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National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

History of Alcohol Prohibition*

*This section is based in large part on a paper prepared for the Commission by Jane Lang McGrew, an attorney from Washington, D.C.

 


1750-1825: TEMPERANCE STIRRINGS

As the evils of intemperance began to attract the attention of the ministry, John Wesley denounced the sin of distilling -and declared for its Prohibition in 1773 (Cherrington, 1920: 37-38).

On his heels came the publication of a pamphlet entitled "The Mighty Destroyer Displayed and Some Account of the Dreadful Havoc Made by the Mistaken Use, As Well As the Abuse, of Distilled Spiritous Liquors," by Anthony Benezet, a member of the Society of Friends, advising against the use of any drink "which is liable to steal away a man's senses and render him foolish, irrascible, uncontrollable, and dangerous" (Cherrington, 1920: 38).

Nevertheless, typical of the century's ambivalence, the first master at Harvard was fired when it was found that Harvard students had been left "wanting beer betwixt brewings a week and a week and a half together" (Lee, 1963: 16).

Concern for the effect of liquor upon the public weal was expressed by John Adams who noted in his diary on February 29, 1760, that the taverns were "becoming the eternal haunt of loose, disorderly people . . ." (Cherrington, 1920: 37). Worst of all he continued:

... These houses are become the nurseries of our legislators. An artful man, who has neither sense nor sentiments, may, by gaining a little sway among the rabble of the town, multiply taverns and dram shops and thereby secure the votes of taverner and retailer and of all; and the multiplication of taverns will make many, who may be induced to flip and rum, to vote for any man whatever (Dobyns, 1940: 215).

The health argument in behalf of temperance was first made by Nathaniel Ames, in the 1752 edition of his Almanack, who wrote that

Strong Waters were formerly used only by the Direction of Physicians; but now Mechanicks and low-li'd Labourers drink Rum like Fountain-Water, and they can infinitely better endure it than the idle. unactive and sedentary Part of Mankind, but DEATH is in the bottom of the cup of every one (Lee, 1963: 22).

Dr. Benjamin Rush shared his concern, publishing in 1785 his now famous "Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind." Enumerating the diseases of the body and mind which plague the drinker of distilled liquors, Dr. Rush outlined the symptoms, including "unusual garrulity, unusual silence, captiousness ... an insipid simpering ... profane swearing ... certain immodest actions" and "certain extravagant acts which indicate a temporary fit of madness" (Rush, 1943: 323, 325-326).

Although the rumblings of the temperance movement were thus perceptible in the late 18th century, there is no evidence that its effects were felt. In 1766, it is recorded that the repeal of the Stamp Act was greeted in Providence, Rhode Island with "32 of the most loyal, patriotic and constitutional toasts" (Lee, 1963: 18). Notwithstanding this evidence of devotion to His Majesty. it was often thereafter the tavern which provided the meeting places for the most defiant revolutionaries.

Subsequently, when the colonial period disappeared into the post-Revolutionary era, Alexander Hamilton adopted the idea earlier effected by the individual colonies, to tax distilled liquors for revenue purposes. In 1791 , the tax was enacted as part of the Revenue Act. The following year, the Second Congress of the United States added license fees for distilleries and taxes on liquors distilled from imported materials.

Incensed by this federal action, farmers in Western Pennsylvania mobbed revenue collectors and armed to resist this intrusion by the new Federal Government. It required 15,000 militia to bring the so-called Whiskey Rebellion to an end (Peterson, 1969: 119-120). Such was the first indication that the liquor industry in the United States would be a force with which the government would have to reckon.

Toward the end of the 18th century, a temperance movement, as such, became discernible. The Methodist Church took a staunch position against the sale or imbibing of ardent spirits "unless in cases of extreme necessity." Five years later, in 1789, even the exception was excised (Cherrington, 1920: 50). A similar platform was adopted by the Presbyterian Synod of Pennsylvania and by the Yearly Meeting of Friends of New England (Cherrington, 1920: 51, 58).

On a non-clerical level, the movement began to organize. Although there is some dispute as to the identity of the original temperance society, it appears that as early as 1778, there was an organization calling itself the Free African Society which excluded men of drinking habits, followed soon thereafter by the Organization of Brethren, and the Litchfield, Connecticut Association of "the most respectable farmers" in Connecticut determined to discourage the use of spirits (Cherrington, 1920: 49, 58).

The turn of the century saw the vitalization of the temperance spirit. Religious leaders, including Cotton Mather, Dr. Lyman Beecher, John Wesley and Reverend Andrew Elliott inveighed against the consumption of liquors. Temperance activity figured prominently in the concerns of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Universalist, Baptist, and Friends churches.

"Had. the temperance reform in America awaited for a non-church or a non-Christian leadership," theorizes one historian,

... the temperance revolution of the past century would yet remain to be accomplished.... Every successful temperance movement of the last century has been merely the instrument-the machinery and equipment through which the fundamental principles of the Christian religion have expressed themselves in terms of life and action (Cherrington, 1920:92).

Whatever the Christian input , however, it is also apparent that a desire to reform was aroused in the country, very much like that which was to be experienced a century later during the Progressive Movement. Thus, Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance of 1813, damned not only rum, but all of the "kindred vices, profaneness and gambling" and beseeched members to "discourage... by ... example and influence, every kind of..... immorality" (Lee, 1963: 23). Mingling with the potential temperance leaders during this period were the future spokesmen of abolitionism, feminism, and utopianism.

In the meantime, the industry was able to report triumphantly that the federal taxes on distilling and importing spirits were repealed in 1802. From 1813 until 1817, the retailers' and distillers' licenses bore a federal tax, but beginning in 1818 the industry enjoyed a tax-free era which was to last until 1862. Thomas Jefferson rejoiced-"as a moralist"-explaining that:

It is an error to view a tax on that liquor as merely a tax on the rich. It is a prohibition of its use in the middling class of our citizens, and a condemnation of them to the poison of whisky, which is desolating their houses. No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the only antidote is the bane of whisky (Peterson, 1969: 122-123).

Future prohibitionists would likewise castigate the government for drawing its revenues from the liquor industry and participating in the profits of evil thereby.



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