Booze-lovers around the country know that December 5 is Repeal Day, the anniversary of the ratification of 21st Amendment. On this day in 1933, the 18th Amendment--the one enacted in 1920 banning the production, sales and consumption of alcohol in these United States--was repealed.
Repeal Day parties are being held at Canon and Liberty on Monday, December 5. Where will you celebrate?
Our nation's love of booze is long-standing. For most of our country's history, alcohol has been as American as apple pie. Alcohol has been an integral part of ritual celebrations like birthdays, weddings, holidays, and even funerals. The Mayflower was filled with barrels of beer. Preachers drank, so did politicians, business owners, farmers and craftsmen. John Adams had half a tankard of hard cider each morning. And he helped draft the fucking Declaration of Independence!
But most people in the late 1700s and early 1800s were throwing back gallons and gallons of beer and hard cider, which were cleaner and safer to drink than water. They were also only around 2% alcohol, so not terribly harmful. Once distillation began however, booze got much, much stronger. But even then, alcohol was as important in peacetime as in wartime. George Washington made sure his troops had daily rations of rum, and when they rum ran out, they were given whiskey.By 1830 however, the average American over 15 years old drank the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey a year. That is three times the average rate of consumption today. Naturally, Americans were starting to get worried. With the influx of immigrants and increased population density in cities, consumption of alcohol brought with it crime, violence and prostitution. Alcohol became the scapegoat for all the sufferings in society. The only solution was to get rid of it. But it would still take over 100 years for a constitutional ban on booze.
The early temperance movement began with the Washingtonian societies of the mid-1800s. Half a million people pledged to not drink. Susan B. Anthony started the first women's temperance society. By 1851, the state of Maine would vote to make alcohol illegal. Fishermen smuggled alcohol up the coast to Maine though, labeling the barrels for everyday goods, like flour. You could buy a swig of alcohol from liquor cellars that roamed the streets, with pints hidden in their pant legs. Their customers started calling them "bootleggers."
By 1860, that Maine law was off the books. The temperance movement was soon overshadowed by the fight over slavery and later, the Civil War. By 1862 the federal government started taxing alcohol. Soon after, one-third of the federal budget came from alcohol taxation. Another large influx of immigrants from Europe arrived on American shores, eager to start new lives, but they did not quickly give up their old world customs and drinking habits.
In December 1917, the Senate proposed the 18th Amendment, which would need to be approved by 36 states. It received that approval and was ratified on January 16, 1919 and took effect on January 17, 1920. For 13 years, the manufacture and sale of alcohol would be illegal. After nearly 100 years of work to ban alcohol, the U.S. was officially dry.
Alcohol however remained important in the lives of many Americans, and Prohibition turned millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers. Most citizens would do their best to obey the new law, but the dry movement was idealistic. Through Prohibition of alcohol, petty criminals now had a new way to make a lot more money.
The Volstead Act was enacted to enforce the 18th Amendment. It banned the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. Many thought beer and light wines would still be allowed under the Amendment, but all alcohol above 1% was illegal. In those first years after Prohibition, alcohol consumption indeed went down, as did alcohol related deaths and arrests. California grape growers started planting plums and apricots, Anheuser-Busch started making soft drinks and Coca-Cola stock prices soared.
But soon, the illegal manufacture and sales of alcohol flourished. In large cities across the country, speakeasies sprung up and organized crime took hold. Moonshine was made in illegal stills in the countryside, and gang wars bloodied the streets of Chicago and New York. Notorious mob bosses like Al Capone controlled the growing black market. Many states expected the federal government to pay for the enforcement of Prohibition-era laws. The governor of Washington said he wouldn't spend so much as a postage stamp on enforcing Prohibition.
In Washington, a prominent police lieutenant, Roy Olmstead, smuggled Canadian whiskey across the border into our state. He was fired, pled guilty to a federal charge and paid $500 fine. But he soon became the king of the Puget Sound bootleggers. He knew small town liquor smugglers were disorganized and he was smart. He entrusted and recruited friends on the police force to grow his illegal business and soon became the largest employer in Seattle. Olmstead made more money in a week bootlegging than he would in 20 years in law enforcement.
Distribution networks sprung up around the country to transport illegal alcohol and gunmen were hired to protect this profitable trade. Demand for alcohol was 70% higher than the supply. Thousands of miles of unprotected U.S. coastline provided the perfect entry point for booze smuggled in from the Caribbean and Canada. All along the Eastern Seaboard, just outside U.S. jurisdiction, ships full of booze were anchored. Small boats could run back and forth under the cover of darkness to transport this valuable cargo. It wasn't until Mabel Willebrandt became Assistant Attorney General in 1921 that stronger Prohibition controls were put in place.
Many people stopped drinking during Prohibition, but those that continued to drink, drank more. Incidents of drunk driving and cirrhosis of the liver increased. Illegal alcohol was being made in every state. A homemade still cost $7 to make, and supplies for making wine and beer were available at the grocer, even though the finished product was illegal to sell. The strictness of the Volstead Act was making Prohibition a failure.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock, a historian interviewed throughout the Ken Burns' documentary Prohibition, said "To me, one of the great lessons of Prohibition is that the dry movement of the late 1920s had an opportunity to capitalize on its success, but modify some of the most egregious issues within the Volstead Act and the enforcement of Prohibition, and refused to. In their extremism, they eliminated all moderate support. And that is a really important political lesson that can be applies to a lot of different movements."
The roar of the 1920s was a direct rebellion against Prohibition. The jazz age had begun, which, thanks to the loose laws of speakeasies, mingled blacks, whites and women. Prohibition had done away with saloons, but speakeasies were popping up everywhere. There were believed to be at least 32,000 in New York City alone--one for every 243 inhabitants.
The fight to repeal the 18th Amendment soon become fiercer than the original fight to enact it. Activists, politicians and even former Prohibitionists argued that repealing the law would protect families from the violent crime and corruption that resulted from Prohibition. Many of the same arguments that originally saw the adoption of the 18th Amendment were being used to repeal it.
Congress proposed the 21st Amendment in February of 1933 and it was fully ratified on December 5, 1933. It was the only Constitutional Amendment passed solely for the purpose of repealing another Amendment. After 13 years, alcohol was again legal in the United States.
Want to celebrate Repeal Day?
Liberty will be showing the Ken Burns' documentary Prohibition on their backroom big screen. Local cocktail and spirits writer Paul Clarke will speak prior to the show about the era of Prohibition and repeal of the law.
Canon will host guest-bartender and owner of the soon-to-be-resurrected Vessel, Jim Romdall. Past and future cocktails from Vessel will be served, happy hour food will be offered all night, there will be 20% off punch, and a special whiskey will be deeply discounted.