Friday, December 05, 2008

Celebrating the 21st Amendment

Lovers of liberty and lovers of libation should celebrate today, the 75th anniversary of the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which repealed the Prohibition of alcoholic beverages that had been mandated by the earlier, Eighteenth Amendment.

It took a little more than a decade for Americans collectively to slap their foreheads and say to themselves, "Duh! Prohibition causes more problems than it solves."

Among the problems that Prohibition caused were twin and not unrelated evils: a growth in the size and scope of organized crime, and a growth in the size and scope of government. (Please, no comments about redundancy.) Alcohol prohibition, like the income tax, gave the federal government new and unprecedented authority to insinuate itself into the private lives of American citizens, authority that -- despite the Twenty-first Amendment -- has never dissipated.

For the fun of it, I decided to check into how the end of Prohibition was met in my hometown, Milwaukee. One would expect that a city made famous by beer and breweries would have celebrated the ratification of the repeal amendment with street parties, parades, and noisemakers. Instead, I found out, the reaction of Milwaukeeans was one big yawn.

Robert W. Wells, a longtime reporter and editor of The Milwaukee Journal, wrote a book called This is Milwaukee: A colorful portrait of the city that made beer famous (Renaissance Books, 1970). I assume the book is long out of print, although Amazon shows a printing from 1978.

I have long had a hardback copy of This Is Milwaukee on my bookshelves (but I confess to not reading it in at least 30 years) and I remembered a section about the end of Prohibition. Wells writes in his chapter entitled "The Long Drouth Ends":

The twenties finally tested the question that had been raised early in Wisconsin history – whether the opponents of strong drink could keep the rest of the population from drinking. A referendum on the matter was held in 1851. Milwaukee Germans walked to the polls with ox horns filled with beer over their shoulders, but the statewide vote was 27,519 to 24,109 in favor of prohibition. The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, ignored the vote but four years later the Republicans won and passed a Prohibition law. The Democratic governor, William A. Barstow, promptly vetoed it. By the time national Prohibition arrived, the wets probably outnumbered the drys in Wisconsin and certainly in Milwaukee, but it took some years of watching the results to convince all but a shrinking minority that legislating universal sobriety simply wasn’t going to work [p. 198].
After focusing for several pages on the mayoral career of Socialist Daniel Hoan, Wells explains why Milwaukee greeted the end of Prohibition so laconically. It turns out the real celebration took place eight months earlier in 1933, on what would one day be my birthday, April 7:
....Meanwhile, at 4:32½ P.M. on December 5, 1933, Milwaukee had a more important issue to think about, the end of Prohibition, which arrived at that moment In cities from coast to coast, celebrants took their first legal drinks since June 30, 1919, and then proceeded downhill on some of history’s most spectacular benders.

On the banks of the Milwaukee, however, it was just another quiet night. A reporter assigned to cover the celebration couldn’t find one. He finally did what reporters usually do under such frustrating circumstances and wandered into a bar. He got to talking with what he described as a “slim young thing in a modishly tailored, two-toned green dress,” who told him:

“Good grief, they let anyone in here. I liked it better at Heinie’s old place. You knew whom you were drinking with there.”

Any slim young thing who could remember to say “whom” on a night like that obviously wasn’t getting into the spirit of the occasion. Neither, it turned out, was Milwaukee. Prices were too high—some bars wanted forty cents a shot for bonded whisky. Besides, there had been plenty of liquor available before 4:32½ P.M. on December 5, But mostly Milwaukee ignored that excuse for a celebration because it had already held the biggest one in its history up until then—bigger than when Germany won the Franco-Prussian War, bigger than the celebration after World War I, even bigger than the turnout for Prince Henry of Prussia. It had taken place the previous April when beer came back. By comparison, the excitement over the return of liquor was barely noticeable.

Congress had been under considerable pressure in 1933 from unemployed brewery workers as well as the thirsty to do something about making beer legal. The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment took time, but meanwhile the congressmen studied the matter and discovered that any beverage with no more than 3.2 percent of alcohol would not be intoxicating, starting one minute past midnight of April 7. Until that moment, when the congressional action became effective, beer containing more than half of one percent of alcohol would continue to make a man drunk under the Volstead Act. The world was full of admiration for the Washington lawmakers, who had performed a miracle by increasing every drinking man’s legal capacity by 640 percent.

As you may have heard, 1933 was not a good year. The Depression was still new enough so that people were hoping for a magic formula to turn the calendar back to 1929. Around Milwaukee, it seemed that making beer legal might do even better than that and restore 1919. As things worked out, hard times didn’t end on April 7, 1933, in Wisconsin, but the breweries hired eighty-five hundred men, which helped keep that many families in sauerbraten.

In the weeks before the moment when 3.2. beer became nonintoxicating, Milwaukee’s breweries made ready. They bought enough federal tax stamps to legalize the sale of 2,232,000 gallons. They hired every truck within miles. Production was begun. Three hundred sixty railway freight cars were loaded, ready to rush this new soft drink to a parched world. Planes were poised at the county airport. Within twenty-four hours after 3.2 beer became legal, Milwaukee breweries planned to sell fifteen million bottles of it.

