Saturday, December 18, 2010

December 18, 1917 – US Temperance Amendment Passed

After nearly a century of social and political clamoring, the Temperance Movement made its greatest victory in the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, also known as the Temperance Amendment. While the original draft for the wording called for the prohibition of “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”, a rewrite in committee changed the goal of the proposal to make intoxication itself a federal crime.

The question of the constitutionality of banning traded goods was suddenly removed, and the new question of personal liberty came into effect. However, after some eighty years of presence, the Temperance Movement had the clout to shout down the naysayers. Beginning in the 1830s out of the same spiritual and social revolutions that would conjure ideas of the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, the Temperance Movement would make great initial strides, such as the Maine Law of 1851 banning the sale of alcohol except for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing purposes.” Thirteen states would have this legal prohibition until riots in 1855 caused the law’s repeal. The Civil War and other social reforms took precedence in America for the next few decades, but the Temperance Movement continued to smolder.

After the Civil War, temperance began anew with the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Prohibition Party. The total removal of alcohol became the goal, as was seen in the state constitution of Kansas and WCTU leader Carrie Nation vandalizing saloons, shaming customers, and breaking bottles with her notorious hatchet. Education became a useful tool for the spread of the idea of abolition in forms such as the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction, begun in 1880. True clout began to grow, and by the time World War I began, all necessary pieces fell to complete the puzzle with the argument of saving grain for the war effort, the silencing of German-American naysayers, and the Anti-Saloon League carrying numerous votes.

The 1916 election gave ample seats in Congress to the “dries” arguing for prohibition with 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 Republicans. Using their majority, an amendment for prohibition seemed inevitable, but reminder of the Maine riots and the need for public support brought on the question that prohibition may be a legal step too far, though public control would be perfectly acceptable along the lines of maintaining peace and the public welfare.

Upon the ratification of the Temperance Amendment in 1919, the Volstead Act was introduced to Congress establishing definitions of “intoxication” and clarification of punishments, ultimately leading back to the Temperance Movement’s ideals of education. Many leaders such as Billy Sunday cried that the amendment did not go far enough by outright prohibition, but they were quickly settled onto tasks of how to reform those arrested and sent to federal rehabilitation communities. While their methods were morally questionable as berating the prisoners, forcing scientifically derived “purging” diets, psychological shock, and ruthless work hours to keep the devil away from idle hands, they managed enough of a success rate to continue. Police were given local methods of rooting out intoxication through various tests and, using the research of Dr. Francis E. Anstie, detection of alcohol on the breath or in the urine. Public intoxication cases dropped rapidly at the beginning of the 1920s, and quiet intoxication at home escaped notice without a warrant.

However, the crackdown on intoxication led the practice deep underground. Prostitution parlors combined with opium houses gained a whole new business in allowing drunks a place to hide out. Following the new revenue, gangster crime rose in some of the larger cities, most notoriously Chicago. A new push from the Temperance Movement arose in the 1920s to ban alcohol altogether, but public opinion had shifted toward indulgence on material things, and numbers among the temperance clubs dwindled.

To this day, though definitions have been adapted due to other intoxicants such as marijuana in 1937 and to the broad Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 after the “Free Your Mind” campaigns of the late 1960s, it remains illegal to be inebriated in the United States. Critics cite overcrowded rehab centers and high crime rates as outcomes of this crackdown, but healthy economic productivity seems to outweigh any negatives since suspicion of not appearing timely at work will bring G-men armed with breath-sensors and comprehension exams to one’s door.

In reality, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited “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.” The Age of Gangsters would reign through the 1920s and ‘30s, fueled by speakeasies. With the economic tension of the Great Depression, the Twenty-first Amendment would repeal the Eighteenth in 1933 due to crime and illegal, non-taxable, business.

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