Arkansas, National Prohibition and Repeal

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Temperance sentiment had been strong in Arkansas even before statehood in 1836. The state passed legislation in 1855 enabling counties and municipalities to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, which many chose to do.

The prohibition movement grew steadily after the Civil War with strong public support, especially from women, African-Americans, and churches.

By the late 1880s there were over 100 anti-alcohol organizations operating within the state with hundreds of chapters and many thousands of members.

The president of the powerful Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) traveled the state promoting prohibition. Both she and her message were well-received. The famous hatchet-wielding Carry Nation became actively involved in prohibition activities in Arkansas early in the twentieth century and settled in Eureka Springs, where she lived the rest of her life.

By 1914, only nine counties in the state were wet (i.e., permitted the production or sale of alcohol) and the following year the General Assembly banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the state, even if prescribed by a physician for medical purposes. In 1916, a referendum to repeal the prohibitive law was rejected two-to-one by voters.

Most state residents enthusiastically supported National Prohibition, which was established in 1920. Supporters believed that preventing the sale of alcohol would improve health and safety, lower crime, reduce violence, improve public morality, and protect young people. Those beliefs were soon tested against reality. Apparently, many people in Arkansas weren't going to let their freedom to drink be denied.

Terrain and rurality combined to make the state an ideal location for the production of moonshine. With easy, untaxed money to be made, police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take. The revelations of such corruption lowered respect for the law, which was widely violated.

The rampant graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lackof respect for law. It became fashionable to flaunt the law, especially among young people, and many residents became alarmed at the decline in public morality.

Prohibition also led to the pattern of infrequent but very heavy drinking. People didn't go to a speakeasy to have a leisurely drink with a meal, but to guzzle the alcohol while they could.

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made and often contained creosote, lead toxin embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis,blindness and even death. This led some drinkers in the state to switch to hair tonic, sterno or "liquid heat," drugs and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to consume in the absence of Prohibition.

Prohibition also denied the state tax revenues from alcohol at the very time that it was causing increases in crime and violence, heavy court workloads, and over-crowded jails.

As widespread crime and other problems caused by Prohibition became increasingly obvious,more and more residents decided that the imagined cure was much worse than the disease and called for the repeal of the failed experiment in social engineering.

 

Additional Reading:

  • Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition.
    New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (Originally published 1950).
  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY:
    Arcade, 1996.
  • Cashman, Sean D. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York:Free Press, 1981.
  • Clark, N. H. Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton, 1976.
  • Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P.
    Pumam's Sons, 1965.
  • Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. New haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Kobler, John. Ardent spirits: the rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: G. P.
    Putnam's Sons, 1973.
  • Krout, John A. The Origins of Prohibition. New York: Knopf, 1925.
  • Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Odegard, Peter H. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League.
    NY: Columbia University Press, 1928.
  • Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1962.
  • Willebrandt, Mabel Walker. The Inside of Prohibition. Indianapolis, IN:
    Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.

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