This was a student publication created in 2003 by Chuck Holmgren for the American Studies MA program at UVA.




Increase Mather
It is logical to assume that consumption and overindulgence in alcohol have an equally long history in the United States. Even before Increase Mather (made famous in the Salem Witch Trials) wrote in 1673's Wo to the Drunkards that "wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil," has intemperance been juxtaposed with moderation in drinking (in Lender, 1). "Wets" and "drys", the political manifestation of this dichotomy, have since competed in a constant tug-of-war with each other over the moral and legal rights of individuals to consume alcoholic beverages. In the early twentieth century the movement towards a national prohibition had gained a broad coalition of social reformers to deal with the problem of over-indulgence in alcohol that culminated in the passing of the 18th Amendment: Prohibition (Kyvig, 3).

The backbone of this movement began with the temperance crusaders of the nineteenth century. Clergymen, politicians, business leaders, and social reformers grew concerned about the nation's health, morality and economic prosperity, blamed society's increased drinking for the deterioration of these mores. Evangelical Protestants thought that visible indicators of God's good graces, such as economic success and political liberty, had their foundation in sobriety (Kyvig, 6). These reformers began banding together to form close-knit societies aiming to push their social and political agendas focused on enacting legislation that would curb widespread intemperance. The Prohibition Party (1869) and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) (1873) became the first of these well-organized groups that put prohibition issues on many state and local ballots towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1893, like-minded reformers joined together to assemble the powerful Anti-Saloon League, generating a dedicated political machine targeted at outlawing the consumption of alcohol (Kyvig, 6-7). As these temperance organizations became a "political force to be reckoned with" by the early twentieth century, Progressivism, a second cornerstone of the Prohibition movement, appeared on the political horizon (ibid.).

The 'Liquor Octopus'
assailing the world
Progressivism sought to cure American society of its problems that stemmed from turn of the century issues like industrialization, urbanization, and immigration (Gilmore, 6). Instead of focusing on individuals to solve their own problems created by these issues, the Progressive ideology aimed to create order in this emerging modern society based on their own Protestant values (Kyvig, 8). The organizations that had worked towards a national prohibition since the nineteenth century had their cause swept up by a political movement with similar goals of reform, and with a similar perspective. Progressive-minded Presbyterian Reverend Charles Stelzle believed that, "there is no such thing as an absolute individual right to do any particular thing, to eat or drink any particular thing" (Kyvig, 9). Stelzle believed society, not the individual, was always the primary concern; that the individual person must always sacrifice for the sake of the common good. Drunkenness, in causing harm to families, inhibiting productivity at the workplace and raising the costs of hospitals, forced temperance groups and Progressive activists to rally around the cause of prohibiting alcohol for the benefit of the rest of society (ibid.).

By 1903, the Progressives and temperance organizations had already made their presence known on a national scale. Fully one-third of the United States (at that time about thirty-five million people) lived under some sort of prohibitory legislation. The effect on national government came ten years later when Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, outlawing the shipment of alcoholic beverages between wet and dry states. The dry forces had succeeded so well in filling the Senate and House of Representatives with their allies that a national act of prohibition was a near certainty. In December of 1917, the 18th Amendment easily passed through Congress and headed to the states for ratification (Lender, 129). As the Amendment left Washington, D.C., events in Europe assured its ratification.

The last, and most immediate of the motivating factors behind the enactment of the 18th Amendment was World War I. The rabid patriotism and widespread wartime conservation spelled the end of legal alcohol manufacturing.
Newspaper Headline, 17 Jan. 1919
Many beer brewers, having German surnames, became the target of vilification from Americans swept up in a frenzy of anti-German emotionalism. This nationalism, encouraged by President Woodrow Wilson, became a tool of the dry movement in severely limiting the brewing and distilling of grains into beverage alcohol in the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act (1917) (Lender, 129-130). Mirroring the Progressive belief that the individual must sacrifice for the betterment of the rest of society, the 18th Amendment acquired the 35th state's ratification it needed on 16 January 1919. One year later, prohibition became law.

The language of the 18th Amendment was more simply worded than other amendments to the Constitution. The first section prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation, and the importing and exporting of alcohol from or to the United States, or any of its territories. The second section granted Congress and the governments of the individual states the power to concurrently enforce the new law. The power to enforce the Amendment on the federal level came from the National Prohibition Act. Originally written by ardent dry Wayne Wheeler, the president of the Anti-Saloon League, it found an enthusiastic sponsor in Minnesota Representative Andrew Volstead where it acquired its popular name, the Volstead Act. Expecting a loose definition of alcohol, such as the allowance of beer containing 3.2% alcohol (as was the case in many of the states' older prohibitory legislation), the Volstead Act proved to be much more stringent than any wets could have imagined. It defined "intoxicating liquors" as any beverage of more than .5% alcohol; the Volstead Act had gone so far as to regulate the use of sacramental wines used in religious ceremonies and medicinal liquor (ibid.). Even the lightest wines and beers now found themselves outlawed by the Constitution. With this victory, the drys thought they could celebrate a triumph over their age-old foe once and for all, but a host of factors during the Prohibition Era led to its early demise in December of 1933.

