National Prohibition; Its REAL Anniversary
Posted by Bob Skilnik on December 4, 2007
Unloading beer behind the Hilton, April 7, 1933
December 5, 1933 notes a “first” in constitutional history. It was on this day, 75 years ago, that American voters, through state referendums, added the 21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It was the first time in our history that a constitutional amendment was passed, not simply by the will of legislators, but instead through popular mandate, i.e., the power of the U.S. citizenry. For some of us, December 5, 1933 will always be remembered as the end of National Prohibition. Unfortunately, there are too many writers and trade organizations who should know this, but have chosen, instead, to revise U.S. history for their own purposes, and if I might, usually for self-promoting ones.
You might recall my rants back in April when organizations like the Brewers Association, the A & E network and Anheuser-Busch, with its pimping of “The American Brew” an hour-long movie commissioned by the St. Louis brewery, and beer geek sites like Beeradvocate proclaimed April 7 as the day that Prohibition was “repealed today in 1933.” The Jacksonville Business Journal went so far as to proclaim that “The 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect April 7, 1933…” , an amazing feat since the states hadn’t even gotten around to setting up constitutional referendums and state conventions to vote for delegates who would set the constitutional change into effect. They weren’t alone in repeating this historical inaccuracy, but the list of offenders would probably be longer than this entire blog entry.
So once again, let me beat this dead horse one more time. The passages below are from my book, Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago, (I have NEW copies, signed, available at Amazon under the NEW/USED link) and gives the story of events leading up to December 5, 1933 from a Windy City perspective. But throughout the story, the thread leading up to the end of Prohibition can be found.
On another note, keep in mind that April 7, 1933 brought back beer, and only beer with an alcoholic strength of 3.2 % alcohol by weight. Although somewhat an arbitrary alcohol level, it was the result of a modification of the Volstead Act that was passed by Congress on October 27, 1919 in order to put an end to the brewing industry’s question, as it pertained to the 18th Amendment, of what constituted an “intoxicating beverage.” Typical of laws that Congress passes—even today—it usually falls into the robed lap of courts to sort out a vague bill or amendment that is the result of compromise or simply a rush to get something passed. In the case of the 18th, the brewers claimed that the mandated cessation of the manufacturing of “intoxicating beverages,” as proclaimed in the amendment was too vague, and until a legal definition of what constituted an “intoxicating beverage” could be determined, the 18th Amendment would be open to challenge. Before this predicament dropped into the lap of courts, Congress went back and defined the alcoholic strength of any beverage with a content of 1/2 of 1% of alcohol to be considered “intoxicating.” This was done through the passage of the Volstead Act in the fall of 1919.
What brought 3.2% beer back on April 7 was merely a rewriting of the Volstead Act. There was no consitutional amendment, no nullification of the 18th nor passage of the the yet-to-be-voted-on 21st Amendment. A month earlier, on March 13, President Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of his office to formally recommend to Congress a looser interpretation of the Volstead Act, which limited alcohol in beer to one-half of one percent. “I recommend to the Congress the passage of legislation for the immediate modification of the Volstead Act, in order to legalize the manufacture and sale of beer…”
On March 21, 1933, the United States House of Representatives completed action on the Cullen-Harrison bill, permitting the resumption of the manufacture and sale of 3.2% beer and light wines in those states that were now legally considered wet. The next morning, President Roosevelt was scheduled to sign the bill, but a bureaucratic mix-up postponed his signing until March 23. If the bill had been signed by FDR on March 21, as originally scheduled, 3.2% beer would have actually returned on April 5, since the bill stipulated a 15-waiting period before it could go into effect.
With 3.2% beer’s return on April 7, 1933, that still left wine, liqueurs or liquor to deal with. It actually meant that stonger beers would also have to wait for their return. Nobody was toasting April 7 with a barleywine in hand. There’s also an interesting sidenote here, suggested by the dates of the Cullen-Harrison bill and FDR’s delay in signing the bill until March 23.
At this time in U.S. beer history, the brewing industry was still under the influence of German and German-American brewers. Lager was the most popular beer, not a surprise with wide-girthed Braumeisters still turning out the golden brew. One demonstrated point of their pride of product during the pre-Prohibition era was the brewers’ insistence of a lagering period of at least one month. Now with events as chaotic as they were prior to April 7, and with FDR’s delayed signing of the C-H bill on March 23, they would have had to be clairvoyant to have good-quality and properly aged beer conveniently ready for April 7.
So how did they do it? They used weaker, and I would go as far as to claim, inferior beer. In Chicago alone, there were 5 legally-licensed breweries that were pumping out real beer and then extracting the alcohol from the beer and selling it as “cereal beverage,” in other words, near beer. I made an earlier reference back in April that the beer was “weak-assed” and some beer blogger made the remark with some disdain that there was nothing wrong with weak beer, or as geeks like to put it “session beer.” I agree; there is nothing wrong with lighter-alcohol session beers. If your group is babbling at the bar after something like 3 barleywines or Imperial Stouts, it might be an early end to your little bier klatsch…and that’s no fun. But think about what you would do if you were a brewer back then. How would you handle the grain and hops bill if you knew that in the final process, you would be required to boil the hell out of the beer and collect the vapors of alcohol for shipment to a government-bonded warehouse where alcohol was stored? Would you start with a nice heaving load of fine Moravian malts, maybe throw some crystal malt in for color and a little more body, and then dip into your supply of “noble” hops for character; maybe some for bittering and then topping off the batch with a touch for some added nose?
