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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

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.

1825-1870: THE PLEDGE

Temperance was not always equated with teetotalism. Beer and usually wine were initially exempt from denunciation in both sermons and treatises. There developed in the mid-19th century, however, the conviction that all brews, be they "ardent spirits," beer, ale, or wine, were anathema.

The, new temper of the movement was epitomized by the travels of Father Theobald Matthew of Ireland who toured the United States from 1849 to 1851, administering the pledge of total abstinence to some 600,000 persons in 25 states. A White House dinner and a Senate reception stamped official approval upon his sojourns (Furnas, 1968: 80). Thus did temperance drift into a new phase, with its ardent spokesman, Congressman Gerrit Smith, crying that:

I would that no person were able to drink intoxicating liquors without immediately becoming a drunkard. For, who, then would . . . drink the poison that always kills, or jump into the fire that always burns? (Furnas, 1968: 15).

It was in this atmosphere that the first prohibition experiments were undertaken on a statewide basis. "Until the liquor traffic is abolished . . . all efforts at moral reform must languish," judged one of the earliest prohibitionists.

In "Grappling with the Monster," T. S. Arthur stated, "The CURSE is upon us, and there is but one CURE: Total Abstinence, by the help of God, for the Individual, and Prohibition for the State" (Furnas, 1968: 15).

In 1847, the first such cure was enacted for the state of Maine (Cherrington, 1920: 134). (Actually, the first Prohibition law went into effect in 1843 in the territory of Oregon. This was repealed five years later.)

A wave of prohibition statutes followed. Delaware, on the heels of Maine, passed its first prohibition law only to have it declared unconstitutional the following year. Similar laws were enacted in Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York during the next few years. They met with varying fates, including veto by the governors, repeal by the legislatures and invalidation by the state supreme courts.

The evaluations by several historians of these early trials were to he heard again in the 20th century: the enactments lacked support from a large portion of the population, making enforcement exceedingly difficult. Ultimately, all but one of the states repealed the prohibition statutes of the 19th century (Grant, 1932: 5; Peterson, 1969: 123).

Notwithstanding this record, prohibitionists took heart. "This thing is of God," cried Lyman Beecher from the pulpit. "That glorious Maine law was a square and grand blow right between the horns of the Devil" (Furnas, 1968: 167). Temperance societies, established in all but three states by 1832 and destined to proliferate, began to consolidate as well.

The American Temperance Society, later to become the American Temperance Union, was organized in 1826. It quickly begat auxiliaries, so that by 1835, 8,000 locals existed (Cherrington, 1920: 92-93).

As the years passed, they witnessed the founding of more temperance, organizations of a general and national character than during any other period in the United States' history. The Washingtonian movement, organized in the City of Baltimore in 1840, was followed by the Martha Washington movement in 1841.

The Sons of Temperance came into existence in 1842, at, the same time the Order of Rechabites was organized, and the Congressional Temperance Society of 1833 was revived on the basis of total abstinence. They took heart at their early state, successes and fought against the defeats of repeal.

In the meantime, however, the United States government, which had heaped honors upon Father Matthew, concluded a treaty with King Kamehameha III of Hawaii in 1850 permitting the introduction and sale of liquor on his island.

As further evidence of the national dichotomy, Chicagoans in the 1850's fought virulently against the enforcement of Sunday closing laws. To protest, an armed mob burst into the business district of the city, to be met by police. Fortunately, the mob was dispersed before the mayor found it necessary to use the cannon he had hurriedly planted around City Hall (Peterson, 1969: 120).

It was the time when patent medicines, 40 proof and more, began to develop their clientele. And although the Demon Rum might threaten their health and life, Lydia Pinkham's Compound offered a cure for any and all ails and aches.

By the time of the Civil War, both the assimilative and coercive traditions of the temperance movement had crystallized: that is, temperance proponents were determined to save the weak and to destroy the recalcitrant (Gusfield, 1963: 69-70). The hardening of positions was accompanied by the development of political consciousness in the movement and recognition of political objectives. These processes were only temporarily blunted by the Civil War in the 1860's and the diversion of interest to the abolitionist cause.

Part of the heritage of the Civil War was the tax on liquor and beer imposed in 1862. Rates were increased several times between 1863 and 1868, so that the tax imposed at the rate of 20 cents per gallon rose to $2 per gallon.

An interesting phenomenon was noted by the Federal Government: as the rates increased, the revenue did not. In fact, the number of gallons reported actually declined. As the decade went on, attempts were made to enforce the tax laws and in 1868, $25,000 was actually appropriated to detect violators. Fraud continued almost unabated. Stockpiling of liquor was popular to hedge against future, increases, for they were not applicable to liquor on hand.

The infamous Whiskey Ring was active in these days and was not finally broken up until 1875, when, in a peak of nerve, members established a corruption fund in the District of Columbia to halt the prosecution of 321 persons charged with violations of the revenue laws. Before then, however, Congress apparently had second thoughts about the implications of the revenue collections and reduced the tax from the high of $2 per gallon to 50 cents in 1869. The happy result was to see a rise in collections from $13.5 million in 1868, to $45 million in 1869, and $55 million the following year. Taking further precautions, the government stipulated that new stamps be developed to preclude counterfeiting and tampering (History of the Alcohol 14-20; Cherrington, 1920: 156162).

Congress did not escape unscathed by criticism and reaction. It came from both sides of the temperance issue. Temperance advocates such as Senator Wilson of Massachusetts and Senator Pomeroy of Kansas decried the fact that federal revenues would be drawn from the liquor industry.

At the same, time, however, the industry revolted, leading to mass tax evasion schemes and devices and the organization of their first industry lobby, the United States Brewers Association. The Association rapidly launched a, legislative campaign and succeeded in 1863 in reducing the tax rate of beer from $1 to 60 cents (Cherrington, 1920:157).

By 1870, the Civil War dust had cleared and the temperance battle lines were drawn, already tested by the skirmishes of the 1840's and 1850's. The most interesting feature of their war strategy was soon to become apparent: women and children were welcomed at the battlements.


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