#parents | #teensvaping | Prohibition Was America’s First War on Drugs

Now that the year 2020 is officially in full swing, nostalgia for the Roaring Twenties has come Lindy Hopping back into view. The 1920s were a decade still fondly remembered in the U.S. imagination for shorter skirts, high spirits, and hot jazz licks, but it wasn’t all flappers and ragtime. The decade was also rife with poisonous bathtub gin, murderous Mafia dons, and the merciless rat-a-tat of tommy guns, as well as myriad political and cultural struggles simmering beneath the surface. A dark current of crime, violence, and government malfeasance underpinned the era, much of which can be traced directly back to one immensely influential federal gamble: the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages within the U.S.

The subsequent passage of the National Prohibition Act (nicknamed the Volstead Act after its biggest cheerleader, House Judiciary Committee chairman Andrew Volstead) provided a means to enforce the amendment’s decree. It was the product of xenophobia, racism, classism, and heavy-handed religious moralizing, and had a disproportionate impact on poor and working-class communities. In essence, Prohibition was America’s first drug war — and predictably, once it became the law of the land in 1920, all hell broke loose.

At that point in time, the U.S. was positively awash in booze, and had been since its earliest colonial days; by 1830, the average American over age 15 consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. Prohibition was the result of decades of lobbying on behalf of the temperance movement, which saw all alcohol as evil and sought to eradicate it from the U.S. Heavily religious, temperance advocates had been fighting since the early 1800s to get booze banned, but saw little success on a national scale until they formed an alliance with other reformist groups, particularly the nascent suffragist movement.

Many early feminists like Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took up the cause of prohibition, connecting the campaign to ban alcohol with their own fight for (white) women’s rights. They successfully framed temperance as a women’s issue, citing the havoc that drunken, profligate husbands enact upon their innocent wives and children. To them, ditching booze was a way to protect the sanctity of the saintly Protestant home. These women weren’t afraid of direct action, either; the fanatical Carrie Nation became famous for her habit of storming into saloons and smashing up the joints with a hatchet. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass got on board, too. In 1845 he was quoted as saying, “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery,” because in his view, “all great reforms go together.”

By the 1890s, Americans were still guzzling away — but, thanks to an increase in immigration, beer’s stock rose, buoyed by the arrival of waves of German immigrants who came bearing the knowledge to brew their own “liquid bread.” The Germans were joined by the Irish, Scandinavians, and Eastern Europeans, who all boasted their own strong drinking culture, and, to the immense chagrin of temperance advocates, saloons began to pop up all over the place and became an important part of the community. Predominantly German-led breweries became big business, and leveraged their deep pockets to grease politicians’ palms and gain political power. By the early 1900s, doing so had become all but essential, as a powerful new political pressure group, the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), began gaining traction, and the public started to take the temperance movement more seriously.

The movement itself was comprised of multiple factions, each of which smuggled its own agenda under the big tent of temperance. There were the suffragists, the progressives, and the populists; there were the nativists, whose fervor against alcohol was couched in anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant sentiment; and then there were the racists, who decided that it was “too dangerous” for Black men to have access to alcohol (as well as any other basic rights). Their bigotry often dovetailed with anti-Semitism, as many saloons were Jewish-owned and seen as responsible for their Black patrons’ alleged bad behavior.


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