Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Problem of Criminalizing Vice, Part I: America's War on Beer

Dear readers, I announced over a month ago that, on the occasion of the 79th anniversary on the end of Prohibition, I would write an article about its causes legacy. My original intent was to present some research involving alcohol consumption in the Middle Ages, but let's face it: if you're reading these words, you likely already know that the average medieval peasant drank a lot more alcohol than we do because it was safer than water. There's not much more to say about that, so allow me to tell you something you might not have known.

You might not have known that Prohibition was by no means the product of "backwards" religious extremists. On the contrary, the Volstead Act was entirely a product of the modern world. Certainly, evangelical Protestants championing the temperance movement were at the forefront of the war against booze. But their efforts would have amounted to nothing were it not for their alliance with social activist groups of every stripe in early 20th century American politics: no other cause could bring Protestant social reformers marching shoulder to shoulder with Catholics and Jews, whites with blacks, Democrats with Republicans, capitalists with communists, and Klansmen with suffragettes. Prohibition was a great experiment which pitted "the concerned" of every religious and political persuasion against the ignorant working class man who couldn't be trusted not to blow his paycheck at the bar rather than see to his wife and children. 

So what does this have to do with the Middle Ages? My "thesis" for this series, if you could call it that, is that the United States' grand experiment of alcohol Prohibition is a classic example of why criminalizing vice, merely because it is vice, is both anti-medieval and dangerous. Why does that matter? In short, because medievalism quite understandably attracts those who are sick of this world's rampant corruption, immorality, and lack of soul. They turn to the medieval ideals of kingship and order; a world where a man could be roasted alive for preaching a bad idea, and a rapist could be force-fed his own genitals. Surely, if Charlemagne were alive today, he would ban pot, Internet porn, condoms, and Muslim women from veiling in public.... right? Because as we all know, in a proper medieval Christian government, the king is God's lieutenant on earth, whose first responsibility is ensuring the salvation of his subjects' souls. Therefore, allowing any of his subjects to sin with impunity is to participate in sin itself.

A modified Charlemagne anti-sin bot: now with condom-zapping eye laser technology.
The truth of the matter is that only a modern American could dream up such a system. The average medieval king ruled over a decentralized government and had little power to control his subjects' personal lives, even if he wanted to. It certainly was a Christian king's responsibility to defend the Church, but they rarely had the luxury to play the idealist. Later on, we'll explore how the medieval world not only tolerated brothels, but rationalized their existence as necessary to prevent greater evils. For now, though, let's begin with more familiar ground and work backwards. Our story begins here in America with the causes that led to the noble cause of breaking our nation's addiction to Satan's brew: alcohol.

An Overview of America's War on Beer

Prohibition wasn't the brainchild of a few early 20th century politicians out to score some votes from the "moral majority" crowd. Rather, it was the climax of a movement over a century in the making. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the famed Philadelphian physician and founding father, was an early and oft-cited influence upon the temperance activists. He published an Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind in 1785, which diagnosed alcohol as a substance prone to inducing both madness and acts of moral evil upon those who consume it. He lists some effects in his introduction:

"I shall begin by briefly describing their prompt or immediate effects, in a fit of drunkenness.

This odious disease (for by that name it should be called) appears with more or less of the following symptoms, and most commonly in the order in which I shall enumerate them.

1. Unusual garrulity.
2. Unusual silence.
3. Captiousness, and a disposition to quarrel.
4. Uncommon good humor, and an insipid simpering, or laugh.
5. Profane swearing and cursing.
6. A disclosure of their own or other people's secrets.
7. A rude disposition to tell those persons in company, whom they know, their faults.
8. Certain immodest actions. I am sorry to say this sign of the first stage of drunkenness sometimes appears in women, who, when sober are uniformly remarkable for chaste and decent manners.
9. A clipping of words. 
10. Fighting; a black eye, or a swelled nose, often mark this grade of drunkenness.
11 . Certain extravagant acts which indicate a temporary fit of madness. These are singing, hallooing, roaring, imitating the noises of brute animals, jumping, tearing off clothes, dancing naked, breaking glasses and china, and dashing other articles of household furniture upon the ground or floor."

We can forgive Dr. Rush for the errors of 18th century medicine, but the damage was done: the so-called Age of Reason, which (like our own generation) so highly valued any study christened in the name of science or medical progress, rubber-stamped its seal of approval on Dr. Rush's Inquiry. Four years later, a temperance organization of 200 Connecticut farmers came into existence. Virginia saw theirs in 1800, and New York's in 1808. 
A teetotaler's certificate: because nothing in the Victorian era was official until you made a pledge on paper.
These early associations were motivated by the scientific community's diagnosis of alcohol as a poison, but it took a great awakening to supercharge the temperance movement into a formidable political force. The Second Great Awakening swept the country with a spirit of religious revival and moral reform, for which the temperance societies became a perfect vehicle to achieve their ends. Previously, temperance societies typically presented members with a pledge card holding two options: moderation in drink, or total abstinence. A member who signed on for T.A. (total abstinence) became known as a tee-totaler. But after the Great Awakening, moderation was increasingly viewed as a weak half-measure; and since Americans loathe half-measures, total abstinence became the only acceptable goal.
Thomas Welch made a fortune by changing the meaning of the Bible
See, in order for society as a whole to purge alcohol, the issue had to be freed from being the pet project of some health nuts (the equivalent of today's vegans or organic food advocates). It needed to be a matter of salvation or damnation. For the followers of these revival preachers, alcohol was not just poison: it was the devil's brew. Of course, reasons had to be manufactured to explain why Christ would turn water into wine for a party, or use wine to institute the Lord's Supper. It was convenient that around this time, Thomas Welch, a Methodist minister and dentist, found a way to mass-produce an unfermented, and therefore non-alcoholic "fruit of the vine": what we call grape juice. This feat of scientific engineering bizarrely enabled a very large part of Protestant America to substitute grape juice for wine in their services. Within a generation, their Biblical scholars claimed it was how Jesus did the Last Supper and the wedding at Cana all along.

