One of the great pleasures of life is a documentary by Ken Burns and his Prohibition series airing recently on PBS is no exception. It beautifully captures the lessons to be learned from the Prohibition era—the good intentions, the folly and the curse of bad public policy. I don’t drink beer and maybe you don’t either. Still, the Prohibition story is so relevant to our times that I not only urge you to watch the Burns’ treatment but I also want to excerpt a section about Prohibition from my book The Search for God and Guinness here. Enjoy. I’ll put the next part up in a few days.
There had long been efforts for prohibition of alcohol sales in the United States and it is not hard to understand why. From the earliest days of the colonial era, alcohol had played a vast role in nearly every part of life. Men paid for goods with whiskey, doctors treated wounds with wine and political events were awash with strong drink cynically provided by the politicians themselves. Inebriated men made easy political targets. Whiskey was so prized that when the new federal government decided to tax alcohol sales, a revolt ensued known to history as the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
The popular attitude toward drink was that of earlier generations of Christians: alcohol in moderation is a grace of life but drunkenness is both sin and a plague upon society. As pioneers moved westward and small towns began to dot the plains, the negative effects of alcohol became more pronounced. It would take only a few hard drinking men to terrorize a small community, and only one drunken father and husband to leave a family destitute on the dangerous frontier. Naturally, anti-drink societies formed—understandably led by women—and many a tension arose between the “dry” and “wet” factions of the American west.
As anti-alcohol sentiments increased, entire states banned alcohol sales. Maine was first in 1851 with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont following in 1852. A year later, Michigan followed suit as did Connecticut in 1854. These laws were loosely and incompetently enforced, though, and this only led to increased frustration on the part of temperance groups. Finally, anti-alcohol sentiments merged with religious beliefs and led to the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874. This body thrived in the rural sections of the country and led, in time, to the rise of the legendary Carrie Nation—the widow who took axe in hand and hacked to pieces the saloon where she believed her husband once drank himself to death. Her exploits captured the imagination of many Americas and, in an age of anti-corruption reform, the war on alcohol gathered strength.
In retrospect, brewers seemed unaware of these currents of change. Believing rightly that beer and alcohol had always been a valued part of America life, brewers throughout the U.S. saw little threat in the gathering anti-alcohol storm. They continued to cite the American heritage of moderate alcohol use and even proclaimed a favorite truism from the era of the founding fathers: “The Brewery is the best pharmacy.” They were tragically unaware of their times. They were unable to see what would come of women gaining political power, many of these women armed with tales of the devastation excessive drink had meant for their families. They could not have understood how World War I would lead to fiery anti-German sentiment and how this in turn would focus rage on the largely German trade of brewing beer. And they could not have foreseen how many a politician, riding an anti-corruption wave, would blame alcohol for most of the country’s woes and thus come to proclaim prohibition as a national panacea. When brewers in America did wake up to the prevailing trends, there was little they could do.