The Anti-Saloon League’s first real test of strength came in 1913 when thousands marched on Washington and presented Congress with petitions calling for a Constitutional Amendment for National Prohibition. The petitions made their way through the governmental labyrinth, surfacing in 1915 as a bill to be voted on by the House of Representatives. The vote was 197 in favor, 190 against. Though not the required two-thirds majority, the outcome astonished everyone. It was a clear indication that Prohibition was, for the first time, well within reach. The League soon proclaimed itself “the strongest political organization in the world.”
Despite the political successes, it was generally well known that the majority of Americans did not support Prohibition. The beer-drinking, saloon-going population simply had no equally potent organization working on their behalf. There was no wet political machine to lobby government, publish literature, raise funds, or campaign for political candidates⎯all of the activities in which the League was so proficient.
One of the few potentially viable contenders that did challenge the League was the German-American Alliance, whose members numbered 2 million by 1914. Seeking to preserve the German immigrant’s right to have his beer, the Alliance appealed to the American sense of freedom, stressing to lawmakers that Prohibition took away the individual’s choice. War in Europe, however, ultimately sent the organization down in flames. Amid growing anti-German sentiment in America, the Alliance was charged by Congress with conducting itself in an unpatriotic manner and was ordered to disband in 1918.
Of course, the brewers themselves mounted a vigorous assault on the dry campaign. Their vast financial resources and strong voice in Washington were formidable weapons. But the brewers’ message lacked a sense of sincerity, and their efforts often came off as blatantly self-serving. Then, too, introduction of the federal income tax in 1913 dealt the brewers a serious blow. The new tax removed government’s reliance on revenue from beer taxes, thereby obliterating one of the brewers’ most compelling defenses against Prohibition. Woman suffrage and World War I also conspired against the brewers. Naturally, the Anti-Saloon League exploited these opportunities with insidious precision.
In the end, the power of the dry juggernaut simply could not be matched by any wet faction. On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the required 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. National Prohibition began exactly one year later.
To Obey, or Not to Obey
Prohibition has been called “the noble experiment”⎯experiment being the key word. Among the most enduring arguments against a nationwide dry law was that enforcement would be problematic at best, impossible at worst. And so, even the most ardent supporters of the Amendment, whether they admitted it or not, awaited those first dry weeks with bated breath. The big question: Would Prohibition actually prohibit?
The beer-drinking population of America was one group that was particularly disinclined to bow to unpopular legislation. In Milwaukee, the very beer Mecca of the nation, fear of disobedience on the eve of Prohibition was so great that the city’s Prohibition commissioner ordered all remaining outdoor beer advertisements to be painted over, so as not to incite temptation. Indeed, the fear of rampant civil disobedience was justified. The public consensus, after all, was that beer ought to be excluded from the dry law, particularly beer of low alcohol content.
Colonel Jacob Ruppert, a New York beer baron and owner of the New York Yankees, led the charge on this conviction. He asserted that beer that contained 2.75 percent alcohol or less could not be considered intoxicating. The colonel took his argument all the way to the Supreme Court but was ultimately defeated.
The Prohibition Amendment itself made no reference to alcohol content, citing only “intoxicating liquors…for beverage purposes” as being illegal. But the resulting Volstead Act (the actual set of laws drafted by Congress to enforce Prohibition) set the legal alcohol limit at one-half of 1 percent. Brewers and beer drinkers alike bristled at the low limit, which, according to one frustrated observer, was “less than the alcohol content of sauerkraut.” The debate escalated when it was revealed that Congress had not selected the legal limit based on any chemical or scientific data on the properties of intoxication. Instead, the figure was simply borrowed from the Internal Revenue Service, which used it to distinguish a taxable malt beverage from a nontaxable one.
Organized protests among the nation’s beer drinkers were inevitable. Led by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, thousands marched on Washington in June of 1919 to demand the exemption of beer from the Prohibition laws. Gompers pointed out that the Eighteenth Amendment represented the first instance in American history when the United States Constitution actually denied rights, instead of granting them. A similar demonstration was held in New York City, where some 20,000 protesters marched down Fifth Avenue on July 4th. One banner read, “Dempsey knocked out Carpenter in four rounds. Let’s knock out Prohibition in four weeks!”
Troops returning home from Europe were particularly vocal in their cries for beer. While off fighting for liberty in foreign lands, their freedoms at home had suffered a brutal attack. In March of 1919, a soldier transport ship arrived in New York harbor with its troops all chanting, “We Want Beer.” A sympathetic brass band playing on one of the welcome vessels answered the chant with a rendition of “How Dry I Am.”
Ultimately, however, all of the protests and objections went unheard, and beer containing more than one-half of 1 percent of alcohol remained illegal throughout Prohibition. America’s beer drinkers, it seemed, would be forced to find new ways to have their beer. And that they did.