April 6, 1933. It was almost midnight. A crowd of 20,000 outside the Anheuser-Busch brewery on in St. Louis.
August Busch Jr., grandson of the brewery’s patriarch, roared into a microphone, “April the seventh is here, and it is a real occasion for thankfulness. Happy, grateful men are back at work after what seemed an endless idleness.”
At 12:01 a.m., sirens wailed and dozens of Anheuser-Busch trucks rolled into the streets, carrying their first beer shipments in more than 13 years.
Beer was back.
National prohibition on alcohol manufacturing, consumption and shipments started in 1920, a product of the 18th Amendment and federal legislation.
But its roots went back decades, emerging from a stew of religious activism, optimistic reform and the thrust to regulate big business — including banks, railroads and meat companies. By 1917, more than a dozen states had already drafted tough anti-alcohol laws in response to the perceived perils of alcohol: addiction, violence and the breakup of families.
Still, the federal government relied on revenue from alcohol taxes. But the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, ushered in a national income tax; its ability to raise big sums surprised “even its most enthusiastic supporters,” said Donald Boudreaux, chair of George Mason University’s economics department.
Suddenly, the federal budget didn’t have to lean on alcohol. “The political cost of pandering to the temperance groups” fell, said Boudreaux.
Congress passed the 18th Amendment in December 1917. In January 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth, and decisive, state to ratify it. One year later, Prohibition went into effect, outlawing the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors” in the U.S. for beverage purposes.
With the onset of Prohibition, brewers were forced to adapt. Breweries churned out yeast, ice cream, refrigerated trucks, a huge assortment of non-alcoholic malt drinks and soda.
Most went out of business.
Prohibition lost support over the years, beset by charges of corruption among regulators and the growth of organized crime.
But it took the onset of the Great Depression — and nose-diving income tax revenues — to convince America that it had seen enough, argues Boudreaux, the George Mason economist. Income tax revenues dropped 60 percent between 1930 and 1933, he calculated.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, campaigned in part on the pledge to end Prohibition. On March 23, 1933, Roosevelt signed legislation relaxing the legal definition of intoxicating beverages, eight months before Prohibition would be officially voided by a constitutional amendment. As of April 7, beer with up to 3.2 percent alcohol by volume could flow in the 20 states that did not outlaw its sale.
Over 1.5 million gallons of beer were consumed on April 7, 1933.