The Civil War, as wars so often do, threw a wrench into the cogs of the temperance machine, but after the dust had settled, the prohibitionists returned with a vengeance. Kansas has the dubious distinction of being the first state in the Union to completely outlaw alcohol in its constitution (1881). Its chief enforcer: Carrie Nation, the mother-in-law from hell who barged into saloons and smashed their stock with her signature hatchet. Year by year, other states followed suit. North Dakota even entered the Union as a dry state. By the time Congress had passed the 18th Amendment, over half of all the states had already enacted statewide prohibition.

At the turn of the 20th century, both "science" and "religion" were firmly geared toward the prohibition of alcohol in America. It needed one final catalyst: social reform. The Enlightenment and the Great Awakening had already played their parts, but it was ultimately the Progressive Era that made prohibition a national mandate. The years between 1890 and 1930, emboldened by America's victory against Spain and the beginnings of empire, yearned for progress in every sector. It meant trustbusting Standard Oil and the robber barons of the old years. It meant destroying the old bosses and political machines of the past like Tammany Hall. It meant giving women the vote, and teaching eugenics to keep poor people from having too many children. And yes, it meant reforming the working man by destroying the alcohol industry. The working man had many enemies. The capitalist could afford to ban alcohol to keep his workers productive, while stockpiling alcohol before the beginning of enforcement for his own use. The communist could oppose alcohol because it was seen as a means for the capitalists to keep the proletariat down. The suffragette sought to destroy the saloon so that her husband would come home sooner with more money in his pocket. Her ally, the Klansman, targeted the saloon because it was a gathering place for Italians and Catholics. And yet, even many priests and bishops of the Catholic hierarchy were active members of the temperance movement.

America's entry into World War I provided the perfect excuse. In 1917, Congress passed the Food and Fuel Control Act, which banned the production of distilled spirits to conserve wheat for the war effort. The Conscription Act also forbade the sale of alcohol on or near military bases. Wartime necessity had conditioned the few last wet states and counties in the nation to total abstinence. Congress used the war to pass an amendment to ban the sale or manufacture of alcohol nationwide, pending its ratification by the states. By the time the needed majority from the state legislatures had come, the war was already over. On October 28, 1919, the Volstead Act was passed, providing the means to enforce Prohibition.

Stay tuned for the next issue, where we examine Prohibition's effects: organized crime, contempt for the law, and public enemies abound!


  1. Great piece. I think I would have been sympathetic to prohibition if I had been alive then; it's easy to see how it ruined a lot of families. Americans have always been weird about drinking and still are, I guess.

  2. To Charming: You are right about the strangeness of Americans and drinking. I read a book - a diet book of all things - by a doctor that lived in France for a couple of years. He had a section on how strikingly different American and French attitudes were toward drink. I need to find the name of the book and post it here. He attributes the differences to a Protestant vs. Catholic culture and attitudes towards personal responsibility.

    Nice piece HK. I will be awaiting part 2.

  3. No great exertions of science are needed to know the harms liquor does. I am a complete teetotaler; my experiences around drinkers have been uniformly unpleasant. Why would anyone want companions high on drink when they could have thinking and considerate beings to chat with without sputtering swears over their acrid breath?

    As a Catholic, of course, I do not believe strong drink is sinful, but then again, the folk who drink alcohol without the intent of getting drunk, which does make it a sin, are scarce to nonexistant.

    One thing we can certainly learn from the Muslim world is that it is possible to have a society where there is no recreational alcohol consumption. The reason Prohibition failed is the same reason the War on Drugs is failing now: the regime enforcing it, as a democracy, is too soft. Think back to how W. C. Fields movies were allowed to mock Prohibition and glaorize the illegal alcohol culture. If the state had had the guts to finally set the antiquated constitution aside, and started shooting lawbreakers in the heads without trials, alcohol would disappear forever in less than a year, and the gangsters would ship out to a country that wasn't willing to shoot on sight.

    1. Crusader, again the elitist attitude that James pointed out. I have Saudi friends who have well stocked bars in their homes. Of course, they are good friends of the Royal Family so they have nothing to fear. It's always the poor working man, the peasant or the camel herder that bears the brunt. And your statement '(T)he folk who drink alcohol without the intent of getting drunk, which does make it a sin, are scarce to nonexistant (sic)', makes me wonder in what sort of circles you run. I and many of my friends drink alcohol every day and very seldom get drunk. I never have the intention of getting drunk and when I do, I confess it.

      BTW, James, excellent article!

  4. The difference between the alcohol and the drugs is that the alcohol doesn't produce automatically dependance and doesn't automatically damage the brain, the drugs do these things

  5. We can drink alcohol moderately and not damage ourself but we can't do the same with the drugs!