Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/An Experiment in Prohibition

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THE liquor question, like the poor, we have always with us; and at present, as at almost any time for many years past, the best method of dealing with it is being actively discussed in many parts of the country. Public opinion seems to be divided between repressive and restrictive legislation; and, in view of this fact and of the efforts of those who favor the prohibitory system to introduce it in localities where other methods have hitherto prevailed, the experience of Vermont, which has had a prohibitory liquor law for more than thirty years, furnishes an instructive lesson.

The Vermont law was passed by the Legislature of 1852. In the Legislature, as among the people, there was a close division of sentiment, the law finally passing by a vote of 91 to 90, and being ratified by the people of the State by a vote of 22,215 to 21,044—a popular majority of only 1,171 for the law. According to its terms, the law went into effect in March, 1853, and has ever remained the settled policy of the State. As originally enacted, it merely forbade the selling, furnishing, or giving away of intoxicating liquor, under moderate penalties, and provided for the appointment of an agent in each town, who should be authorized to sell liquor for medicinal and mechanical purposes, the profits of the sale accruing to the town. But, from the moment of its adoption until the present time, the advocates of the law have been continually engaged in enlarging its scope and strengthening its provisions. Each Legislature since 1853 has modified and amended the law in the direction of increased thoroughness, severity, and efficiency. Its supporters have indeed taken "Thorough" for their motto. Everything they have asked has been granted by successive Legislatures, and all possible measures have been taken to render the law perfect. As it now stands, it constitutes an entire chapter of the Revised Statutes, and embraces more than fourscore sections. A glance at its provisions will show that it is stringent enough to satisfy the most thorough-going believer in repressive legislation. It absolutely forbids the manufacture, sale, furnishing, or giving away of intoxicating liquors, among which malt-liquors and lager-beer are specifically included. Cider must not be sold at any place of public resort, nor may a man in his own house furnish any liquors to minors. The penalties in all these cases are a fine of ten dollars for the first offense, twenty dollars for the second, and three months in the House of Correction for the third. A "common seller" is to be fined one hundred dollars for the first offense, and two hundred dollars for the second, and for the third is to be committed to the House of Correction for four months. He may also be prosecuted for maintaining a nuisance, and in case of conviction he is to be fined from twenty dollars to two hundred dollars, and imprisoned from one month to three months; and his place of business is to be summarily closed, nor may he reopen it before furnishing a heavy bond to abandon the liquor-traffic. A person bringing, or assisting in bringing, liquor into the State, is to be fined twenty dollars for the first offense, and fifty for the second, and for the third is to be imprisoned for three months. A traveling liquor agent is to be fined one hundred dollars for the first offense of selling, and three hundred dollars for the second, and for the third is to be fined five hundred dollars and imprisoned for six months. All liquors kept, or supposed to be kept, for purposes forbidden by the statute, are to be seized by the police, who may for this purpose enter and search, without a warrant, any premises, public or private. A percentage of all fines imposed and collected is awarded the informer and the prosecuting officer. The statute furthermore contains provisions for the recovery of civil damages from liquor-dealers, for imposing a heavy fine upon one who rents premises to be used in the liquor-traffic, and for carrying out the design of the law in a thorough and efficient manner.

But the practical operation of this severe and sweeping law—there is the rub! It is a fact, which can not be controverted or denied, that for all practical purposes the law is an absolute dead letter. According to the returns of the United States revenue officers, the Government tax on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors in the State amounted last year to fourteen thousand dollars in round numbers. On the same authority, there are in the State at the present time four hundred and forty-six places where intoxicating liquors are sold; and, though the population is well-nigh stationary, there is a marked increase in the number of these places, last year's returns showing only four hundred and twenty-six, and those for the preceding year four hundred and nine. In the city of Burlington there are about threescore places where liquor is sold, and in Rutland, St. Albans, and all the larger towns, a proportional number; and in every village in the State, with the exception of a few inconsiderable hamlets, there is at least one such place. A large proportion of the dram-shops are located upon the principal streets, and there is no concealment or attempted concealment of the illegal traffic conducted within them. As these facts and figures sufficiently indicate, the law, broadly speaking, is not at all enforced. The sale of liquor, it is hardly too much to say, is almost as free and open as though there were no such thing as a prohibitory law. The principal exception to the general rule consists of an occasional spasmodic attempt to enforce the law in the larger places, and the fining of liquor-dealers on what are termed "disclosures." In the latter case, a person arrested for intoxication is compelled to "disclose" the person of whom he procured liquor, and that person is then tried for the offense. Such cases are very common, but as only the lowest class of liquor-dealers is concerned in them, generally speaking, and as the prosecution is invariably for a "first offense," no effective purpose is served in repressing the liquor-traffic. In the larger towns, an effort to enforce the law is occasionally made, but such efforts have invariably proved short-lived, and in almost every instance the people have, at the earliest opportunity, rejected at the polls the officers who have attempted to enforce the law. These are the principal exceptions to the general rule of non-enforcement. Of enforcing the law as the laws against burglary and larceny are enforced, no one dreams for a moment. Such is the unsatisfactory result of Vermont's thirty years' experience of the prohibitory liquor law. One might go still further, and speak of the perjury and subornation of perjury, for which the law is in a sense responsible; of the disregard and contempt for all law which the operation of this law tends to foster and encourage, and of cognate matters which will occur to the reflective reader; but, perhaps, enough has been said in showing the failure of the law to accomplish the object for which it was enacted.

The cause of the failure of the law is not far to seek. It is obviously that the law is not sustained by public sentiment. It is that the world can not be dragooned into virtue. The supporters of the prohibitory law are well-meaning men and women, who are sincerely desirous of benefiting their fellow-human beings and advancing God's kingdom upon earth: but not even by these will humanity suffer itself to be driven to loftier heights of thought and action. The people of Vermont are not singular in this matter; and there would seem to be no reason why the prohibitory system, a failure in a moral, God-fearing community, should be successful anywhere in the United States.