Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/June 1894/Should Prohibitory Laws Be Abolished?

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MR. APPLETON MORGAN, in the March number of The Popular Science Monthly, affirms that all prohibitory liquor laws should be abolished. Naturally, the reader inquires for what reasons and upon what evidence, and expects to find a grouping of facts that will at least give some support to these claims. If, on the contrary, the author assumes that the reader will credulously accept his confident statements as facts, it is to be supposed that such statements will be in accord with common observation, historical facts, and experience; if they fail in this, and are not sustained by any general examination, it is safe to conclude that the purpose of the paper is not to present the truth, and the author is a partisan, having some other object to accomplish not apparent in his writings.

The magnitude and intensely practical character of the question of prohibitory laws seem to demand some examination of the author's assertions. He begins with this: "The absolute, unqualified, and distinguished failure of all laws for the abolishment of the traffic in liquors is speedily convincing even the most sanguine prohibitionists of the expediency of wiping them from every statute book in the land."

In the failure to refer to authority for this statement the reader must examine for himself. Political records in yearly volumes, and histories of political reform, give no evidence or names of sanguine or other prohibitionists who are convinced of the failure of such laws.

Governors of States where prohibition laws are in force have without exception declared in their favor. Some have suggested modifications and changes from the present form, but all have affirmed their great value in securing better observance of law and order.

In 1889 a canvass was made of the opinions of judges. Congressmen, mayors of cities, superintendents of schools, journalists, manufacturers, postmasters, and others in the State of Maine, asking their opinion of the practical value of the existing prohibitory laws. In one hundred and forty replies only seven expressed any doubt, the others were confident and enthusiastic. Similar canvasses made in Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas, Iowa, and in States where prohibition had been tried, brought out the same unanimous replies from equally eminent men, who were not in any way identified with the party of prohibition.

These and other systematic inquiries have been published in the New York Voice, a leading prohibition paper, and are certainly entitled to credence from the fearless, independent character of the replies. Turning to the Brewers' Journal and the Wine and Spirit Circular, which are supposed to represent those opposed to all prohibitory laws, the statements which are presented are of such a startling character, showing the failure of such laws, as to create doubt of their accuracy. The evidence in both of these journals and their reports is so intensely partisan and extreme as statements of alleged facts as to appear unfair and doubtful.

The census reports of 1880 and 1890 show a marked decrease of crime, pauperism, drunkenness, and arrests in all the States where prohibition is in force. No matter how these facts are explained, they do not support the statement that prohibition is a distinguished failure.

The author continues: "These laws never had any adequate or logical reason for existing at all. They have had their origin always and without exception in sparsely settled communities, where personal liberty was so absolute that it became irksome, where liquor was almost unknown, and its use a curiosity, and where the only knowledge of the horrors of intoxication the village possessed was derived from itinerant temperance orators, who dilated upon the terrible consequences of the rum habit to a roomful of tearful old women, none of whom knew the taste of liquor stronger than green tea."

The first sentence of this quotation must be accepted exclusively on faith, for there are no reasons for supposing that the long lists of philosophers, reformers, and leaders who have urged prohibitory laws were stupid, illogical, and unable to realize and reason on a certain line of facts. The rest of the paragraph ignores all early history of the origin of prohibitory legislation. The author has overlooked the fact that prohibitionary laws were enacted in Judea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome long centuries ago; also that Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle discussed these questions, and Homer and Herodotus declared that "prohibitory laws would save men from becoming beasts." If the author will turn to his copy of Rollin's Ancient History, Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, and Whewell's Platonic Dialogues, and his Morality and Polity, he will find his assertions out of harmony with the facts.

Along in this connection he asserts that the New England Puritan "no more thought of prohibiting the drinking of liquor than the preaching eight or ten hour sermons." Here again the facts of history are ignored. Laws were passed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, as early as 1610, prohibiting the sale of liquor to Indians, negroes, and mulatto slaves, and earlier than this innkeepers were prohibited from selling spirits after nine o'clock at night, and on Sunday, or to drunken men. The Puritans for over a hundred years were struggling to prohibit the sale of liquor under certain conditions, and colonial and later laws regulating who should sell spirits, and when, and to whom, and under what conditions, would fill a volume. Volumes of sermons preached during this time will show that prohibition was a very serious topic; one of the reasons held was that intoxication was due to direct Satanic influence.

The reiteration that the various statutes against the selling of liquor are not for the general good, and do not come from a demand for protection or public peace, or from cause of necessity, or expediency, or in a community where the evil of the sales is apparent or experienced, and that not a single proposition for the policy of prohibition arises from demand for relief, sound like Rev. Jasper's declarations: "The Sun he do move; the Earth he do stand still."