Of course not! You’d probably use some indifferent malt—and certainly not a lot—and most likely the minimum amount of hops (and who knows how old those hops were?) Why strive for a quality brew when you knew that the beers would be stripped of alcohol and then, either at the local speakeasy or on the delivery truck, the beer would be injected with alcohol through the bung-hole of the wooden barrel, giving rise to the Roaring Twenties speakeasy standby, “needle beer?”
To give you another example of the quality of the beer that was consumed on April 7 and somewhat beyond, city and federal agents were hitting the streets and testing beers in Chicago on April 7, 1933 to make sure the brewers were conforming to the 3.2% alcohol by weight limit, about 4% alcohol by volume (abv). Not one beer sample was in violation. On the contrary, the agents remarked that the beers were well below the legal limit. Why? Because the beer that rolled into the streets of the U.S.A. on April 7 was the indifferent beer that had been brewed for alcohol extraction, brewed to be near beer. It was brewed with the least amount of grains and hops and probably hard to argue that it had been aged for at least a month. What would be the purpose?
After the euphoria and initial beer supplies ran out throughout U.S. breweries, the suds factories started turning out “green” beer, beers that demonstrated little lagering, if any at all. It became so bad that Blatz (and others) began running full-page newspaper ads, thanking FDR for bringing “Democratic” beer back to the masses while pledging to the President and all beer drinkers in the country that they would release no beer, despite the demand, until it had gone through a proper period of maturation. That wasn’t “session beer,” my blogging critic, that was shit beer that they were drinking in the aftermath of April 7, 1933.
But boy, did I digress. Ah yes, December 5, 1933…
As required by Congress, Illinois was busying itself in late April of 1933 in preparation for a state election and convention to act on the 21st Amendment, hopefully to repeal the disastrous 18th Amendment. After Congress had refused the state’s request for a special cash grant to fund state elections for Repeal, Illinois decided to incorporate a June judicial election with the Repeal election, combining the expenses of two separate elections. Downstate democrats, however, worried that incorporating the judicial election and the vote for Repeal might bring about a backlash from local dry advocates and hurt the chances of some of their Democratic judges running for reelection. As a result of this political concern, the Illinois State Senate, led by these wary Democratic forces, unbelievably voted to postpone the election for Repeal until April of 1934.
Republicans had a field day with the Senate vote, expressing disbelief that the same party that had been swept into the Oval Office on a platform of repeal, the party of “democratic beer,” was now voting to delay the state ratification of Repeal. “Evidently,” sneered State Senator Martin R. Carlson of Moline, “you Democrats don’t care to repeal the 18th Amendment.”
Colonel Ira L. Reeves of Chicago, Commander of the anti-Prohibition organization called the Crusaders, and a pro-Repeal lobbyist, thought he saw a darker explanation for the actions of the Democrats. “Naturally they (the brewers) want to prolong their present monopoly as long as possible, and apparently they are lining up the downstate dry legislators to accomplish that purpose.” Reeves went on to suggest that brewers had made a pact with Prohibitionists. Reeves singled out the boisterous State Senator Frank McDermott with his brewery in Bridgeport, owned by McDermott since 1923. How could McDermott go back to his Stockyards constituency and tell them he voted to defer Repeal until next year, Reeves wanted to know?
The logic of Reeve’s argument seemed solid. Other Repeal advocates affirmed his contention. Since years before Prohibition, brewers and distillers had maintained an adversarial relationship. Their divisiveness was one blatant reason that later prohibitionist efforts had so been so successful. Commenting on the charge that brewers wanted to continue a monopoly on the drink trade, Captain W. W. Bayley, Chicago Chief of the Association Against the 18th Amendment said, “…it would not be surprising to have proof show up that such is the situation now.”
It was too much for editors of the trade magazine, The Brewer And Malster And Beverageur, who demanded an apology from Reeves. “It is unthinkable that they (the brewers) would ally themselves with the bootleggers and gangsters and the fanatics of the Anti-Saloon League.”
Days later, with pressure from all sides and a chance to rethink their positions, the Democrats capitulated. The Illinois Senate voted to restore June 5, 1933, as the day for the election of delegates to the State Repeal Convention. Additional pressures from Governor Henry Horner and various lobbyists groups, including the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, had persuaded the Senate to wisely reverse their ill-advised prior decision. Without protest, the Illinois House of Representatives concurred with the Senate’s actions.
