Relative Values in Prohibition

“Now you find law-abiding citizens, who have drunk nothing alcoholic in years, making wines and beer in their homes. Many men who had quit drinking, or were moderate consumers of whiskey and brandy brought in from other states, seem to have taken a fresh start.”



Despite the picture of a sodden world held up to view by the prohibitionists when their crusade was young, — a world bound for destruction because of alcohol, — of course, most folk never drank enough to hurt them seriously, and many never drank at all. To the majority, prohibition has not been an important personal question, really vital to their daily happiness, but merely a question of public policy—whether or not the excesses of a lesser part of society constitute such a menace as to justify the surrender by the whole of all liberty of choice in the matter of alcoholic drink. It is true that there are scarcely any of us who have not had a leaning in the dispute, one way or the other; but, except in the zealots of both sides, the bias is not so great as to forbid a fairly calm and detached attitude of mind. It becomes simply a problem of weighing advantages against disadvantages as best we can. Lawyers may argue constitutional points, and some men may grow exited in upholding what they call ‘fundamental principles,’ but it is pretty safe to say that most Americans give little thought to such abstractions. Their concern is practical. What they ask about National Prohibition is, simply, is it a good thing for the country?

Recently I had occasion to spend several weeks inquiring into the working of National Prohibition in two states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In the course of this errand I talked with citizens of a number of other states on the subject of liquor-law enforcement in their home communities; and my errand took me to Washington, to the headquarters of both the Federal Prohibition Commissioner and the Anti-Saloon League, two clearing houses of information for the entire United States. Thus I succeeded in getting, first, an insight into the details of the operation of the Volstead Act, and, second, a reflection of widely varied opinions on the whole liquor question.

Reports of a burning interest in the topic are not exaggerated. My inquiry took place at the height of the presidential campaign; yet I heard a score of men and women discussing the wet-and-dry question for every one who discussed the League of Nations. And a large part of what they said had to do with violations of the law coming within their own knowledge. Tales told in a Pullman smoker are not to be taken as evidence; but in this case they have ample confirmation from government agents, sheriffs, and court records. There is no blinking the truth: the Volstead Act is being generally violated.

But, say the prohibitionists, so is every law. Checks are forged, houses are set fire to, men are murdered, property is stolen—the newspapers tell of such things every day. Because these crimes are committed, no one proposes that the laws against them be repealed. Why then seek to throw discredit upon the dry law because it is not enforced to perfection? So runs the reasoning. The final point is the familiar list of benefits that have flowed from prohibition, even in regions where it was received unwillingly—fewer arrests, less vagrancy, a decrease in the population of almshouses and asylums, a bigger share of the family’s weekly revenue available for the wife and children, better economic and social conditions all around.

Admitting all this, the man opposed to National Prohibition—and there are many such among those who champion local suppression of the liquor traffic—holds that it is unfair and essentially undemocratic to force a reform, no matter how good it may be, upon large sections of the country which have shown no desire for it. This contention is quite aside from any theoretical considerations—‘States’ RIghts,’ or the ‘infringement of personal liberty.’ He defends it on the ground of common sense and fair play. He denies that a statute outlawing the possession of a bottle of beer falls in the same category as statutes against theft, arson, and murder. These all the world agrees in condemning as crimes. The offense proscribed by the Volstead Act, on the contrary, is one that great numbers of people, not yet conclusively proved to be in the minority, do not regard as an offense at all; and that fact alone is a sufficient reason why the Federal government should not undertake to make it one. The injury done by so running counter to public sentiment in many states outweighs the admitted benefits of prohibition.

This is a bare sketch of the most common arguments, a boiling-down to the bone of the debate that goes on with infinite refinements and elaboration in homes and hotels and clubs and passenger trains all over the United States.

