On December 5, 1933, after thirteen years of what Herbert Hoover called "the noble experiment," Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Prohibition Repeal Act. His signature officially ended the reign of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which had prohibited "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors
within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from
the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof
for beverage purposes."
Though anti-alcohol activists and temperance societies (most famously, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) had predicted that Prohibition would usher in a new golden age, free of poverty and vice, the opposite proved to be true. Organized crime, a minor concern in even the densest urban areas before the 1920s, became a major force from coast to coast. Gangsters and thugs acquired a new glamour, and "the feds" became objects of fear and contempt. Prohibition did little to curtail drinking, especially among young people and fashionable society. As Al Capone said, "When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality."
After thirteen years of spiraling crime rates, and with the Depression weighing heavily on American society, even former ardent Prohibitionists such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had become disillusioned with the movement and its failures. Rockefeller wrote, "When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely
supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil
effects of alcohol would be recognised. I have slowly and reluctantly
come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking
has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens
have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly
lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before."
Roosevelt campaigned on a platform of economic and social reform, including the promise to repeal Prohibition. He kept his word, and the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified just a year after his election. A long national nightmare was finally over. The Constitution, by virtue of its flexibility, had been adapted to correct a serious mistake.
Yet even today, seventy-four years later, the Prohibitionist mindset persists in America. This is the thought pattern that continues to bring you such winning ideas as abstinence-only sex education, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and opposition to needle exchange and condom giveaway programs. Apparently, Prohibition wasn’t a serious enough failure–or, more likely, our historical memory isn’t good enough–to teach us that outlawing personal vices does little or nothing to get rid of them. Rather, it simply drives them underground, creating a shadow economy and underground culture which are made all the more damaging by their secrecy.
But enough of the serious politicizing. Join me today in raising a glass to FDR and the end of Prohibition… and enjoy these alcohol- and temperance-related tidbits while you’re at it.
Best old-school style drink: the Sidecar. Invented in Europe near the end of World War I, it offers the irresistible opportunity to drink up like a flapper. It’s a simply delicious blend of sprightly spirits. Just combine equal amounts of Cognac (or brandy), Cointreau and lemon juice, and serve up in a martini glass with a well-sugared rim. (Thanks to Chelsea, of the late lamented Cafe Biltmore tapas bar in Grand Junction, for introducing me to this tasty treat!)
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, despite their rather unfortunate focus on Ridding the World of Vice, was actually a pretty cool organization in some ways. They promoted civic involvement and suffrage for women and managed to get many middle-class housewifely women interested in the fight for women’s voting rights. Their early leader, Frances Willard, was a fire-breathing Methodist who, after many years spent crusading for temperance, had a change of heart and decided that unbridled capitalism, rather than drunkenness, was at the heart of the world’s evils. Then she moved to England and shacked up with Lady Henry Somerset; and, one hopes, developed a nose for fine claret and port. Rock on, Frances; I hoist my glass to you.
The WCTU lives on! Now "the oldest continuously extant non-sectarian women’s organization in the world" (per their Web site), they are still seriously down on drinking. And smoking. And pornography. And, sadly yet unsurprisingly, gay rights. They were alive and well in 1962, too, as this extraordinarily funny article from Time makes clear. (The "hour of social freedom" is a ritual I predict my household will not adopt.) Now, they’re just kind of a low-rent Concerned Women for America. Except I think the WCTU still only allows, y’know, actual women to join.
Good places to celebrate Prohibition Repeal in North Portland: Billy Ray’s Neighborhood Dive (or, as Jim and I call it because of the large neon sign out front that is the only verbage about the place: "Tavern." The most metal bartender in PDX works here.) on MLK and Sacramento. Lupa on Mississippi (I’ve written about Lupa before, yeh?). The Florida Room on Killingsworth (my brother: "There are a lot of lesbians in here." Me: "Yep.").
How we’re celebrating Prohibition Repeal, since we have neither a babysitter nor sufficient funds, yet still possess a backlog of tasty wine: A 2005 Seghesio Cortina Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, I think.
Hooray for democracy and rationality! Cheers, y’all.