The Great Paradox Part One: Prohibition

Ninety-nine years ago, today, marks the eve of the initiation of the greatest social experiment of the 20th century. The production, the sell, the transportation of any intoxicating spirit was condemned to be illegal status under the red, white and blue of personal liberties. Below is the first of two essays that share a bit of a subjective study on the loss of the old-saloon, the paradox that developed and the triumph of Repeal.

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God turned the clock towards midnight. The devil pulled furiously on its hands, attempting to preserve the present and to avoid the future. Satan’s beasts roared loudly, yearning to fulfill their lustful desires. 

During the days before Volstead and his act, the old time saloon accommodated their appetites. Journalist Jacob Riis described the pre-Prohibition haunts with subtle poignancy, “In the best of cases companionship and comfort, the worst an escape into oblivion.” Soothing or not, many of a man sunk into oblivion–faltering, finding refuge on the floors of drags and slums. Yet, however vehemently the gentleman drank, night after night mugs were filled, gamblers waged their bets and choruses wailed of an untrusting government through the tavern. Where the jovial patrons found a drink, companionship and perhaps, even a makeshift concrete cot for a night, puritans saw absent fathers, employees ignorant of their shifts and wages squandered. Graciously, these moral characters wanted to lift the debauchery from the littered floors and walk hand-in-hand to a future of moral balance–clean of sin and dry of envy. 

The country became divided: Wet versus Dry. 

God’s soldiers preached with a zealous sureness that ending the old-saloon era was the cure to an unscrupulous country charmed by the devil’s seat in the impure garden. And as the clock struck midnight on January 17, 1920, the intrusion on Americans’ individual liberties and the states’ rights vanished. Prohibition commenced. “The reign of tears is over,” Evangelist Billy Sunday proclaimed. “The slums will soon be a only a memory. We will turn the our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corn cribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

Drys sanctimoniously passed the 18th amendment with the assistance of people like Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler. His political stronghold and religious ideals united the ASL with the Woman Suffrage movement, the voiceless South and the populist movement. Their collective goal was to manifest an abstract reality where the 300,000 ubiquitous dens banished from every small town corner and any filthy metropolis. “As Moses said to the children of Israel that they go forward, just so the time has come for the moral forces of this great nation to march on against the last bulwarks of the enemy,” declared Wheeler. 

Their enemy was large and vast. According to author George Ade, the more famous hang-outs in Chicago’s loop hadn’t been closed for a minute for years and years during the pre-Prohibition era. Saloons filled the pockets of their patrons with lint and redressed their mustaches with stale beer. The drink became a domestic treasure to our dear government. By 1910, alcohol was a multi-hundred million dollar revenue stream for the federal government; accumulating to 20 percent of the federal revenue, overall. Consequently to extinguish the beasts of their tilted hats and their shirts wrinkled in desperation, a new source of revenue had to supplant the evil tyranny that was the fifth largest industry of the United States.

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The virtuous assembly adopted a plan that aligned with all parties involved in the Dry cause. The Prohibition movement constructed a narrative that a federal income tax on the public and corporations would certainly restore the lost revenue once breweries were reduced to producing yeast, and the great distilleries were left to survive on medicinal sales. The Revenue Act of 1913 passed, and seven years later the devil’s grip on time loosened. The illusion for a utopian America arrived; where fit fathers loved their children and men no longer squandered the day in vaudeville halls of indulgence.  

Professional barkeeps rolled down their white sleeves and walked down a dark hallway like Sam Malone on the last episode of Cheers. They took their business to the soda parlors, and served a brand of patrons that couldn’t see over the bar. A new America was forged. But at what cost? In what reality does a fantasy exist when human nature is healthy and thirsty? Long before the the 18th amendment, the curtain went up in the garden of eden. Humans live to consume forbidden fruit, and as humans, we crave to digest what we desire. So when the puritans of the early 20th century disrupted the garden by trying to hide the forbidden fruit; the Wets still craved their drink and they wouldn’t abandon their freedom. 

A proverbial line divided a nation: a new era of history began where one side predicted a featured focus free of confrontation with the devil. As the other side, walked down a shadowy alley where the devil still answered with the correct knock on a door. And behind that door were their personal liberties, held in tack after the initial chaos of losing their dear old saloon. The Wets managed to find order in a new environment to fulfill their human nature with the speakeasy.

The Drys’ contrived a fictional narrative but lacked in taking account for America’s lust for its drink. Men like Wheeler assumed a dry country, full of accountable men, healthy children and a tax plan to prop up a nation was prophecy. “Never again will any political party ignore the protests off the church and the moral focus of the state,” declared Wheeler. But how could a man be so sure of the future? Just because the production, sale and transport of “intoxicating spirits” was on the books, didn’t mean the half whom opposed the moral refuge wouldn’t contrive their own idyllic environment. 

In his book, But What if We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman wrote, “We will never know how we know what we know. Which is why you should never place faith in the hands of a person whose greatest strength is answering his own questions.” Wheeler and the ASL scripted a reality where their causes, their morals, their vision of America was to be played out by characters directly following the law of the 18th amendment. But the Prohibition epoch wasn’t a mini-series like The Little Drummer Girl – where a fiction was scripted to perform a real-life drama by stripping the characters’ minds of certainty, while developing a plot to understand the necessary fiction to act genuine as reality unfolded. 

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The world can’t be scripted. Before the ink of the 18th amendment could settle, a new form of tyranny erupted in America. Six men, masked and brandishing weapons took the security of $100,000 worth of whiskey into their own hands from a train in Chicago. The great social experiment began, and fostered a country of crime. Smugglers of the intoxicating spirit, bootleggers of some shine and “businessmen” of the 1920s never stayed stagnant. They moved forward, lacking trust in any individual man, and only trusting the thirst of America.

Sources:

Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York by Jacob Riis

The Old-Time Saloon: Not Wet - Not Dry, Just History by George Ade

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