The nationwide ban on alcohol known as Prohibition lasted 14 years, from when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect in 1920 until the 21st repealed it 90 years ago this December. It came and went so quickly, and so long ago, that it’s easy to think of it as a quirky, if annoying, footnote to history.
But from racialized policing to the rise of conservative religious groups in politics and agenda-driven media, to the divide between Northern Virginia and the rural south and west, the way the commonwealth dealt with alcohol during this period reflected — and created — issues that affect politics and lives to this day.
Virginia was the second state to ratify the 18th Amendment, two years before it took effect. It wasn’t much of a stretch. Alcohol had already been banned in the state for three years by then, and even longer in many rural localities.
Laws regulating alcohol in Virginia go back to 1668, when the General Assembly capped “ordinaryes and tipling houses” at two per locality, but statewide prohibition “came at the end of a decade’s worth of campaigning,” says Mark Benbow, the museum director of the Arlington Historical Society and a retired history professor.
The Virginia chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1882; the Virginia chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, in 1901. Both groups campaigned for the elimination of alcohol gradually but relentlessly — some for sincere reasons, some less so.
Ban Seen as a Solution
“Drys,” such as Anti-Saloon League leader Bishop James Cannon, who founded The Richmond Virginian newspaper as a vehicle for his anti-alcohol agenda and was one of the major anti-liquor figures in the U.S., may seem like Puritan blowhards now, but Benbow says it’s important to remember that the ban on alcohol was a solution, albeit a ham-handed one, to a real problem.
“It’s not just that alcoholism was a problem, it was also tied to political corruption,” Benbow says. Some saloons used bribery to remain open past hours, overserved customers, and acted as safe havens for sex work. Some people on the political left supported a ban because they saw the alcohol industry as “a way of another big business preying on workers,” Benbow says.
Then again, he says, it’s also true that saloons were popular gathering places in the Black community, as well as for the union movement. This was instrumental, he adds, in overcoming objections in Virginia, as well as the rest of the South, about giving over control to a central government.
A year after the Anti-Saloon League was founded, anti-liquor forces got another boost. The Virginia constitution was revised in 1902 for the express purpose of keeping Black people from voting without resorting to explicit discrimination. “The convention would never have been held but for the desire of the white people to … take away from the negro the right to vote,” Virginia Democratic Party Chairman J. Taylor Ellyson said at the time.
The revised constitution instituted a literacy test and a poll tax, which virtually eliminated the Black vote in Virginia, as well as many poor white people, including immigrant populations in Northern Virginia. “It’s no coincidence” that the anti-liquor movement took off after that, Benbow says. “There is definitely a racial tone to the Prohibition movement.”
In 1903, the Mann Law made getting a license to sell alcohol in rural areas of Virginia so complicated that it was essentially banned; prohibition referenda passed in 18 of the 24 cities and towns where it was on the ballot.
When the 1914 referendum banning alcohol in Virginia came around for a vote, Benbow estimates about half the state’s residents were in dry counties already, and those in favor of alcohol, even if they could still vote, stayed away from the polls. “I think a lot of people were probably eligible, but just discouraged,” Benbow says.
Prohibition won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Alexandria was the only city in Northern Virginia to vote against the proposal. In a letter to the Fairfax Herald on September 29, 1914, one F.S. McCandlish said of his fellow dry advocates, “I am sure they will never have occasion to regret their action.”
The Virginia General Assembly still had to pass prohibition laws, which took effect November 1, 1916. (Cannon was regularly on the state House floor during the process — sometimes, reportedly, in the Speaker’s chair.)
The laws still had loopholes — ones that favored wealthier white people, such as allowing the purchase of liquor from Maryland. “One way these laws got passed was convincing people there are enough loopholes, that it’s not going to be bad,” Benbow says. They didn’t last long anyway: “When national Prohibition comes and starts slamming shut so many of the loopholes, a lot of people were really, really shocked,” he adds.
The Obsession with Crime
Under the 18th Amendment, “For the first time, crime became a national problem, and a national obsession,” Harvard University history professor Lisa McGirr wrote in her book The War on Alcohol. It led to an expanded role for the relatively new FBI, and in Virginia, the prison population jumped by almost 50 percent between 1921 and 1931. Prison construction followed suit and didn’t look back.
Of course, much of the corruption that plagued the saloon trade continued around the long Virginia tradition of moonshining. With bonuses for alcohol-related arrests available, many officers busted the most ground-level operations, McGirr wrote. “If the sheriff needed to make a display of busting up some stills for the voters, African American moonshiners were a preferred target,” Benbow says.
Despite the authorities’ efforts, Prohibition didn’t really work. “There was opposition from across the political spectrum,” Benbow says. The 1930s equivalent of the Koch brothers — “far-right, anti-income tax people” — wanted beer and whiskey taxes back, while breweries and distilleries provided markets for farmers. Crime certainly hadn’t abated, and in the Great Depression, the vision of a thrifty, successful working class certainly hadn’t panned out. “It left the pros really without a lot of strong arguments by the early ’30s,” Benbow says.
The Big Repeal
A week before Virginians voted to ratify the 21st Amendment, the Fairfax Herald wrote that “Little effort is being made, as far as can be seen, by the drys to prevent a large vote for repeal in the county, and in the State.”
Sure enough, the state, particularly Northern Virginia, voted overwhelmingly for repeal. “Every county in this section of the State voted for repeal by majorities ranging from 2 to 1 to 5 to 1,” the Fairfax Herald reported. Four more states were needed, but by the end of the year, Prohibition was done.
Liquor Sales Today
Chris Curtis, deputy secretary to the board of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, says the ABC was established the next year, in order to manage the flow of alcohol without letting the old problems resurface.
Virginia is one of 17 states, as well as other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, Maryland, known as “control states,” Curtis says. Beer and wine are available at grocery stores, but distilled spirits are only available at ABC stores, which also sell Virginia wines.
The setup, where the government controls the sale of liquor at the wholesale level, generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the state and allows for efficient enforcement of age limits and tax collection, Curtis says. The ABC also established manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers as separate entities, eliminating one of the drivers of the corruption that led to Prohibition.
It might seem cumbersome, but it’s an example of why history matters, Curtis says: “Frequently, not only with alcohol, but just human nature in general, the further mankind gets removed from situations, the more they tend to forget about the problems that might have been associated with them.”
Feature image, stock.adobe.com