On this day (January 17) in 1920 the 18th Amendment went into effect, banning the production and sale of booze. The subsequent 13 years of Prohibition are commonly recalled in popular culture as a colorful blur of speakeasies, moon shiners, and gangsterism. Supposedly it was American Puritanism gone amok until sanity and the Depression intervened. But it represented an apogee of popular American reform movements whose consequences still endure. The creation largely of churches, it also was the last crest of the 19th century Protestant moral consensus before America’s Protestants divided between liberal modernists and “fundamentalists.”
Both the 16th and 19th Amendments, respectively permitting federal income taxes and women’s suffrage, were direct consequences of the Prohibitionist movement. Income tax was the needed alternative to excise taxes on liquor before liquor and its source of tax income could be banned. And women were seen as the chief spear carriers for Prohibition, as they were both moral guardians of the home and chief victims of drunken husbands. Prohibitionism as a movement politically empowered women as never before. Male and female Prohibitionists saw women’s enfranchisement as essential to defeating liquor. Ironically, the liquor amendment gained passage before the suffrage amendment.
Typically forgotten is that Prohibition, despite vast law breaking, did successfully and sharply reduce American liquor consumption, which never really returned to the unimaginable heights of the previous century. Early America had per capita liquor consumption several times what we know today. Drunkenness was a plague. Drunken husbands often abused their wives, gambled the farm away, contracted venereal diseases (and infected wives) at a time when there were no medical cures, and fell prey to workplace accidents often leaving them disabled or crippled for life, before the era of social safety nets. Saloons were intimately intertwined with gambling dens, brothels, pornographic theaters and corrupt political machines that profited and protected vice. Minors and even small children were sometimes fed liquor as supposedly safe alternatives to dirty water or fouled milk.
Social reformers of all stripes identified liquor as the linchpin of nearly all social and personal corruption. A righteous America must be purged of its corruptions before it could realize its providential destiny. The liquor culture’s often perceived close association with recent immigrants, many of them Catholic and Jewish, from non-democratic southern or Eastern European backgrounds, also fueled fears that Protestantism and republican virtues were imperiled.
Methodists and Baptists, as the largest and best organized religious demographics, were the chief campaigners for first voluntary temperance and eventually legislative Prohibition. But they were joined by women suffragists, transcendentalists, Unitarians, and even socialists. Both the Ku Klux Klan and many black leaders backed Prohibition. So too did much of big business and big labor. Skeptics of Prohibition included not just brewers and saloon owners but also some conservatives who saw the law as governmental overreach and likely unenforceable. They were of course vindicated, as neither Congress nor state legislatures, despite their overwhelming approval for the 18th Amendment, ever approved sufficient funding for rigorous enforcement.
The Depression sealed Prohibition’s doom, as legalized liquor was hoped for as a boon to restored prosperity and alternative tax source that would rescue burdened, mostly wealthy tax payers.
Liberal and conservative Protestants backed Prohibition, although the founder of modern “fundamentalism,” Presbyterian theologian J. Grachem Machen, himself a moderate imbiber and skeptic of political reform, notably did not. Religious enthusiasm against liquor superficially unified Protestants increasingly divided over theology, the Bible’s accuracy and authority, human nature and evolution.
The Social Gospel, ratified in social creeds by northern Methodists and the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, emphasized progressive political crusades over Christian doctrine and evangelism. As Prohibition peaked and collapsed, so too did the last vestiges of Protestant cultural harmony. After Prohibition liberal Mainline Protestants broke from previous Christian consensus on issues such as contraception and divorce. Oddly, despite Prohibition’s failure to eradicate booze through legislation, liberal Protestantism seamlessly steamed forward towards more intense political activism. Church elites urged state ownership of industry, touted pacifism, and discerned hope in global government.
Meanwhile, conservative Protestants, maligned as “fundamentalists,” increasingly retreated into a subculture, building their own schools, missions, publishing houses, and radio stations. Many of these bastions of “fundamentalism” would not fully reemerge until the birth of the Religious Right in the 1970s. By that time, conservative Protestantism was surging ahead in adherents, while liberal Protestantism was well into its interminable spiral. Few of the dwindling numbers of old style Social Gospel activists today fully realize much of their movement was rooted in Prohibitionism.
Prohibition, although supported by many black leaders and white liberals as well as segregationists, in some cases enhanced Jim Crow by dividing southern Democrats, creating political vulnerability to Republicans and blacks, and necessitating the further disenfranchisement of blacks. Prohibition’s collapse did not directly hasten segregation’s collapse. But it arguably marginalized a certain form of Protestant nativism that stigmatized Catholics, Jews, and non-Anglos. The campaign to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, an anti-Prohibition Catholic in 1928, was the last big hurrah for such nativism.
The 18th Amendment was the culmination of more than a century of reformist zeal rooted in America’s earliest Puritan founders. It collectively represented some of the highest aspirations and most prejudiced fears of American history and culture, with countless unintended consequences that still ricochet. Today’s ongoing culture wars and debates over government’s role and reach are incomprehensible without reflecting on Prohibition’s still living legacy.