Primarily, the notions many people had of personal liberty never succumbed to the power of the Constitution, as many prohibition crusaders had expected. Believing that American citizens would automatically obey the edict of America's most hallowed document, Congress grossly underestimated the enforcement needs required by the outlawing of alcohol. Assuming that there would be a small amount of violators of the Volstead Act, John Kramer, head of the newly created Prohibition Bureau, lobbied Congress for a mere $5 million a year to enforce the law. He estimated that, over time, his agency would require a continuously smaller budget as more people got used to a dry republic. Along with his budget and a force of 1,526 agents, Kramer aimed to police the nineteen thousand miles of American coastline and borderlands as well as its nearly 110 million people - roughly one agent per 12 miles of coastline and borders or one agent per 71,000 people (Lender, 149-150). The extreme lack of enforcement resources provided by the federal government allowed American citizens widespread access to alcohol of all types.

People could go to one of a variety of places to get liquor. Not only was the local speakeasy available, but covert breweries remained active along with traditional, grassroots efforts to make alcohol with homemade stills and bathtub gin. Rum runners from the Caribbean and whiskey brought down from Canada all provided for the still active thirst Americans had for liquor. However nowhere was the business of booze more active than in the city.
Moonshining with a
homemade still
The mass concentration of customers, widely available transportation, and storage facilities, distribution networks and sales outlets all collected in a single locality made America's urban areas a highly profitable location for the illegal liquor business (Lender, 141). Within these cities organized crime syndicates with the money, power and ruthlessness to control the trade in illegal liquor, unified these various operations into one cohesive bootlegging business and became the widespread suppliers to feed the formidable demand.

With their vast networks of corrupted officials, tightly controlled territories and loyal gang members, the gangster bootlegger thrived in what they merely considered supplying a service. Al Capone, gangster film archetype and the most notorious of the Prohibition Era gangsters, publicized his brazen flouting of the law by saying, "Prohibition is a business, all I do is supply a public demand" (Kyvig, 26). The demand didn't appear to be abating, and, as the cities grew, it actually seemed to be swelling. The growing city, a significant part of the gangster's life and livelihood, became the battleground where the fight to repeal prohibition began.

The new cosmopolitan city, a result of the rapid industrialization around the turn of the century, teemed with working class people of various nationalities. This new untapped demographic was far too rich in votes for politicians striving for public office to avoid. Democrats, hoping to break the Republican stranglehold on the White House shifted their platform to incorporate these men and, after the passage of universal suffrage with the 19th Amendment, women. Rising up for the Irish Lower East Side of Manhattan through the Tammany Hall political machine, Al Smith promoted the Democratic shift in policy by running on a wet
Al Smith
Herbert Hoover
platform in the 1928 presidential election. As an ethnic, wet, Catholic, he symbolized the new Democratic antithesis of the rural, dry, Protestant order that his opponent, Republican Herbert Hoover represented. Though losing the election, Smith signaled the move away from prohibition; repeal became a key part of any campaign aimed at gaining the ethnic, urban, working class vote (Munby, 36). Franklin D. Roosevelt picked up the mantle and, following Hoover's tragic mishandling of the early days of the Great Depression, won the White House on a wet ticket; finally repealing prohibition with the 21st Amendment a little more than two years after his election to the presidency. The enactment of prohibition created an odd parallel between the Democratic Party and the gangster on film. Prohibition gave the newly wet Democratic Party their best chance at succeeding in a presidential election just as it had provided the gangster with an opportunity to establish himself as an entrepreneur in the viable business of bootlegging.

Specifically in Public Enemy, prohibition created an entire business of illegality that launched small time, inner city crooks into untold wealth and prominence. With distinct points of reference provided by date placards, we see the origins of Tom Powers (the lead character played by James Cagney) as a prepubescent shoplifter in 1909. Drinking from a big bucket of beer (acquired inside the "family entrance" of a saloon), tripping girls on roller skates and trying to sell stolen watches were the highlights of his mischievousness. As he grew older, his lawlessness grew more criminal, yet didn't equate to great financial reward. Following a failed heist attempt at a fur trading company, Tom met Paddy Ryan, his bootlegging mentor. Though a legitimate businessman before prohibition, the scene immediately following the chaos of "Prohibition Eve" in 1920 depicts Paddy Ryan as having big plans for his business in the succeeding dry era:

Young Tom and Matt with a
bucket of beer in front
of a saloon's "family entrance"
Don't you think that (this beer) ain't gonna be valuable. I heard today that alcohol's gone to $30 a gallon. The real McCoy's hard to get. All you gotta do when you deliver a good shipment is size up the layout and let me know. I can use some of it, and I know two or three others that'll buy all that I can't handle. It means real dough, a three way split. I said we'd get together sometime, well, the time has come, now.

Following this decree Tom has his first big robbery. In organizing a crew to siphon a tanker truck full of beer from a liquor warehouse the reward is almost immediate. The next scene depicts Tom buying his first suit, with a broad smile. He trades the tweed hat and rags he'd worn previously for a stylish, tailor-made, three-piece suit and fedora hat.

Following several decades of working towards a broad-based prohibition law, the temperance movement had finally passed a law banning alcohol. However, the social ills that the Progressives railed against in the exploding urban centers had only begun. The 18th Amendment's passage may have rid the city of its legal saloons and pacified the Progressives intent on cleaning up cities, yet it created a business in illegal booze that allowed crime to flourish and criminals to prosper. In seeing this unusual prosperity after growing up on the streets, the urban gangster proved to be a unique representation of the glorified American ideal of the self-made man.



synopses
Public Enemy   Little Caesar   Scarface  
  Previous Introduction
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion
Works Cited
Next