Pennsylvania offers a perfect example of a state unprepared for the new régime. Like all the rest, it had its period of war-time prohibition; but that was too short to count for much. It has never had even a local-option law. To the hundreds of thousands of foreign-born who work in the mines and factories, the campaign against drink, in progress so many years, was nothing more than a faint and far-off echo. To them drink, more particularly beer, was a matter of course. And not only to them, but to a large part of the native population as well. Dry propaganda had made little headway when prohibition was dumped on the state from Washington. Pennsylvania was wet, and more than content to be so.

It would be a miracle if the Volstead Act was enforced in such territory. And the miracle has not occurred. Except in some rural counties the violation of the law has been a public scandal. In Philadelphia, as in New York, it has been kept under cover to a certain extent but in the wealthy and populous anthracite coalfields, non-observance is taken for granted. Permits to ‘druggists’ and ‘manufacturing druggists’ and ‘manufacturing chemists’—the Volstead Act provides for these permits—have been used as a means of withdrawing great quantities of liquor from bonded warehouses. Through the medium of ‘bootleggers,’ who grow rich in the process, the stuff has found its way to the public. Anybody who is willing to pay a high price can get it with little trouble. Dwellers in the anthracite region who do not take this state of affairs as a joke, — as most of them seem to, — regard it with disgust.

North Carolina, on the other hand, is one of those states which were led gradually up to absolute prohibition. The campaign against liquor began to show its effects there a generation ago, and the dry sentiment grew in strength, until state-wide prohibition was voted in 1908. This did not end the fight, for the law was tightened later by amendments of a drastic nature. These enactments were all plainly the reflection of popular will. In my recent visit almost everyone to whom I put the query expressed the opinion that a referendum would show a much larger proportion of the people opposed to the liquor traffic now than in 1908.

Yet, since National Prohibition came in, there has been a marked reaction in observance of the law. A Federal official, who has had much to do with enforcing the liquor laws, and is himself a prohibitionist, told me that there was undoubtedly more drinking in North Carolina to-day than there was when the state had only its own laws to depend upon; and I found the same view generally held by sheriffs, enforcement agents, newspaper-men, and others best qualified to know. This condition is in the face of an active raiding campaign by the government, and a noticeable tendency toward more severe sentences in the courts.

The ‘drys’ deny that the entrance of the Federal government into the field of regulation has anything to do with the resurgence of drinking. There are other explanations—for example, the abnormal emotional state of all mankind following upon the strain of war. Yet no one who has traveled through the state, as I did this last autumn, could fail to see that the Volstead Act has awakened a spirit of contrariness. How much this was due to the old States’-Rights tradition, how much to resentment at the ‘meddlesome,’ home-invading character of the act, can be only guess-work. A college professor of my acquaintance compared it to the waywardness of sophomores playing pranks on the faculty.

‘This is just one more bit of evidence,’ he said, ‘of the balky child left in grown men and women. It was the same way when county, and then state, prohibition came. But we were gradually becoming used to that, taking it as an established condition, when the Federal government stepped in an gave us an entirely new law. This deals much more intimately with individual conduct than our own. Immediately people set out to beat it. Now you find law-abiding citizens, who have drunk nothing alcoholic in years, making wines and beer in their homes. Many men who had quit drinking, or were moderate consumers of whiskey and brandy brought in from other states, seem to have taken a fresh start; their patronage has made illicit distilling extremely profitable, and has brought into being a veritable army of moonshiners.’


Thus it appears that in two states that are radically different with regard to prohibition, — one where sentiment against liquor has been slowly and successfully cultivated, the other where the agitation showed negligible results, — the Federal dry law has not proved effective. I am aware of the claim often made that this failure in enforcement will prove to be temporary. And so it may be; there is much to justify such a belief, especially if one interprets ‘temporary’ in terms of years, not of months. But, none the less, the belief comes within the realm of prophecy.

