Rum Running In The North Country During Prohibition
"The more taboos and inhibitions there are in the world, The poorer the people become... The more articulate the laws and ordinances, The more robbers and thieves arise." - Lao Tzu
The period known as the Prohibition era (1920-1933) was a time of civil disobedience. The laws of the land did not create a nation of law-abiding teetotalers. It was a time when a nation of subversives practiced the art of creative insubordination - not unprecedented in the illustrative history of our country. The illegal activities committed by ordinary citizens were not the only examples of flagrant defiance of the law in times of perceived oppression. For example, the Boston Tea Party (1773) was an act of protest against the British tax policies of the colonies by King George III.
As we enter the new millennium, citizens continue to defy existing laws for reasons of commerce and other motivations. The Internet provides opportunities to experience and acquire new music without going through traditional retail channels. Napster.com and Mp3.com are web sites where one can freely copy music, and many feel copyright is not an issue. Other laws are boldly flouted. Radar detectors are used to avoid being caught breaking the law when speeding in a car. These are just a few current examples of ways in which citizens feel they can express their own individual freedom of action.
According to Sir Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) third law of motion, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." The Eighteenth Amendment (ratified by 36 states on January 16, 1919) created a strong resistance by the general populace to its stringent dogma. Prohibition did not happen overnight. The momentum took place over a period of time extending back to Colonial America. The dilemma occurred when lenient attitudes toward alcohol consumption prevailed at the same time as the numerous attempts to moderate the perceived high level of abuse in our country.
Colonial America made the initial attempt to regulate the consumption of spirits: "Ministers shall not give themselves to excess in drinking, or riott, or spending their tyme idellye day or night," as set forth by the Virginia Colonial Assembly in 1629 (Cherrington 1920, 16). The Puritans, despite their religious beliefs, were not exactly the teetotaler pioneers when they set sail for the new land. They took care to carry with them 42 tons of beer, 10,000 gallons of wine, and 14 tons of fresh water (Lee 1963,15).
It was not until the Colony of Georgia in 1735 when the first documented attempt to ban the importation of "spirits" took place. At that time, it was better to tax and impose fines as a means of providing revenue than to regulate the consumption. Eventually in the post-Revolutionary era, the Second Congress of the United States added license fees for distilleries and taxes on liquors distilled from imported materials in 1792. (McGrew, 1).
The movement for Prohibition developed largely as a result of the agitation of 19th-century temperance movements. The religious revivals of the 1820s and 1830s were the catalyst for the revivalists of the era to attack the evils of alcohol and to lay claim that alcohol was the cause for the moral degeneration of society of the time. These strong religious convictions struck a deep chord and were the moral foundation for the new laws.
A number of states passed temperance laws in the early part of the century, but most of them were soon repealed. Prohibition legislation gained momentum, and as a result, Maine became the first "dry" state in 1847. (The territory of Oregon was really the first in 1843, but did not achieve statehood until 1859). Soon, Delaware, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York followed Maine's example during the next few years. This wave did not last long; ultimately, all but one of the states repealed the Prohibition statutes of the 19th century (Grant 1932, 5; Peterson 1969, 123).
The temperance movement diverted its interests towards the abolitionist cause during the Civil War (1861-1865). The era of reconstruction of the late 19th century led to the era of women practicing their political voice and clout en masse. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874. Among the outstanding women temperance workers of the period were Frances Elizabeth Willard and Carry Nation. Among the effects of temperance agitation were the stimulation of interest in the scientific study of alcoholism, general instruction in the schools on the effects of alcohol, and government regulation.
The WCTU did bring about an awareness of the downside of alcohol. The proliferation of saloons and of the immoral nature of the various activities, such as gambling and prostitution, gave rise to the Anti-Saloon League (1893) to help with the overwhelming task of reforming the pervasive power of the saloon industry. The WCTU and the strong Anti-Saloon League (now known as the American Council on Alcohol Problems) wielded significant political power in the United States and, turning from moral appeals for moderation and abstinence, demanded government control of liquor. The WCTU and the ASL joined forces and notoriety by smashing up saloons and lobbying for prohibition. Backed by church groups and some industrialists, they influenced the passage of many liquor laws and eventually succeeded in securing federal Prohibition (1920-33). Unlike later temperance movements, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, these earlier movements did not view alcoholism as a disease. At the time, the perceived solution was to lobby for government regulation and suppression of the liquor business to control the problem.
Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire was the first to introduce a prohibition amendment to the Constitution to Congress in 1885 (Cherrington 1920, 317). No action was taken at that time. It would take 34 years for the Eighteenth Amendment to be ratified.
The country evolved from a predominately agrarian nation to that of an industrial nation as we entered the modern age of the twentieth century. During the early years of the 1900s, the population consisted mostly of a growing middle class that were Anglo-Saxon and Protestant and who were gaining political power in confronting the moral decay of the urban and industrial communities. Thus, emphasis shifted from advocacy of temperance to outright demand for government prohibition with growing support from a number of rural, religious, and business groups. The drive was given impetus in World War I, when conservative policies limited liquor output.
This moral majority gained political clout and started to impose its own moral codes on the rest of the nation. The massive waves of immigrants heading for the promised land intensified the increased intolerance and hostility towards "foreigners." Prohibitionist Wayne Wheeler proclaimed: "Liquor is a menace to patriotism, because it puts beer before country" (Odegard 1928, 72). Beers from German-American Breweries, such as Pabst and Schlitz, left too much of a bitter after taste, especially in the aftermath of WWI.
The Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU were closer to gaining their objective. By 1916, 32 states were "dry." Only 16 states (New York included) were deemed "wet" by operating under their current "local-option laws" (Everest 1978, 4). In 1917, the resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation or importation of alcoholic beverages in the United States was approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification (Cherrington 1920, 317-330).
It took only one year and eight days for the 18th Amendment to secure the necessary ratification. On January 8, 1918, Mississippi became the first state to ratify, and on January 16, 1919, Nebraska completed the job as the 36th state (Lee 1963, 42). Out of the 48 states that were in the Union at that time, only 36 were needed to ratify the 18th Amendment. Prohibition was to go into effect one year from this date.
On October 28, 1919, was the day that Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act, more appropriately known as the Volstead Act (27 U.S.C. § 46). The Volstead Act banned all intoxicating beverages and stringently defined the intoxicating level as an alcoholic content of more than one half of one percent. A few months later, Vice President Marshall told the Virginia Bar Association that Prohibition would not have received twenty votes if the Senate had voted behind closed doors (Everest 1978, 4).
The Volstead Act went into effect at midnight on January 16, 1920. At 12:01, the flagrant violations began to keep John Barleycorn alive. (Robert Burns (1759-1796) "John Barleycorn: A Ballad")
Perhaps, Albert Einstein (1921) knew what was yet to come: "The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this"
Was the "experiment noble in motive" (Everest 1978, 5), as Herbert Hoover called it, successful? Before any definitive conclusion is drawn, some startling statistics that may sway one's point of view:
Data can be skewed to support a point. The compiled research is by no means a "definitive" answer. The Noble Experiment, then, could be perceived as a theory at best in its noble attempt to curtail alcohol consumption. As evident in the above chart, consumption actually increased. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, commonly referred to as Black Thursday, and the early stages of the Great Depression, there was a sudden shift of opinion. Many people believed that the legalization of liquor and of the manufacturing of liquor would produce a badly needed tax revenue. On one side of the argument, The "wets" blamed the Great Depression as a result of Prohibition, and on the other side, the "drys" claimed that Prohibition was responsible for the prosperity of the "roaring" 20s.
In 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was ratified. A number of states, counties, and other divisions maintained full or partial prohibition under the right of local option. After the repeal of Prohibition, cheap alcohol became legal and accessible. As a result, one could argue that this was the reason for the increase in consumption (Harrison and Lane 1936, 1).
What can we learn from the lessons of Prohibition? The enforcement of such laws were inconsistent and ineffective when the defiance of such laws were so widespread. Francis "Sam" Racicot, a bootlegger from Rouses Point, New York, waxed eloquently on his former profession: "Most of the bootleggers considered that it was an unfair law which had been foisted on us, which had no validity. We knew that it wasn't being supported by the general public, that it was disliked, and that we didn't feel we were lawbreakers" (Everest 1978, 20).
How can we compare Prohibition to the current issues that our nation still faces: the debate on the war on drugs, increased regulation of the tobacco industry, and the increase of legalized gambling? Can the lessons learned provide a better perspective to other current issues that could possibly relate to this slice of time in American history?
All things considered, I wanted to provide an interactive page where visitors could seek out more information on certain topics that were beyond the initial intention of this project. Research, at times, never seems to end. My other pages will provide lively anecdotes and visual artifacts to help make this period of history come alive for you.