American Spirits

What's the Password?

What’s the Password?

“The history of the United States can be told in eleven words: Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, Two flights up and ask for Gus.” – New York Evening Sun

In 1830 the average American, 15 years and older, consumed the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80 proof liquor, per year. This startling fact kicks-off the Missouri History Museum’s new exhibit, “American Spirits – The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”. To put that number in perspective that is three times per what Americans drink today, per capita. Don’t you feel better about yourself already?

“American Spirits” begins with the evils of alcohol in America and then tracks the resulting rise of the temperance movement that culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment. While the “Drys” celebrated their victory the “Wets” went right on drinking. American alcohol consumption supposedly even increased under Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties were populated with flappers and speakeasies and then punctuated with the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, as bootleggers morphed to gangsters, crime ran rampant and blood flowed in the streets, talk about unintended consequences.

Those are the facts about Prohibition that I knew going into this exhibit, but I learned a lot more from it. The movement that passed the 18th Amendment was about a lot more than just temperance. Wayne B. Wheeler engineered that movement and his special interest politics remains a model to be feared even today. Building upon the temperance movement, he built a broad coalition that ran the spectrum from suffragettes to anti-immigrant bigots. Still when you think about it, those interval years, between the two world wars was a crazy time for politics. Russia found Communism, Italy Fascism, Japan Militarism and Germany Nazism. When you think of all the evils that could have befallen America, Prohibition doesn’t really seem too bad. It was certainly easier to repeal than any of those other –isms were.

“My personal opinion is that there is no such thing as Prohibition in Saint Louis.” – Dr. Max C. Starkloff, 1926

“Spirits” as its subtitle implied also covers the downfall of Prohibition and the passage of the 21th Amendment. The 19th amendment was women voting. Can anyone guess what the 20th Amendment was? In the interim period between the collapse of political support for Prohibition and its outright repeal with the 20th, Saint Louis won an important political victory when near-beer, 3.2% alcohol beer, was deemed by the Federal government not to be intoxicating. This allowed the breweries to reopen and begged the question, “Can full repeal be that much further away?”

In one sense it wasn’t, because the 21th Amendment’s passage and ratification were both swift, but in another sense it was also much further away than any “Wet” then could have imagined. After its repeal, Prohibition left behind a patchwork of local alcohol laws, many of which still remain in place today, some eighty years later. Indiana only allows the selling of warm beer and Oklahoma prohibits any minor in a liquor store, even a baby in its mother’s arms. Prohibition remains an object lesson of social engineering gone awry and serves as a warning to both future and present day politicians. One I regret to say shows no sign of being heeded.

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