Plenty of hooey comes from the mouths of elected officials. Arguably, the prize for the nuttiest statement of all might go to the late Sen. Morris Sheppard, D-Texas. In 1930, he haughtily declared, "There's as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."
Sheppard, who spent three decades in Congress, was an anything but an impartial observer. The Texas Democrat had sponsored the constitutional amendment to ban drink and fought successfully for the Volstead Act and other anti-hooch laws. He was often called the father of prohibition, although in truth, this ugly progeny had many parents. Nativists, feminists, evangelicals, captains of industry, and paternalistic progressives joined to form a crazy quilt coalition against drink.
For nearly 14 dark years (1920-1933), the production and sale of alcohol was largely banned. From the fields to the taverns, Prohibition was an economic calamity. Farmers who sold their grains and fruits to drink-makers lost sales. Immense numbers of breweries, distilleries, and wineries closed, and their blue-collar employees were put out of work. Truck drivers, barkeeps, Madison Avenue ad men, and newspapers all felt the effects.
And so did drinkers.
Prohibition was, however, a wonderful thing for crooks. They knew that the appetite for drink would not simply disappear. “I am just a businessman giving the people what they want,” declared Al Capone.
And provide they did. The nation became awash in illicit drink. It came by trucks and cars over the Canadian border and by boats from Maine to the Gulf Coast states. It was a wonderful racket: Unlike licit drinks-makers, the bad guys didn’t pay taxes or have to bother with regulatory compliance. And if droves of consumers went blind or dropped dead from toxic drink, oh well.
The whole Prohibition scheme was ludicrous, and its hypocrisy was exhibited by the political class itself. President Warren G. Harding little hid his drinking, and Congress was rife with boozers. A bootlegger, George Cassiday, known as “the man in the green hat,” had the run of the U.S. Capitol and supplied numerous congressional offices with hooch. Sheppard himself was embarrassed when an illicit still was discovered on his property in Texas.
The government, feeling the pinch from the loss of tax dollars and desperate to get folks back to work, eventually relented. On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to vote to repeal prohibition. The taps once again flowed, rocks glasses clinked, and the public again could enjoy safe beverages.
Tonight, I will get my kids to bed and then stroll into the kitchen for a beverage. Will it be one of the many beers I have in stock? A glass of wine? Or maybe it will be a spirit, say, whiskey.
Whatever I choose, it will be good. Freedom of choice is a very good thing.
Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the vice president of policy for the R Street Institute, and the author of Whiskey: A Global History (2010) and Moonshine: A Global History (2017).
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