This Week in History

Congress Votes for Prohibition: December 18, 1917

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Bill Sunday, preaching, 1908

Folks in Norfolk, Virginia had gathered to witness an unusual funeral on January 16, 1920. The flamboyant evangelist, Billy Sunday, commended to hell one John Barleycorn, the “body” drawn off from a cheering crowd in a 20-foot horse drawn coffin. This was a large coffin made for one whom Billy Sunday thought a big enemy — perhaps man’s biggest enemy. “Good-bye, John,” cried Sunday. “You were God’s worst enemy. You were Hell’s best friend . . . the reign of terror is over.”

John Barleycorn was, of course, no man. He was a symbol of the “demon liquor” — “barley” and “corn” being the two crops from which whiskey is distilled. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act that enforced it had done Barleycorn to death — and temperance crusaders, like Billy Sunday, rejoiced in his damnation.

As we have seen, the temperance movement went back a long way in American history. Though somewhat eclipsed by abolitionism and the Civil War, the temperance movement revived with a vengeance in the 1870s. Frances Willard organized women into the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which she founded in 1874. Twenty years later, temperance activists formed another organization, the Anti-Saloon League of America. Both organizations were filled with zealous women and men who believed the consumption of alcohol led to innumerable social ills, such as poverty, disease, crime, and insanity.

Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1918

 

Carrie Nation

Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union used moral persuasion to convince folks to abandon drink. Armed with Bibles, women marched on saloons to shame owners into abandoning their “wicked” trade. Sometimes the anti-drink crusaders were successful, and saloon keepers poured their booze out on the thirsty ground. One Union member, however, employed more than moral persuasion in fighting the demon rum. Calling herself a “bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like,” Carrie Nation of Medicine Lodge, Kansas, had a bark with a hefty bite. In 1900, this six-foot tall, 180-pound woman, wielding an axe, destroyed bottles, kegs and furniture in a saloon in the town of Kiowa, Kansas. For the next ten years, Carrie Nation and her women crusaders committed “hatchetation” (as they called it) on one saloon after another. “Smash, ladies, smash!” cried Nation, and even strong saloon keepers quailed at her approach.

Archbishop John Ireland, temperance advocate

With wide support from evangelical Protestant churches and preachers (such as Billy Sunday), temperance activists made great headway in the first two decades of the 20th century. (Except for Archbishop Ireland and a few priests, Catholics generally opposed the temperance movement; mainline Protestants, too, were generally not enthusiastic.) They received the support of women who were tired of their husbands wasting their paycheck at the local bar and from business leaders who wanted productive employees on Monday morning. By 1917, 27 states had passed laws making the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal. Other states passed “local option” legislation that allowed towns and counties to “go dry” if they chose. (In some states such legislation continues to this day.) But states complained that unless all states went dry, state and local prohibition laws were useless — folks could purchase booze by simply crossing state lines. Thus the stage was set for temperance’s greatest victory.

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 territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Andrew Volstead

So ran the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, approved by Congress on December 18, 1917. A little over a year would pass before the required three-fourths of the states ratified the amendment. In the meantime, Republican House member, Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, introduced a prohibition bill, passed by Congress on October 28, 1919. This “Volstead Act” prohibited the production, sale, and manufacture of all liquors that contained over one-half of one percent of alcohol. The Volstead Act went into effect January 16, 1920, one year after the ratification of the 18th Amendment. 

With characteristic intemperance, Billy Sunday haled January 16, 1920 as the dawn of a golden age. Now that America was “dry,” cried Sunday, “the slums will be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” The years ahead would amply prove how nonsensical this prediction was. Prohibition, if anything, would have quite other effects than those Billy Sunday and other temperance advocates foresaw. 

 

Two Songs from Prohibition Days

The first song comes from the early 1930s. It is self-revealing, as far as its sentiment goes: “Prohibition is a Failure.” The second, from 1919, is typical of the Tin-Pan Alley Songs of the period, except perhaps for its abstinence message: “You Don’t Need the Wine to Have a Wonderful Time (While They Still Make Those Beautiful Girls).” It is sung by Eddie Cantor.

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