The defender of National Prohibition puts a heavy accent on the future, as he must do in the face of the present widespread violation of the law. Wait, he says, until the public has become accustomed to the new condition, until the stored-up supply of liquor gives out, until a new generation grows up; then you will see the beneficent effects of Federal action. Now, when he presents that plea, he may be making a good point against the rock-ribbed ‘wet,’ but it is a point that does not impress the man who advocates local suppression of the liquor traffic. For this man holds that his own method—education and agitation, the gradual building up of dry sentiment throughout the country—would have brought about genuine prohibition just as soon as, even sooner than, the Eighteenth Amendment will.

In the states that I have visited, including others than the two already mentioned, the disregard of the National Prohibition law, encouraging as it does a contempt for law in general, seems to many observers to constitute an evil that outweighs any incidental benefits. Everywhere one goes, one finds a striking lack of moral sanction behind National Prohibition. Not even the strictest citizens look upon it with real respect. Persons who earn money by violating the Volstead Act are considered low folk and are despised accordingly; but those who violate it for other than financial reasons are not condemned at all. Rather is their cleverness applauded.

The anti-liquor forces always complained that state prohibition could not be made effective because of the importation from wet states into dry. Even so, the worst evil, the saloon, was done away with, and importation was attended by trouble and expense that discouraged excessive drinking. Then came the Webb-Kenyon Act, by which the Interstate Commerce Act, from having been an obstacle, was turned into an aid to the enforcement of state prohibition. Of course, smuggling went on to a certain extent, but it became less and less serious as more states voted themselves dry.

The educational movement was proceeding in normal and steady fashion. Thousands of men and women, volunteer crusaders, were spreading the gospel of temperance, and it gained converts every day. Its appeal to the modern passion for efficiency won over many men who would never have responded to the evangelistic note. Proof piled up that localities which banished liquor came surely into greater health and prosperity and happiness. There was never a cause more plainly destined to victory.

I speak from the point of view of one who favors suppression of the liquor traffic, who believes that the result in prospect justifies the required surrender of individual liberty and would vote for a dry law in his own community. But, after a rather more favorable chance to ‘feel out’ public sentiment on this question than comes to the average citizen, I believe that Federal interference has dealt a blow to the cause of real prohibition. For real prohibition is possible only with compelling public sentiment behind it; and it is notorious that such compelling public sentiment does not exist over wide areas containing a large fraction of the country’s population.

In their enthusiasm the leaders of the anti-liquor movement, not content with their sure and steady achievement, taking advantage of a peculiar situation, succeeded in rushing National Prohibition through. The result is that in many of the most populous states the law—like any that is handed down to people instead of growing up out of their conscience and convictions—is a mockery. The resentment that it has kindled, the corruption, the contempt for law, are not counterbalanced by anything that can be found in police and poor-house records.

Another item to be entered on the debit side—one which has been the subject of frequent comment, but which, I believe, has never received the emphasis it deserves—is the widespread complaint that ‘prohibition is a rich man’s law.’ No one who associates mostly with well-to-do people, and who does not take the trouble to find out what the other sort of people think, can realize the extent of this feeling. And the statement I have quoted is literally true: prohibition is a rich man’s law, as the case now stands. Whatever it may be in theory, it is that in fact. Persons well supplied with money can get alcoholic drink practically whenever they want it. That it may be different in the future, that the law may eventually weigh equally upon all classes, does not interest the poor man balked of his beer. ‘What’s that to me?’ he asks. ‘I’ll be dead by that time.’ A reform that is so far ahead of public sentiment that it cannot be enforced except upon the lowly is a powerful incentive to that very class-antagonis which is to-day such a dangerous factor in our national life.

National Prohibition has been an artificial and unhealthy growth. To social reform it is what the get-rich-quick scheme is to finance. But it may be asked: since the Eighteenth Amendment is part of the Constitution, and all agree that it is there to stay, what practical difference does it make whether you prove it good or bad? What profit is there in discussing it? Not much, perhaps, so far as concerns the liquor question itself. Yet, if it comes to be recognized, as many believe it will be, that this Federal enterprise was a mistake, the lesson may be useful when it is proposed to prohibit by Constitutional amendment any other reprehensible habit.