The time has come for everyone’s “favorite” Amendment: the 18th. After years of efforts by temperance partisans, Prohibition came to the United States. Ratified in 1919, the most important section reads:
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Standing on the other side of Prohibition and knowing that the movement is largely considered a failure, it is easy to simply dismiss the idea out of hand as puritanical, repressive, and stupid. A remnant of a less tolerant time, we might be tempted to say.
Understood in its era, however, and as an outflow of a long history of efforts at temperance in the United States, something like the 18th Amendment should garner a bit more respect. For a group like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), for instance, the change to the Constitution was an important victory. In a time before women even had the right to vote, they campaigned tirelessly against a saloon culture that seemed to particularly target their sons and husbands. Working to preserve the dignity of the family, the fabric of society, and in a number of cases their own safety against the attacks of drunken spouses and fathers, some would argue these women ought to be considered heroes to the feminists of today.
Temperance and the Eighteenth Amendment were not about taking the “fun” out of life; they were ostensibly about preserving the dignity and quality of life. The results of legal Prohibition were mixed, however: there were benefits such as a decline in cirrhosis of the liver together with drawbacks like a rise in alcohol-related crime.
Ultimately, however, banning a substance that has been so ubiquitous and easy to make throughout human history was just a bridge too far.
It is easy in our world of the craft beer and celebrity mixologist to look at Prohibition as a quaint relic of bygone days or embarrassing failure. Conservatives can deride it for its invasive government intrusion while liberals can lampoon it as fundamentalist religious claptrap at its worst. My own line of thinking goes like this: while it may at times be a little of both, the heart behinds its goals was something much more positive: the creation of a safer, healthier, and more righteous society. Few people would disagree with these aims, even if the 18th Amendment and its legacy have placed a question mark in our minds regarding the role of the ballot box in such dreams and efforts.