History of Alcohol Law

Interested in history? Not many people are, but it helps to know a little bit about the history of alcohol. Booze has been with us about as long as people have. It is mentioned in the “Code of Hammurabi,” which is the first known recorded set of laws. I have no idea whether the code records anything about “contingency fees,” but it does have rules and regulations about drinking and the sale of wine. This would lead one to assume that more than one Babylonian had a drinking problem back in 2000 B.C. The Bible too has much to say about intemperance.

Read it for yourselves; there is no room for all the reference’s here. The Greeks and the Romans were no shrinking violets when it came to drinking. It is common knowledge that the beverage of the average run-of-the-mill orgy was not milk. The booze problem was not the exclusive property of Western civilization either. In China, for instance, prohibition was tried some 47 times. The Chinese are notoriously temperate people too! How to distill liquor was discovered sometime during the Middle Ages. Some noble character noted that by boiling fermented liquid and then condensing it, he could produce a concoction that would liven almost any party. Routine fermentation yielded about 12 to 14 percent alcohol by volume; with distillation the alcoholic content rose to 3 or 4 times that amount.

Distilled beverages produced marked changes in the drinking habits of Europeans during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. It was indeed a marvelous thing to be able to drink less and get just as crocked! Did you know that one of the major contributing factors which put the New World on its feet was rum? The triangular traffic of rum, slave, and West Indian sugar cane did the trick. Makes one want to throw back his shoulders and swell with pride, doesn’t it?

From the Revolutionary days until now, Americans have not been noted for their temperance. Here’s a story you might enjoy: The U.5.S. Constitution started out from Boston in 1812, carrying 475 officers and men. Their supplies listed 74,000 pounds of shot, 11,500 pounds of powder, 48,600 gallons of fresh water, and 70,000 gallons of rum. Six weeks later the warship made Jamaica, where she took on 68,300 gallons of rum. Three weeks later, pro- visioning at the Azores, she shipped 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine. After shooting up the sea lanes around England, she made a raid up the Firth of Clyde and captured, among other things, a distillery; 40,000 gallons of Scotch whisky were transferred to the hold, after which the Americans headed for home.

The Constitution arrived in Boston several months later with all ammunition gone. So was all the rum, wine, and whiskey; but, as the story goes, still in the hold were those 48,000 gallons of water. Here is a recipe for one of the favorite drinks of Revolutionary days: Chatham Artillery Punch Three gallons of Catawba wine, one gallon of rum, one gallon of brandy, one gallon of rye whiskey, five pounds of brown sugar, two quarts of cherries, and the juice of three dozen lemons. Smooth with one gallon of gin. Just before serving, add three gallons of champagne. It sounds like something you’d put in your car, but, in those times, it was the drink of the day.

In order to counteract the enormous drinking pattern in the New World, the Temperance Movement was founded. It was no joke. Most of us recall pictures of the outraged women of the period, carrying huge signs and pointing accusing fingers at amused males who were getting plastered at their favorite tavern. And these women were quite successful with their protests. By 1920, 33 states had some form of prohibition.

The Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1920. But, let’s face it, the law was highly unsuccessful. People merely made and drank a lot of bad booze for 13 years. Even though alcoholism declined somewhat, the turmoil was too high a price to pay. In 1933 the lawmakers called the whole thing off, and the populace felt much better, because now they could consume publicly the liquor they had been consuming privately despite the law. Today, about 70 percent of the adult males in the United States use alcohol, and better than 50 percent of the adult females are tipplers. These figures are conservative, to say the least.

As already noted, the latest figures on alcoholism list about 10 million alcoholics in the United States. The figure gets larger every time I see it. In 1971, American consumers spent 22 billion dollars for beer, wine, and whiskey. The measurable cost of enforcement, keep, and repair as compared to amounts collected in taxation on alcohol consumption is estimated at four to one. I do not know what Americans blew for booze last year, but I believe we may safely assume that it was a great deal more than 22 billion dollars.