Alcohol, Regulation of

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ALCOHOL, REGULATION OF. Throughout their history as colonies and as a nation, Americans have tried through various means to regulate the use of alcoholic beverages. Indeed, no other item of personal use, not even weapons, has been subject to so much, so varied, and so persistent regulation as alcohol. The means used fall into two broad and not always perfectly distinct categories—persuasion and coercion. The balance between persuasive and coercive approaches has changed from time to time, and within each category new forms of regulation have appeared and disappeared. Regulation has targeted nearly every aspect of alcohol use: whether beverage alcohol is to be produced; what its various forms are to contain; whether it is to be sold; who is to sell it, where and when it is to be sold, and at what price; who shall be allowed to drink, and under what conditions; and how intoxicated persons shall conduct themselves. The fundamental issue has never been whether alcohol use is to be regulated, but rather how.

Formative Years

Colonial governments followed English precedents in regulating alcohol. They set prices and fixed measures. The English tavern licensing system was maintained, and through it officials controlled the number of outlets, designated their functions, and monitored the character of publicans. Tavern keepers were sometimes enjoined to refuse service to classes of customers, such as slaves, apprentices, Native Americans, and habitual drunkards. Other laws punished excessive drinking, although such strictures were generally applied only to control threats to public order. The founders of Georgia went even further, attempting during the colony's first years to prohibit the use of distilled spirits altogether. Thus, although no organized temperance movement appeared, colonial Americans pioneered nearly every form of legal regulation that would later be employed.

While European Americans were establishing a framework for legal regulation, Native Americans led in the use of moral suasion. Native revitalization movements, such as those led by the Seneca Handsome Lake and by the Shawnee Tenskatawa ("the Prophet"), preached abstinence from the white man's liquor. In 1802 the federal government enacted a prohibitory law for "Indian Country" west of the Mississippi River, but the enactment failed to halt the process of tribal disorganization to which alcohol abundantly contributed.

By the early nineteenth century, Native Americans were not the only American society at risk of alcohol-induced disorganization. European American consumption reached historic highs by the 1820s, and the threat of widespread alcoholic damage to individuals and society produced the first mass temperance movement, headed by the American Temperance Society (ATS), founded in 1826. Through moral suasion, the ATS induced hundreds of thousands of temperate drinkers to abstain from distilled spirits. Bitter experience in attempting to rescue compulsive drinkers led reformers to reconceive their goal as total abstinence from all intoxicating beverages ("teetotalism"). By the late 1830s, temperance reformers were also seeking additional legislative curbs on the sale of liquor. Massachusetts's short-lived Fifteen-Gallon Law (1838), which prohibited purchases of hard liquor in quantities less than fifteen gallons, was a product of this movement, and other states passed similarly restrictive, though less draconian, laws. The transition from a suasionist approach to a coercive model set a pattern later temperance movements would follow again and again. As each new cycle of reform began by building on the legal foundation constructed by its predecessor, alcohol regulation gradually became more coercive.

Moral suasion experienced a resurgence in the early 1840s through a movement of reformed drunkards, the Washingtonians, but by the end of that decade reformers began to consider statewide prohibition of alcohol a promising approach. After a campaign spearheaded by the Portland mayor Neal Dow, Maine in 1851 adopted a law banning the manufacture of liquor and restricting its sale to designated municipal agents and only for medicinal and mechanical purposes. Searches and seizures were authorized in enforcing the law, and heavy fines and jail sentences were prescribed for offenders. These strict measures were necessary, reformers believed, because local restrictions, such as raising the cost of licenses to sell liquor ("high license") and refusing to issue licenses ("no license") had failed to halt alcohol abuse. In addition to Maine, twelve northeastern and midwestern states and territories enacted statewide prohibition laws by 1855. While most of these were soon repealed or judicially overruled, the Civil War brought new restrictive measures to the previously laggard southern states. Four Confederate states banned distilling in order to conserve grain. By the end of the Civil War, states in all regions had gained experience in using state power to control alcohol production and use.

Use of State Power

During the years between the Civil War and World War I, the question of how to use local and state governmental power to control alcohol use became a perennial political issue. By 1890, six states were under statewide prohibition. Legally dry territory also spread through the use of local option, through which a minor political unit (a ward, township, municipality, or county) voted on the question of permitting liquor sales. Annual elections or referenda regularly embroiled many localities in heated conflict over the liquor issue. Southern prohibitionists made especially good use of local option, drying up most areas of the region by 1907. Both local and state prohibition laws, while outlawing the manufacture or sale of liquor, sometimes allowed personal importation of alcoholic beverages into the affected area. This leeway created considerable opportunity for the legal sale of liquor by mail order, and mail-order businesses also hastened to exploit profit opportunities created by thirsty drinkers marooned in states that forbade possession of beverage alcohol.

