Essay / Culture

Today Started Prohibition (1919)

Prohibition Headline It is hard to imagine, but 90 years ago, the Constitution was amended to make liquor illegal: no selling, manufacturing, or transporting beverage alcohol. If you look at all those progressive-era amendments to the Constitution, they’re all pretty interesting:

16th Amendment (1913): Federal Income Tax
17th Amendment (1913) Direct election of Senators
18th Amendment (1919) Prohibition of alcohol
19th Amendment (1920) Women’s suffrage

Imagine the United States before these amendments: A country without Federal income tax, where Senators are elected by delegates rather than popular vote, but women can’t vote in most states, and alcohol is legal. The “alcohol is legal” part sort of stands out, and of course the 18th amendment was repealed by the 21st after just thirteen years. Seemed like a good idea to most people at the time, but it didn’t stick then and it seems unthinkable now. Women’s suffrage, on the other hand, did stick, and what seems unthinkable to us today is that there was ever a time –so recent a time!– when voting was restricted to men in most places. Prohibition: how could it ever have been? Women’s suffrage: how could it ever not have been?

Somehow these causes went together in the minds of a majority of Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. William Jennings Bryan, writing in 1922, could link the four amendments as signs of good government making steady progress. He concludes his summary of them with a strong argument connecting them, and caps it off with one of the most perfect sentences he ever wrote:

The fourth amendment adopted in recent years extended equal suffrage to women. Like the three to which I have referred, it was a long time coming and came at last by joint action of the two great parties. A majority of both parties in both Senate and House voted for the submission of this amendment and it required both Democratic and Republican states to ratify it…. Now that woman can express herself at the polls, her influence will be felt as much in the South as in other sections; it will throughout the United States seal the doom of the liquor traffic. The women will stand guard at the grave of John Barleycorn and make sure that he will never know a resurrection morn.

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