On the morning of June 5, expectations were high for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. With chances for thunderstorms forecast throughout Monday, a voter turnout for a Chicago judicial election would normally have been predicted to be low. Historically, this pattern of a small voter turnout was in Chicago, and still is, typical for such an election. But, this was no simple judicial election. With reports coming in from ward headquarters throughout the city, the Cook County Democratic Organization was predicting an unprecedented turnout of 710,000 votes. Nonetheless, ward heelers continued to heavily canvass the city during the day. As a further enticement to get constituents out to vote, local Democratic leaders pragmatically stressed the household economics of Repeal. As part of their door-to-door strategy, it was pointed out by Democratic party officials and ward heelers alike that unless the 18th Amendment was repealed, $6 to $10 out of every $100 earned in a weekly paycheck would revert back to the Federal Government in new taxes. Repeal meant beer, booze, and no new taxes—one hell of a “read my lips” argument that any tax-paying voter could understand.
Democratic Party leader Patrick A. Nash wasted no words in his final communiqué to Chicago voters before the polls opened. “Support President Roosevelt. Repeal the 18th Amendment. Elect judicial leaders. Vote the Repeal ticket straight. Vote the Democratic judicial ticket straight.”
Republican County Chairman William H. Weber was not quite as direct or forceful in his party’s approval of Repeal. “Vote the Republican judicial ticket straight and destroy the receivership ring,” taking a final shot at the Democrats. Although the parties shared an equal amount of delegates for the Repeal of the 18th Amendment, Weber’s statement conservatively avoided the paramount issue of Repeal. The national Republican’s Party endorsement and enforcement of Prohibition and the local organization’s lukewarm embrace of Repeal were noted by beer-drinking Chicagoans. From post-Prohibition on, the Democratic Party, the party of democratic beer and Repeal, has held sway in Chicago.
Illinois’ Repeal Election
On April 28, 1933, at 1:43 A.M., Governor Horner signed the House bill ordering the Illinois Prohibition Repeal Convention to assemble on July 10. With the required nominating petitions finally signed, Chicago precinct workers started to flood their wards with sample ballots. Mayor Kelly asked the people of Chicago to support the vote for Repeal. “I urge that all citizens of our great city support the President and his administration in his efforts to bring back prosperity and eliminate the evils which Prohibition has cast into our midst. This can best be done by voting for the Repeal candidates.” Perhaps as a further inducement to the electorate to get out and vote, Kelly overruled an earlier opinion by Leon Hornstein, first assistant to Chicago Corporation Counsel William H. Sexton, that the sale of beer on election day would be illegal. Hornstein claimed that the state legislature had forgotten to repeal the pre-Prohibition election law requiring saloons to be closed during elections. Kelly disagreed, Sexton demurred and the saloons of Chicago were allowed to stay open on Election Day.
The tally of votes was no surprise. Not only was the vote for Repeal in Chicago overwhelming, it was a vote of approximately 11 to 1 in favor of it. In Committeeman Moe Rosenberg’s 24th Ward on the West Side of the city, reports showed that Repealists had voted yes at an astounding ratio of 76 to 1. Not surprisingly, a Republican precinct captain complained that in one precinct of Rosenberg’s ward, 200 votes had been stuffed into a ballot box when that many voters had not even registered in the precinct. Rosenberg, recently indicted by a federal grand jury for income tax invasion, scoffed at the report. In Bridgeport, voters followed the dictates of native son County Treasurer Joe McDonough and voted 40 to 1 for Repeal.
The next day, the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune declared National Prohibition officially dead in Illinois and expressed hope that the remaining dry states would soon follow Illinois’ lead. “A law which made the drinking of a glass of beer a crime was unenforceable..,” said the paper. As evidence of the state citizenry’s overwhelming rebuff of Prohibition, a total of 883,000 voters turned out to for approval of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, more than 560,000 votes for Repeal coming from Chicago. All that was left was the state convention.
The Repeal Convention
On July 10, Governor Horner opened the convention and officially signaled the beginning of the end of National Prohibition in Illinois. “The eighteenth amendment is doomed. Let us pray that with it will go the political cowardice that made it possible.” At noon, Democratic state leader Patrick A. Nash presented the resolution to ratify Repeal of the 18th Amendment at the state repeal convention. In just fifty-four minutes, the fifty bipartisan delegates went through the necessary procedural motions and unanimously voted to ratify the 21st Amendment, nullifying the 18th.
The Prairie Schooner, Illinois, now became the tenth state to moor at the wet dock of Repeal.
At 4:31 P.M., December 5, 1933, Repeal took effect in Chicago with the ratification by Utah of the Twenty-First Amendment. The “Noble Experiment” had lasted 13 years, 10 months, 19 days, 17 hours, and 32 1/2 minutes. President Roosevelt officially proclaimed an end to National Prohibition and urged all Americans to confine their purchases of alcoholic beverages to licensed dealers. The President also issued a special plea to state officials not to allow the return of the saloon. A check of the City Collector’s Office, however, indicated that close to 7,000 liquor dealers were now ready to serve the 3,500,000 residents of Chicago, averaging one saloon for every 500 Chicagoans. It was about the same number of saloons that had operated in Chicago before the onset of National Prohibition.
So as you can see, even using the Illinois/Chicago above as a historical example of a national event, please, please, please, quit bending the truth when it comes to U.S. history, even if beer is involved.