Peter Takes on History
January 26, 1938
America had been lurching, stumbling and weaving its way toward prohibition since before the founding fathers first tippled.
Throughout history there were many good reasons to drink. Water was often polluted. Milk wasn’t always available. Tea and coffee were expensive and alcoholism, though present even in prehistory, wasn’t an overwhelming problem. Consumption of alcohol was naturally limited by cost, availability and the unforgiving nature of subsistence. Plus, socially speaking, though it’s always been considered rude to refuse a drink, it was ruder still to be a sloppy drunk.
But, over the centuries, as the lot of the average JOE improved, so did JOE’S access to excess. The rise in bad behavior and faltering of personal responsibility foretold the failure of families. Doctors drew a direct connection between drink and diseases. The coming of the industrial age argued for sobriety near gears that bite and blades in flight. And after the American and other Revolutions there was a new emphasis on good citizenship.
Soon a righteous coalition of religious reformers, temperate women and ruling class men who didn’t see their own drinking as a problem decided “the lower classes everywhere” needed to be sobered up before they dragged society down.
On this day in history, January 26th 1838 Tennessee passed the first prohibition law in the U.S. Massachusetts followed suit. Maine went completely dry in 1851. By 1913, nine states had statewide prohibition, and 31 others offered local options. So it came as no surprise that on a cold January day in 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified.
Now, it’s important to note that it didn’t become illegal to drink. The law was very supply-side, prohibiting the "manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors." But there were a lot of loopholes.
Alcohol could be manufactured for scientific research and industrial use. Sacramental wine was still OK. You could make wine and beer at home for personal consumption and physicians could prescribe alcohol for "medicinal use."
Which is why, in 1931, also on this day in history, a New York doctor wrote a prescription for alcohol and handed it to a victim of an automobile accident. It seems that this particular Englishman was crossing 5th Avenue in New York, looked the wrong way then stepped in front of a car. I found the actual prescription online. It reads, “This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite …"
It is a very lucky thing because The Honorable Mr. Churchill was a devotee of the “spirits” world. His day began with a nip of sherry followed by whiskey “as a mouthwash.” A bottle of champagne at lunch. Afternoons were bolstered by “buckets of claret and soda.” Another bottle of Champagne with dinner and as evening wore on; Port, Brandy and cigars.
Though he was influenced by alcohol, he was not, by any clinical definition, an alcoholic. He didn’t drink to achieve intoxication nor was his performance impaired.
The man served his government for 65 years; he united and inspired the British, guiding England to victory in World War two. He was an accomplished painter and won the Nobel Prize for Literature based on his output of nearly 70 books. He was a gifted public speaker and a witty raconteur.
He said smart things like, "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present we shall find that we have lost the future."
He said clever things like, "I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals."
He said courageous things like, "It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required."
And he said devilishly rude things like this exchange with Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP who confronted Churchill with the accusation, “Sir, you are drunk.”
Churchill reportedly replied, “And you, madam, are ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober.”