NOTES / Carrie Nation And Prohibition

Intro

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Carrie Nation and Prohibition

So only two things in the Constitution limit the behavior of individuals (everything else limits government). Those two things are the 13th Amendment which says you can't own slaves and the 18th Amendment said you couldn't have a drink. Now that second one, how did that happen?

The 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was ratified by the US Congress in 1933. But let me take you back to 1900.

June of 1900 to be exact, when A self righteous, by all accounts quite unpleasant woman in Kansas had a religious vision. Or at least she said she did. Her name was Carrie Nation.

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Years later when she wrote her autobiography (dramatically entitled The Use and Need of the Life of Carrie Nation) in which she all but named herself a saint, she said that God spoke to her in a clear voice and directed her to go destroy saloons. God told her to leave Medicine Lodge, Kansas where she lived and go to Kiowa, Kansas, and destroy any saloons she found there and she did. Like destroy them.

First in Kansas, then around the entire country she would lead a brigade of prohibitionist “smashers” who would storm these turn-of-the-century bars and she would use big rocks, bricks, hammers, and eventually what came to be her trademark: a hatchet (seen here) to smash bottles of liquor and just lay waste to these saloons, all in the name of Christian decency. She was on a crusade for temperance. And her efforts, along with many other groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition Party actually succeeded in outlawing alcohol in the U.S. for 13 dumb years.

But let's go back a little further.

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Carrie Amelia Moore was born in 1846 on a plantation in Kentucky. Many of her family members suffered from mental illness, her mother at times having delusions of being Queen Victoria. Her first husband was a severe alcoholic, having picked up the habit as a soldier in the Civil War (I guess that happened a lot). The marriage was very unhappy. It only lasted a year and the guy dies from drinking a year after that. She then marries this guy David A. Nation. He's an attorney, minister, newspaper editor and farmer all of which he failed at spectacularly. Then he became embroiled in the Jaybird-Woodpecker War (I know, I never heard of it either) (1888-90) which was basically a land dispute in Texas. As a result, the family was forced to move north to Medicine Lodge, Kansas. It was there that Carrie Nation began her temperance work.

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Her methods went from simple protests, to serenading saloon patrons with hymns on a hand organ, to greeting bartenders with pointed remarks such as, "Good morning, destroyer of men's souls." Eventually harassment turned into vandalism and she began her trademark smashing. Her fame spread through her growing arrest record. After she led a raid in Wichita, her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, "That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you."

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But to sum her up, Carrie Nation was a great American huckster. She made a habit and career out of these saloon smashings and called them "hatchetations." She had a traveling sideshow manager promoting these hatchetations as a road show. She started a newsletter called The Smasher's Mail.

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And a newspaper simply called The Hatchet. She eventually did vaudeville and went to perform in Great Britain. She was arrested some 30 times but paid her jail fines from lecture-tour fees and sales of photographs of herself and souvenir pewter hatchet pins, you can still get on eBay.

But she did really believe she was doing good. She described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like."

In the bible, Jeremiah 1:10 reads "See, I have this day set thee over the nation and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant." In her bible, Carrie Nation marked this passage with the notation, "Smashing." I love that.

Anyway, she died in 1911 so she didn't live to see it but her efforts did help lead to Prohibition, passed in 1920.

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So what else led to it's passing? Well it was a combination of things.

Number 1 The suffrage movement.

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Women were abused by their drinkin' husbands. They had no legal rights, no property rights. Men were bringing back something called syphilis of the innocent from the bars. Susan B. Anthony began as a temperance worker and when she was not allowed to speak at a Temperance convention, she decided I better get us the vote. So the two movements sort of worked together because they saw common interest. As did industrialists like Henry Ford, who were concerned about the impact of drinking on labor productivity. Advocates of Prohibition argued that outlawing drinking would eliminate corruption, end machine politics and help Americanize immigrants.

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Number 2 The income tax. Before the income tax was invented, the government got it's revenue from taxing alcohol. Until 1910, 40% of federal revenue came from this. So those two groups joined forces. The Ku Klux Klan even joined the party.

Number 3 World War I. All the brewers had German last names and so they were demonized as the enemy along with immigrants in general, who often drank wine. They were of course looked down on.

So the next question is, well did it work?

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Yeah, no. But it did lead to some interesting consequences. First of all alcoholism went up. The number of bars increased. Bootleggers ran the black market to end all black markets. A whole new variety of organized criminal activity blossomed. And government corruption reached soaring heights. The best estimate of the black market at the time is $3.6 billion going into it at any time during the 1920's which was slightly more than the entire federal budget and it was all untaxed. They had to figure out how to keep any stimulus spending during the Great Depression from just disappearing into the gangster economy. It was not good policy.

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And you could still get your hands on alcohol from rumrunners, largely people from the fishing industry who would store alcohol on their boats in international waters, 3 miles off shore. These are actual photos. There was said to be so many of them, they looked like floating cities. People would find medicinal and religious loopholes. It's what really made the agriculture of California become wine country as many acres of other crops were replaced with wine grapes for "sacramental" wine to be sent to churches and synagogs around the country which saw their congregations skyrocket, oddly. It was relatively easy finding a doctor to sign a prescription for medicinal whiskey sold at drugstores.

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That loophole is how Walgreen’s got big.

Also, it kind of led to some new customs. The dinner party became popular (since you could get away with serving liquor at home). Before Prohibition, public drinking was really men only. It was legal but women didn't really do it. What's fascinating is that once it was outlawed, the saloon became a speakeasy and since that whole idea was against the rules, other social norms were broken down. So women come into the bar. If you have women in the bar, you might have dancing so nightclubs are basically invented.

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I mean it didn't stop drinking. It just changed drinking. It pushed it underground and people ended up just drinking stuff that was a lot worse than what they used to. Homemade liquor was disgusting. According to one story, a potential buyer who sent a liquor sample to a laboratory for analysis was shocked when a chemist replied: “Your horse has diabetes.” Hence many Prohibition era drinks were mixers that used essentially masking agents. Every drink you've ever had with orange juice or cream you owe to that era. Sales of Coca Cola tripled, since soda served as both a substitute and mixer for alcohol.

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Also, people were so desperate to drink that they would sometimes drink industrial alcohol. Bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. So in turn, the government's genius idea was to poison the industrial alcohol. They would add things like kerosene, gasoline, benzene, mercury salts, nicotine, methyl alcohol, acetone and ether formaldehyde to it. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended. But thank goodness, it did end. In December of 1933.

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So in conclusion, yeah bad idea. But I'll just mention that Anheiser-Busch, once prohibition was repealed, they decided to deliver beer to several high-profile locations by horse-drawn cart as a marketing stunt, giving us the iconic Budweiser Clydesdales. Here they are on their way to the Empire State Building.

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