponents of women’s suffrage. Famous economist Irving Fisher, himself sober, maintained that the consumption of alcohol was a detriment to public health and to economic productivity, and he wrote several essays defending his position.

Many reasons can be given for the eventual repeal of constitutional prohibition after 13 years – enforcement was a practical and logistical challenge; bans on the sale and import of alcohol did not stop people drinking; illegal distribution was rampant; damage was done to domestic industry, unable to fulfill its original purpose as more and more people crossed national borders to drink; and then there was the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and necessitated business stimulus as well as new or additional government revenue sources. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who advocated the repeal of prohibition, won a landslide victory in 1933 and subsequently passed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment.

The renewed legality of alcohol sales sparked the flame of new business opportunities. Just before the repeal of prohibition, Joseph Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy (U.S. President from 1961-1963), secured sole import rights for scotch whiskey from the U.K., earning him a small fortune. It is widely believed that the senior Kennedy clinched the import rights by currying the favor of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill via then-President Roosevelt’s son, and then transferring stocks of a yet-unlisted railway company to the English statesman.

As a people, our sense of right and wrong is often a derivative of loyalty to our political beliefs, which in turn is tied to our moral compass. These ideas are then filtered through numerous advocacy and lobbying groups before being reflected in our policies. It is in this context that activists appear and begin drawing attention to the issues they represent. These days, the battle rages on between progressives and conservatives, as both sides pursue their own economic rationality (incidentally connected to special interests). Indeed, if a major economic crisis arises, this confrontation could be subjected to further change. We can see clearly today that the political dynamics on display in the establishment of prohibition and its repeal are very much alive and well in 21st century America.