Alongside these coercive measures, moral suasionist or quasi-suasionist efforts to regulate alcohol use also continued to flourish. Three new initiatives emerged during the 1870s. In the winter of 1873–1874, tens of thousands of women conducted nonviolent marches on the liquor dealers of local communities across the Midwest and Northeast. Their actions closed many outlets, pledged many drinkers to sobriety, and stimulated formation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874), which thereafter conducted a multipronged campaign for personal abstinence and legal prohibition. "Reform clubs" for working-class and middle-class men appeared, offering mutual support for drinkers who wished to quit. A national organization for work among the rapidly growing Roman Catholic population, the Catholic Total Abstinence Union, was created in 1872 to promote temperance while eschewing legal means of restriction. Most Protestant evangelical churches also preached temperance, and some supported prohibition. Meanwhile, growing medical interest in habitual drunkards led to the founding of more than 100 inebriety asylums and other institutions, whose founders hoped that by confining chronic drinkers their pattern of recurring binges could be broken. This combination of legal and suasionist means helped to produce a historically low level of per capita consumption during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The federal government became involved in alcohol regulation in two ways. First, the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) included alcoholic beverages among the consumables whose quality Washington took on the job of monitoring. Second, the mail-order liquor business involved the federal government in the enforcement of state prohibition statutes because of its jurisdiction over inter-state commerce. In 1890, the Wilson Act forbade shipment of liquor into prohibition states, but its effect was weakened by subsequent judicial decisions. When the number of prohibition states began to increase after 1907, and drinkers in states that forbade possession or consumption of liquor continued to import bottles, the federal government had to choose sides. The Webb-Kenyon Act (1913) banned importation of liquor into a state when state law forbade such shipments.

National Prohibition through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (in force 16 January 1920) capped the temperance movement's century-long campaign to regulate alcohol use. It rode on the crest of a wave made up of dry victories in state prohibition campaigns, a wartime federal ban on the use of grain in distilling (to conserve food supplies), and wartime prohibition. Among its manifold effects, national Prohibition led to the closing of the inebriety asylums and produced a shift in consumer preferences from beer to the more easily transported and more cost-effective distilled liquors. Although estimates of per capita consumption during the 1920s are problematic, Prohibition does seem to have succeeded in lowering intake from the relatively high level that had been reached during the 1910s. In concert with the Great Depression, the temperate attitudes inculcated during Prohibition helped to keep per capita consumption below the pre-Prohibition standard for a quarter of a century after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933.

Since Prohibition's Repeal

Prohibition's impact on American drinking patterns was reinforced during the post-Prohibition years by a new web of regulations woven around alcohol use by the states. A few states retained prohibition; the last, Mississippi, repealed its dry law in 1966. Most, however, created either state agencies to issue licenses for retail sales, state monopolies on liquor sales, or hybrid blends of the two systems. State liquor agencies exercised a broad range of powers over the conditions under which alcohol was advertised, sold, and consumed. In the beginning, state officials used their powers to favor off-premises over on-premises consumption. As Prohibition faded further into the background, however, this policy was gradually relaxed.

In the aftermath of Prohibition's repeal, a new suasionist initiative emerged. In 1935, two habitual drunkards created a grassroots movement, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), to provide mutual support to those who wished to stop drinking but could not do so alone. A publicity organization, the National Council on Alcoholism, formed to propagate AA's basic principle, that chronic drunkenness, which was now called "alcoholism," was addictive and a disease. The disease concept of alcoholism was also furthered by the work of an academic research institute, the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. Such arguments, together with a rising level of per capita alcohol consumption during the 1960s, led the federal government to involve itself for the first time in alcohol research, through creation in 1970 of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This initiative, however, followed the lead of many states, which had previously mandated their own state alcoholism agencies, some of which took on treatment as well as research functions. Alcoholism treatment also flourished as many corporations and governments created "occupational alcoholism" programs, which often became "employee assistance" programs devoted to dealing with a broad range of personal problems.

At the end of the twentieth century, legal regulation of alcohol use focused upon two issues: the drinking age and drinking and driving. During the 1980s, the federal government briefly attempted to withhold highway funding from states that mandated a lower age than twenty-one years as the legal drinking age. Wider and deeper concern was manifested over drunken driving as automobile use became pervasive. New organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (founded 1980) organized at the grass roots, while state governments manipulated criminal laws in an effort to reduce highway carnage.


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Duis, Perry. The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880–1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Hamm, Richard F. Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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Jack S.BlockerJr.

See alsoIndians and Alcohol ; Prohibition ; Temperance Movement ; Volstead Act ; Woman's Christian Temperance Union .

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Alcohol, Regulation of

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