28 Nov 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: Reactions to Prohibition

On Monday, December 5, we at The Hill is Home will be celebrating Repeal Day with a special tour. December 5 , 1933, is the day that the 18th Amendment was repealed and alcohol could once again be freely bought and sold.

The upcoming tour did have me wonder how the original passing of Prohibition––the resolution that, once ratified by the states, would ban the “manufacture, sale, [and] transportation” of “intoxicating liquors” ––was greeted by the press and the public.

The short answer is: Hardly at all. The Washington Evening Star on December 17, 1917, had a brief article on the front page that mainly mapped the road to ratification from here. They did, at least, also have a cartoon that was related, showing how anti-prohibition activists were having a tough go of navigating Capitol Hill.

Over at the Washington Times, there was even less. As a morning paper, the information was not published until the following day. On page three of that issue, under the rubric “Congress: What It Did Yesterday” is a two paragraph blurb indicating that the Senate had passed the House’s resolution.

The Washington Post at least had a standalone article, but it was no longer than that of the Times, nor did it make it to the front page.

The only controversy on that day was how long there would be to ratify the amendment. In the resolution, it said that it would be seven years. Idaho Senator William Borah (that’s him, above) objected to this, though whether he felt that this was too short or too long was not stated.

Anti-Prohibition activists finding the going slippery on Capitol Hill (LOC)

The only news outlet that looked more intently at the upcoming process was the German-Language Washington Journal, who mapped out when the various state legislatures were to be elected and meet, and which ones were likely to ratify.

Neither Borah’s worries nor the Journal‘s hope that one or the other legislature would slow down the process came to fruition. Just over a year later, on January 16, 1919, Nebraska ratified the amendment, and as the 36th state to do so, the resolution became part of the Constitution.

Once again, this radical change brought almost no reaction from the newspapers. The Times simply snarked that now as the time to get into the candy business, “as manufacturer or intelligent retailer,” as “total abstainers eat much sugar.”

The Post was a bit more verbose, with an article that filled the whole right-most column of the front page under the headline “Nation is Voted ‘Dry’.” The article went into some of the details, including the upcoming act that would implement the amendment–– and the fact that Congress would now have to deal with the loss of revenue that liquor taxes provided.

The 18th Amendment was implemented by a law usually referred to as the Volstead Act. This was passed ––over President Wilson’s veto–– on the 28 of December, 1919. Once again, this momentous change hardly made the news, with the Star announcing it via a short article on the front page, though this was mainly about how the law might be undermined through a previous, war-time prohibition law. Further cause for controversy was that the 18th Amendment referred only to “intoxicating liquor” while the Volstead Act banned everything with more than .5% alcohol.

Nonetheless, as of midnight on January 17, 1920, alcohol was banned all across the United States. It would take 13 lawless years until the 21st Amendment entirely repealed the 18th.

You can learn a lot more about how Prohibition played out across Capitol Hill a week from today ––and there are even Prohibition-era cocktails to be had at our partners Union Pub and Barrel. Sign up here.

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