Twenty-four hours in a day, twenty-four beers in a case. Coincidence?
– Steven Wright
I think that this would be a good time for a beer.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt April 7, 1933
At the stroke of midnight, seventy-five years ago today, April 7, 1933, America grew up.
Actually, America tapped a keg and behaved like dorm full of college kids on their 21st birthday (minus, one supposes, the Beer Pong table). But there was good reason to celebrate. After more than 13 years of constitutionally mandated “sobriety,” President Franklin Roosevelt let America crack open a cold one. You see the Volstead Act had prohibited the manufacture, sale and consumption of “intoxicating liquors” containing more than 0.5% alcohol. To put that figure in perspective, one would have to consume ten bottles of Volstead Act beer to equal the alcohol in a single can of today’s Budweiser. Whoo-pee, America. Party in the john.
Anyway, it seems that America was getting pretty fed up with Auntie Sam telling them what they could and couldn’t drink. Between the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified, January 16, 1919, effective January 16, 1920) and the Volstead Act (passed October 18, 1919), law-abiding citizens were getting parched from sea to shining sea. The rest were getting drunk on Al Capone’s liquor.
The chumps in Washington, comfortable in their own supply of good single malt scotch, started getting the word that there was a storm brewing back home to do away with Prohibition altogether. But the pols were also aware of the sting of the anti-saloon crowd. Demagogues being as predictable then as they are now, no one wanted to be the guy to stand up in public and yell “More beer for the Working Man!” unless their political life depended on it. And it was becoming quickly obvious that it did.
Enter the the Cullen-Harrison Act, the amendment that FDR signed in March of 1933, and which be came law 75 years ago today. What the Act did was to amend Volstead Act and permit the sale and consumption of 3.2 beer “near beer” in those states that wanted to have it. The pols hope it would sufficiently satisfy the working chumps so that they wouldn’t demand access to the hard stuff. It didn’t. Sure, distilled spirits and heavier alcohol wines were still verbotten until the Eighteen Amendment finally got axed in December of 1933, but at least on April 7th a bloke no longer had to drink a gallon of suds just to get a one-bottle buzz. On that day one and one-half MILLION gallons of beer went down the throats of a thirsty America. Happy days indeed.
It’s hard for us today to imagine a United States with government-banned beer. But it wasn’t the government that one day woke up in a hangover and swore never to touch the stuff again. It was the people. Almost as much ink as beer has been spilled examining the root causes of Prohibition, and I won’t waste your time recounting them here. Better just to shotgun-it: Drinking was a HUGE problem, and the women of America got sick of their husbands drinking away the family rent.
Things have changed. Oh sure, there are still those who drink themselves (and others) into an early grave. But when was the last time you saw a three-martini lunch? How about even a glass of wine before 5 p.m.? The New Prohibition stems not from Constitutional dictates, but from the emergence of a more conservative business environment in recent years, which reflects the changing demographics of the workplace. In other words, (here it comes!) the presence of women in ever increasing numbers in the office has lessened the ability of boys to be boys. Hey. It happens to be true. So get over it.
But there is a certain neo-Prohibitionist sentiment that is gaining steam in this country. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is certainly the most visible manifestation of this social phenomena, but there are others. And like their Anti-Saloon League forebearers, these neo-prohibitionists are tough for a politician to say “no” to. Think about it: What sane office seeker would question the authority of a group that claims to have saved the lives of over 300,000 people over 25 years, as MADD does? Can you imagine the consequences?
Don’t get me wrong, too many people are killed each year by drunks in cars. But while the number of total miles driven has increased exponentially since the feds coerced the states into raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21 twenty-eight years ago, and the number of overall fatalities has dropped significantly, the number of alcohol related fatalities has remained relatively unchanged.
So, the thinking is that if whatever it is we’re doing isn’t working, then we need to do more of it. Right?
Apparently so. How else is one to explain that up in Vermont they are seriously discussing lowering the blood alcohol level for drunklen driving to .05 percent . Here’s what that bit of regulation means: A 140 pound woman (or man) who drinks 3 glasses of wine over 3 hours has a blood alcohol count of .05 percent. Three glasses over three hours? Seems a bit drastic, doesn’t it? But, as the legislation’s sponsor stated with logic that is damned-near blinding in its brilliance:
“We’ve already seen the legal limit change several times in our lifetime,” said Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg. “If we changed it to .05, it would send a very serious message that impaired driving is not tolerated on Vermont roads.”
No, Representative Lippert. It would send a serious message that says “Don’t go to Vermont.”
Massachusetts, meanwhile, is trying to make Vermont look like Animal House all the while proving that the time-honored tradition of legislating while drunk is alive and well. A legislator recently introduce a measure that would lower the criminal blood alcohol count from .08 percent to .02 percent. That’s right, one-fifth of what was considered impaired in 1987. Should this bit of idiocy be enacted and that 140 pound date of yours has one glass of wine over a two-hour dinner, then you’d better grab her car keys because she’s over the limit.
Sorry, but this is just not sober thinking on the part of our elected representatives. (Insert Ted Kennedy joke here). Laws like these may ensnare Aunt Fanny on her way home from book club, but they apparently don’t make much of an impression on the bad actors, otherwise the number of traffice deaths associated with alcohol would have dropped each time the BAC dropped. Perversely, lowering the BAC would allow MORE traffic accidents to be chalked-up to alcohol, thus raising the alarm that even MORE needs to be done, until its finally reached a level acceptable to your mother: Zero.
Whereupon the New Prohibitionists will take up the ban on drinking in bars.
So, citizens, even seventy-five years after the “Noble Experiment” collapsed like a fallen angel, we’ve still got that old bipolar American attitude towards the demon alcohol: Any of it is too much, but none of it doesn’t seem to work out too well, either.
Eh…<shrugs> What are you gonna do?
But if it suits you, hoist a frosty cold one tonight to celebrate the day the beer flowed in America again. Just please do it responsibly. Like the adults you are. Or Auntie Sam might have to take it away.