Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bad Days in American History: October 28. 1919

On this date in 1919, the United States officially went insane. That day marked Congress' overriding of President Woodrow Wilson's veto of the Volstead Act, for all intents and purposes banning the consumption of alcohol in this nation.

It's hard to stress how loathsome the temperance movement was. While it's true that early Americans were extreme drunks (as demonstrated amply in W. J. Rorabough's The Alcoholic Republic), the temperance movement moved beyond reforming extreme behavior and into a moral crusade that saw alcohol use as an overarching explanation for everything wrong with America. That included immigration and there were many connections between the temperance movement and the anti-immigration movement that succeeded in closing America's gates to most immigrants by 1924.

Now, one might think that Wilson vetoing the Volstead Act reflects well upon him, but he certainly didn't veto it out of principle. Rather, it was on technical matters concerning its relationship to wartime prohibition. Wilson had supported prohibition as part of the New Freedom when he was elected in 1912. As I was researching this, I was hoping to finally find something worthwhile about Woodrow Wilson; alas, I was again foiled in this quest.

The Volstead Act also demonstrated the worst characteristics of Americans: nativist, puritanical, simple-minded, insular. We became the laughing stock of much of the world (though in fact we were not the only nation to attempt banning alcohol during these years). Of course, prohibition had massive unintended consequences that its priggish supporters neither anticipated nor had any answer for. It made drinking cool again for the first time in decades. It created a massive surge in crime. It led to a huge black market. Police corruption became an epidemic as guys who didn't want to enforce the law found it really easy not to do so. Politicians and other societal leaders rather openly ignored it. Prohibitionists' reaction was simply to demand greater enforcement and tell everyone to go to church.

Prohibition played a major role in the standardization of bad beer in this country. I am just beginning research on a book length project on beer and local breweries in America and I understand that up until Prohibition, local breweries around the nation made a wide variety of sometimes very high quality beer. I hear the original recipe for Coors produces a quite delicious beer, though I have not had it. But after years of not drinking beer, the public had largely lost its taste for complex beers by 1933 and in order to survive, the breweries who managed to reopen after fourteen years found it in their interests to produce weak lagers that appealed to wider audience. I need to research this phenomenon in significantly more detail, but if we have the Volstead Act to blame for Miller Lite and Keystone, I am going to be even more full of rage than I already am.

Of course, the Volstead Act is hardly the only time the nation has decided to criminalize a drug for less than rational reasons. Many of the Volstead Act's less savory elements have contributed to the current War on Drugs. Combine this with a far more advanced police state than we had 90 years ago and you see the elimination of the 4th Amendment from providing any real protections for people, a skyrocketing prison population, and the forcing of perfectly decent people into lives of poverty and stigma because of harmless crimes.

All in all, I wonder if October 28, 1919 isn't one of the very worst days in American history. I know it's not quite on the same level as FDR's executive order placing Japanese- Americans in concentration camps or the founding of the KKK, or the election of George W. Bush, but it's pretty nightmarish. A social and political disaster, it reeked of the most disturbing and close-minded trends in American life that we still have to fight today.