Alcohol has ben perhaps one of the most transformative aspects of American history throughout the 19th and 20th century. Its use amongst Americans has been pivotal in shaping social situations, decisions we all make on almost a daily basis by choosing to either avoid or indulge, and even has been the demise of some of the great leaders in the past. While the power and abuse of this substance has been debated for many years, there still exists a huge market of consumption across the country that shows so sign of slowing up. While the consumption of alcohol in modern day seems so ordinary, the amount of lobbying and protests both for and against the right to drink is incredible, and embodies the ideals and beliefs of Americans in a more broad context throughout different parts of our history, from religious views, to progressive legislature and even to human rights activism during the Vietnam War.
While debates against the use of alcohol have most likely occurred since its discovery, the Womens Christian Temperance Union was one of the first organized groups in America to successfully gain a sizable amount of support. The WCTU was founded on principles that fought the toxic nature of alcohol abuse, and aimed to change many of the ways in which alcohol was consumed. As time passed, and legislation did not, it became clear that the WCTU would not be able to solely gain enough support, as the organization’s exclusive structure would not provide the amount of steam needed to bring down such a large and traditional part of our history.
The organization that came about in response to the need for diversification in the fight against alcohol was the Anti-Saloon League. The ASL was led by a man named Wes Wheeler and answered many of the problems that the WCTU faced. The ASL’s non-partisan structure was pivotal in pushing the progressive legislature and making changes in the American society. Without the ASL, the 18th amendment may have never been ratified in 1920.
The 18th amendment was the first key piece of legislature in American history to substantially control the distribution and use of alcohol. Prohibition was mostly a nominal way of banning the sale and distribution of alcohol, rather than an active way of controlling its use. While the amendment was in place for only 13 years, some of the most important pieces of alcohol history took place in this era. Prohibition may have legally restricted mainstream alcohol in America, but the underground market for the substance sky rocketed. The 1920’s became known for Speakeasies and Bootleggers, ran by big time mobsters, Al Copone, notably. This underground market was perhaps just as large and twice as lucrative as the legal industry in the years prior.
As prohibition came to an abrupt end in 1933, there were still those who sought to control alcohol use. One of the key pieces of legislation passed after the end of prohibition was the Alcohol Exclusion Law. This law enabled insurance companies the right to waive coverage of alcohol related accidents, incentivizing people not to drink and drive. Drinking and driving also became a part of most debates against alcohol. While many of the young activists of the mid 1900’s pushed for the right to drink, traffic fatality numbers would prove to be the reason that these attempts would fail to gain much support nationwide. Student protesters were also influential, as they were able to gain the right to drink through arguments about the draft age. These young students embodied the new left in America, by protesting for human rights and social justice, rather than traditional politics.
Alcohol has played a key role in shaping our society, and has embodied the positions and views of some of the key groups in American history, ranging from early women’s rights groups, to the progressives that passed the prohibition legislation, and even the New Left fighting for social justice in the Vietnam War era.