Trivia Minute December 18, 2015

Prohibition: America’s Dumbest Idea

by Marcus Michelson
"Orange County Sheriff's deputies dumping illegal booze, Santa Ana, 3-31-1932" by Orange County Archives - Flickr: Orange County Sheriff's deputies dumping illegal booze, Santa Ana, 3-31-1932. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orange_County_Sheriff%27s_deputies_dumping_illegal_booze,_Santa_Ana,_3-31-1932.jpg#/media/File:Orange_County_Sheriff%27s_deputies_dumping_illegal_booze,_Santa_Ana,_3-31-1932.jpg
Orange County sheriff’s deputies dump illegal booze on March 31, 1932, in Santa Ana, Calif. (Photo from Orange County Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1917, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the Senate and was sent to the states for ratification.

Here are some facts you may not have known about prohibition.

Prohibition was the climax of the temperance movement in the United States. The movement began in earnest just after the American Revolution as people who were accustomed to drinking low-alcoholic beverages like cider transitioned to higher-powered drinks like rum and whiskey without an accompanying reduction in volume consumed.

Along with the increase in alcohol use, public drunkenness, spousal abuse, and unemployment rates increased.

This saw the rise of several temperance movements and organizations, most of which faded away. The one most responsible for the 18th amendment, the Anti-Saloon League, used the politically shrewd technique of not demanding politicians stop drinking, only that they vote in favor of prohibition, with the insinuation that their access to alcohol wouldn’t change much because of their political and business connections.

The 18th Amendment was introduced in the Senate in August 1917. A revised resolution passed the House of Representatives on December 17, 1917, and was passed by the Senate the next day.

The amendment read: “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

However, the amendment did not ban the consumption or possession of alcohol.

Over the course of the next year, 35 states ratified the amendment before Nebraska pushed the amendment past the required 75 percent of states. The only state that never ratified the amendment was Rhode Island. The law went into effect on January 16, 1920.

As the amendment Itself dealt largely in generalities, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act in October 1919 to define the term “intoxicating liquors” and to lay out penalties for violating the law. The Volstead Act defined “intoxicating liquors” as anything more having more than one-half percent alcohol.

The first violation of the Volstead act happened 59 minutes after it went into effect. Six armed men stole $100,000 worth of medicinal whiskey (which was an actual thing) from a freight train in Chicago.

Prohibition turned alcohol distribution into a black-market business, leading to a rise in organized crime centered on booze running. Gangsters like Chicago’s Al Capone rose to prominence, and speakeasies became common.

Prohibition destroyed the American brewing business and crippled the winemaking industry as vineyards replaced wine grapes with juice grapes. Some enterprising vineyard owners sold frozen unfermented grape juice concentrate with the following warning: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”

It also hit state governments in the pocketbook. Before prohibition, about 14 percent of taxes were derived from the alcohol business. Franklin Roosevelt ran for president promising to work to repeal prohibition. In March 1933 after winning the election, Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the sale of beer with 4 percent alcohol by volume.

The 18th amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, the only time an amendment has been repealed.

Today is International Migrants Day, National Day in Qatar, and Republic Day in Niger. It’s unofficially Arabic Language Day, Bake Cookies Day and National Ham Salad Day. It’s the birthday of Joseph Stalin, baseball legend Ty Cobb and guitarist Keith Richards.

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