“There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” – U.S. Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas, known as “The Father of Prohibition”
By Jim O’Neal
The crowd that assembled at the First Congressional Church in Washington, D.C., shortly before midnight on Jan. 16, 1920 was filled with anticipation of a new era. Summoned by the imminent arrival of Prohibition, as sanctioned by the 18th Amendment in 1919, thousands had gathered to usher out the sinful past and greet the arrival of a new nation.
At the stroke of midnight, one by one, speakers made their way to the pulpit, decrying the awful demon rum which, with God’s help, had finally been put to rest. And as they did, the wide-eyed audience dreamed of the world that would now emerge, a place where prisons would be turned into factories and slums would be nothing more than a memory.
“Men will walk upright now,” preacher Billy Sunday declared before a similar congregation in Virginia. “Women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” In the Washington audience was the beaming U.S. Sen. Morris Sheppard of Texas, author of the 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishing America as a “dry” country. Sheppard listened as Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels described their purpose as the greatest reform movement in the history of the world. The National Prohibition Act (aka the Volstead Act) was effective at midnight Jan. 17, 1920.
The first violation occurred 59 minutes later. In Chicago, six armed men stole $100,000 of medicinal whiskey by emptying two freight cars filled with booze.
And so it would continue throughout the 1920s. The advocates of alcohol prohibition thought they were making America a better place – an alcohol-free zone, a land without alcoholics or family violence, a land where ruined lives would be eliminated, a more stable society.
But they were wrong. Prohibition did little to reduce the demand and simply replaced legal brewers, distillers, vintners and liquor stores with moonshiners, bootleggers and smugglers willing to risk prison. People still wanted bars and restaurants that served alcohol and such places continued to operate as speakeasies by paying off police, prosecutors and judges. The alcohol industry became the province of gangsters, and law enforcement was overwhelmed by illegal, wide-scale alcohol distribution. A new morality was easier to declare than maintain as Sen. Sheppard discovered when a moonshine still – churning out 130 gallons a day – was discovered on his Austin, Texas, ranch.
The “Nobel Experiment” finally ended in 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act and declared, “I think this would be a good time to have a beer.”
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].