As midnight of April 7 drew near, Milwaukeeans prepared for a night that would be equaled only twice in the next quarter century, when the city celebrated the defeats of the Japanese and of the New York Yankees. Three lines began forming at each of the seven surviving breweries. One was made up of trucks and cars, their owners waiting to buy beer by the case or the barrel. One line contained Milwaukeeans patiently anticipating a free glass of beer at the brew- house. The third was a line of shabby men who hoped for a job.

It was snowing, the wet flakes swirling down on the waiting customers. No one minded. The clock ticked toward midnight. On Wisconsin Avenue, on Wells and Mitchell and all the other main streets, prospective celebrants roamed the sidewalks, each with a bottle opener in his pocket. At last, it was 12:01 A.M. The first trucks roared away from the breweries, every factory whistle in town let loose a triumphant toot, the fireboat sirens blasted, bells clanged and the crowds yelled and banged on things.

Twenty-three minutes later, one of the planes took off in the snowstorm for Chicago, carrying the first airborne shipment of Milwaukee beer to Roosevelt in the White House. At the Pabst brewery, members of the Liederkranz Society pushed a wheelbarrow from the former Methodist church next door where they had their headquarters, filled it with supplies and hurried back to start the Forst-Keller party. At Miller’s, two men merrily rolled a half-barrel of beer up the State Street hill to where they’d abandoned their car in the hopeless traffic jam. At Schlitz, two men in frayed overcoats pulled at the immaculate sleeve of Erwin Uihlein. They pointed out, respectfully but firmly, that they ran the bar across the street and the brewery president lifted down two cases from the conveyor line and sent them happily away.

Many downtown celebrants had whiled away the hours before drinking became legal by having a few drinks. Others had decided as a matter of principle to stay stone cold sober until 12:01 A.M., so they could bring a virgin thirst to the historic first sip of Milwaukee brew. This turned out to be more of a sacrifice than they’d anticipated. Once beer became legal, there arose such an elbowing for space at the bar that no one got more than a glass or two. Arthur E. Hamilton, newly appointed thief of the federal enforcement office, reported next day that he’d seen no drunks—which shouldn’t have been surprising, Congress having ruled that beer was nonintoxicating. The police had sharper eyes. They arrested twenty-two celebrants, but District Judge George F.. Page reported after fining them the next day that all of them admitted they’d been drinking either moonshine or bathtub gin.

Because of Lent, the city’s official celebration was postponed until April 17, when twenty thousand people jammed into the Auditorium, thousands more were turned away and six bands provided background music for blowing off the foam and shouting, “Prosit!

Once the excitement subsided in Milwaukee over the return of beer, complications arose. The fiction that 3.2 beer was not intoxicating made it possible for almost anyone to sell it A price war broke out. A south side tavern sold a customer all the beer he could drink in an hour for a penny a minute and was doing great business until a Wauwatosa barkeep made the same offer for fifty cents. A roadhouse north of Milwaukee tried to appeal to less-hurried drinkers by offering “all you can drink in five hours for a buck,” providing a challenge for Milwaukeeans who wanted to get the maximum amount for their money.

Other tavernkeepers tried to outdo each other by increasing the size of their ten-cent beers. The champion was a fellow who sold a twenty-six ounce stein for a dime. Competitors tossed jack handles through his windows and several breweries cut off his supplies, but he held fast for some weeks, doing a roaring business.

There was one complication in restoring the good old days, aside from getting used to calling the saloons taverns. Some of those who had been brewing their own beer at home had grown to take pride in their product and refused to go back to the commercially produced variety. Some of them predicted that home brewing would continue indefinitely, even if it was no longer necessary to get around the law.

The breweries hadn’t waited through the long dry spell only to be beaten at their own game by amateurs, however. They promptly raised the price of the malt syrup used in home brew to the point where it was cheaper to buy beer ready-made. There was grumbling and complaining, but the home brewers finally gave up.

For years, they were easy to recognize in Milwaukee bars. They were the ones who kept squinting toward the light through a foaming glass and complaining that the beer just didn’t have the body it used to have, back in the good old days when everybody made his own [pp. 207-10]
While the 21st century seems stuck with another form of prohibition that continues to do more harm than good, we would do well today to raise a glass and toast the men and women who fought the campaign to end the greatest and most ill-fated experiment in social engineering in U.S. history.

If December 5 is not an official holiday, at least it should be marked informally (and, if not every year, in those ending in "5" and "0") with the good wishes that one expresses so often during this end-of-the-year holiday season. (Let's see: We already have Thanksgiving, St. Nicholas' Day, Bill of Rights Day, Christmas, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, Twelfth Night ... why not add another?) On this Non-Prohibition Day, I wish you good times and good health: Na Zdrowie!

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This weekend's edition of "Backstory," a public radio program hosted by three American history professors (Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia, 18th Century; Ed Ayers of the University of Richmond, 19th Century; and Brian Balogh of UVA, 20th Century) focused on the story of alcoholic beverage use and regulation in the United States since the early colonial era, with a special emphasis on Prohibition. One of the experts interviewed said that Prohibition was the father of big government, rather than (as is commonly assumed) the later New Deal. He noted that the degradation of the Fourth Amendment, for instance, began during Prohibition, and that Americans, especially in rural areas, became more tolerant of federal interference in their lives during the Prohibition era, which led to much more federalization of law and regulation in the later 20th century up to and including the present day. To add my own take on this, I'd say that Prohibition sparked the fire under the pot with the frog in it.

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