Today is not the December date most closely associated with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If December 7, 1941 will live in infamy, then December 5, 1933 should be held (at least by War on the Rocks readers) as a national day of liberation, only second to the 4th of July.
Inaugurated on March 4, 1933 FDR wasted no time chiseling away at the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, sale, transport, import, or export of alcoholic beverages. In perhaps one of the most meaningful “First 100 Days” moves in American history, on March 22nd FDR (in his third action as President) signed the Cullen-Hairston Act, which permitted the sale of low-alcohol beer and wine, famously stating “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” No doubt a sentiment many Americans suffering through the Great Depression could get behind. On December 5, 1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified by the requisite 36 states, repealing the 18th Amendment. Booze officially became legal ten days later.
This relief was also welcome because the impact of Prohibition was disastrous for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. Those dark 13 years saw the development of illegal markets for illicit substances, the rise criminal gangs (and with them violent crime), the sale of poor quality and dangerous product, corruption of law enforcement, and undue pressure on the judicial system. Sound familiar? It was also a job killer, forcing breweries to close and leading to the failure of restaurants across the nation.
The legacy of prohibition is still with us today and even though 71% of Americans have imbibed within the last year (and 56% within the last month), we still have a complicated relationship with alcohol. Our drinking age is the highest in the West; our systems of production, distribution, and sale for booze are exceedingly complex; in most American cities you can be arrested for an open container in public, and yet, paradoxically, we have some of the most lax regulations in the world when it comes to having a few and getting behind the wheel. This is to say that collectively we’re unsure how we feel about booze.
With that said we are in the midst of an American alcohol renaissance. Craft breweries and distilleries are opening at a rate too high for even the most prolific boozer to keep up with. Cocktail bars modeled in the prohibition-era, speakeasy style, are among the hottest places for the young and beautiful to be seen. Perhaps we are coming to terms with alcohol and realizing its right and proper place in our society.
While we still may be conflicted about booze as a nation, I’m pretty sure I know how I feel about it. So tonight join me in raising a glass to life, liberty and Mr. Roosevelt.
James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. When he’s not fermenting things he works for a Washington, D.C. based democracy education non-profit. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College, London.
Photo credit: KPBS