Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933, not with a bang but with the thud of thousands of pages of new city, state, and federal laws that dictated when, where, and how Americans could make, buy, sell, and drink alcohol. Ratification of the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was neither a green light to drink nor a victory over the "dry" crusade that had produced Prohibition. Seventy-five years later, we're still captives of that crusade.
Prohibition and the 18th Amendment took effect in January 1920, but the drive to that event began in the 1890s, when a coalition that included churches, politicians, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union launched a grass-roots campaign against drink. Its message was simple: Alcohol is evil. No one can be trusted with it. Dry crusaders pressured legislatures to pass "local option" laws that empowered voters to turn America dry, one precinct, one county, one state at a time. By 1910, a decade before the 18th Amendment took effect, half of Americans lived under some form of local or state prohibition.
At first glance, the 13 years of constitutional Prohibition seem to belie the crusaders' success. Our image of the dry years has Americans swilling bathtub gin and chasing each other through the streets in rickety Model T's, machine guns blazing. The reality was less colorful and more complicated. By 1920, an entire generation of Americans had imbibed the alcohol-is-evil message. They obeyed the law because they believed in it.
Still, it was the bootleggers and gin-swillers who grabbed headlines. Public awareness of Prohibition's failures eroded respect for both the law and the Constitution, particularly among younger Americans growing up with the amendment. A repeal movement took shape in the late 1920s and gained strength after the economy fell into an abyss. Repeal advocates argued that alcohol distilling would create jobs and generate tax revenues for federal and state governments. (They were right, although the flow of money was not enough to halt the tide of foreclosures, unemployment, and bankruptcies.)
But when repeal came in December 1933, lawmakers celebrated with an orgy of regulations designed less to generate revenue than to maximize the barriers between Americans and alcohol. States, counties, and municipalities burdened manufacturers and retailers with complicated licensing requirements. Lawmakers separated manufacturers from the public by inserting distributors between the two. A welter of laws restricted the hours and days that people could buy drink. New state-owned liquor stores oozed the "alcohol is evil" message. Bottles of gin and wine, and the clerks who sold them, stood inside grilled enclosures that resembled miniature jail cells for the evil spirits. Customers browsed a row of empty containers on the counter—samples of the inmates, slipped money through a small opening, and received the corrupting goods in exchange. Children who accompanied their parents on those trips got the intended message: This stuff is bad!
Put another way, repeal institutionalized the demonization of alcohol. Per capita alcohol consumption did not reach pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970s and then only because the sheer number of baby boomers temporarily elevated it. In the 1980s, the national appetite for drink drifted downward again, prodded in part by a new generation of dry agencies and activists, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the federally funded National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
True, we've chipped away at those repeal-era restrictions. Sunday sales are now common, and so are private liquor stores. In 2005, the Supreme Court acted to allow people to buy mail-order wine. Costco recently sued the state of Washington, challenging laws that prevented it from buying directly from manufacturers. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state's authority, but more court cases will come, and soon, provoked by big-box retailers, the potential for Internet commerce, and, ironically, a vibrant alcohol industry. American winemaking, virtually nonexistent 50 years ago, deserves its reputation for excellence. In the past 30 years, the American brewing industry has become the most creative and dynamic in the world. A new generation of microdistillers is concocting magnificent brandy, rye, bourbon, and whiskey. But vintners, craft brewers, and microdistillers long for the day that they can use the Internet to reach customers directly (and bypass powerful distributors whose clout determines what products land on retailers' shelves).
Still, squabbles over restrictions on retailing and wholesaling focus on who gets how much of the revenue, rather than on the values that originally shaped the constraints. It's a vicious, and lethal, cycle: As long as we remain addicted to demonization, we avoid serious discussion about those values. The longer we avoid that conversation, the longer we pass on the booze-is-bad message to our kids, who grow up to pass the message on to their kids. And as long as we teach children to fear rather than respect alcohol, we'll interrupt the silence with periodic spasms of hand-wringing and finger-pointing about campus drinking, binge drinking, underage drinking, and the like. But here's the truth: The "alcohol problem" is of our own creation. We've got the drinking culture we deserve.
But this 75th anniversary of repeal coincides with a moment of national soul-searching. Economic chaos is forcing us to ponder our relation to debt. The environmental crisis has prompted a debate about our reliance on internal combustion engines and foreign oil. The "media" are reinventing themselves to accommodate the realities of a digital world. Barack Obama won the election in large part because he and outgoing Democratic Party chair Howard Dean tossed aside 30 years' worth of political assumptions (Hispanics and suburbanites are Republican; young people don't vote) and constructed a visionary campaign strategy predicated on wholly new ideas.
Evidence, all of it, of our willingness to challenge old ways of thinking and embrace the future with imagination and courage. So let's ponder the burden of repeal and question the assumptions that shape our alcohol culture. Our kids' lives may depend on it.
Maureen Ogle is the author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (Harcourt Books).