The admission that "if laws preventing the sale of liquors should be demanded by the users, and purchasers who desired to be relieved of the temptation of buying it, a wise policy might decree the prevailing of the petition," is followed by a statement that "the non-users and non-purchasers who are in the majority, and those who have never suffered, need protection for which they have not asked." Any careful study will show that a large proportion of the most enthusiastic supporters of prohibitory laws are persons who have either suffered personally or in their families, or socially or financially, from the evils of spirits. Very few persons urge an unpopular cause unless from some strong conviction based on an experience that has a personal bearing. While any new movement always attracts a certain class of irregulars and camp followers, they soon drop out, and seldom continue attached to it very long. The rank and file who are honest in their theories and proposals for relief keep on until their ideals are realized, or some new way gives new form and direction to their efforts.

The earliest liquor law Mr. Morgan could find grew out of some letters appearing in a paper in 1832. At that time there were twenty States in the Union, with a great number and variety of prohibitory laws on their statute books. Many of these States had laws enacted half a century before; even some of the Territories had very stringent laws regulating the liquor traffic. The colony of Georgia for nine years was under a strong prohibitory law passed by the English Parliament in 3 735. The early laws prohibiting and restricting the sale of spirits in this country would fill a small-sized volume, even before 1832, and from that time on several volumes would be required to contain them.

The statement that the State of Maine before 1832 was almost Arcadian in its innocence respecting the use of spirits is remarkable. The laws concerning spirits, local option, license, and prohibition, and the penalties for common drunkards, selling to minors, soldiers, Indians, and drinking on Sunday, and where and when liquors should be sold, passed in 1821-'24 and 1829, give no indications of Arcadian innocence in Maine at that time.

In 1829 the first local option and literal prohibition law was passed in Maine; this was changed from time to time, and finally became the famous Maine law of 1816 and 1851, which exists to-day. In a little volume by Dr. Jewett, published in 1853, appear some harrowing accounts of the crimes and pauperism in Maine springing directly from drunkenness, long before the famous prohibitory law was enacted. Thus there is no doubt that the early settlers of Maine were as much addicted to, the so-called vices of drink as any other people.

The author declares that all prohibitory liquor laws are dangerous to the physical, moral, and political health of the community; that (1) "they increase the demand for, while deteriorating the quality of, the supply of liquors." The censuses of 1880 and 1890, and internal revenue reports, indicate a decrease in the sale of spirits in all the States where prohibition exists. The demand and consumption of spirits and beer in adjoining States and cities, not under these laws, give no indications of increased sales of spirits which are or may be consumed in these prohibition sections. Individual opinions to the effect that the demand for spirits has increased are not sustained by statistics from reliable sources. The deterioration in the quality of the liquors is found, from numerous analyses by chemists of the various State Boards of Health, to be principally from water. The drugs used for color and flavor are generally innocuous in both effect and quantity. The quality of the liquor depends on the kind of alcohol, which is far more likely to be dangerous in the so-called pure liquors than the cheap combinations of the saloon keeper.

This fact has been studied by the leading chemists of France, in several elaborate reports, in which it appears that the poisons of liquors are due to the formation and combinations of different alcohols, that are due to natural changes, and can only be known to the analytical chemist and inferred by the clinician from a study of the observed effects on the consumer. It has been repeatedly stated by authorities that a large part of the cheap liquors sold are new spirits adulterated with water, and made pleasant by flavoring substances. Hence cheap liquors from low places may be far safer as beverages than old, expensive spirits from the cellars and vaults of the most reliable dealers.

(2) The assertion that the law against the use of liquors stimulates to greater violation of the law, and produces an appetite for liquor-drinking where it did not exist before, would be easily verifiable if true; but, upon appeal to the facts of statistical reports of criminal and health boards, there is no evidence to sustain it.

The next assertion (3), that such laws give the visionary and crank class in the community political balance of power, is equally unverifiable. The author's complaint that prohibition laws beget an exaggerated oratory, and an appetite for sweeping statements and the cultivation of false statistics, etc., receives a most practical illustration in his paper. His own sweeping denials and allegations of facts, which are not substantiated by any investigation, are ample proof of the danger of such literature to the credulous and unthinking.

To say that all prohibition laws are worse than useless, that they have not lessened the sale or consumption of liquors; that free spirits and free sale would increase the horror of the drunkard and decrease the horror of liquor; and by making the one a crime and nuisance, the merits of the other would come into prominence, or, in other words, increase the severity of the punishment of the drunkard and make the sale of liquor practically free, sounds very tropical to say the least.

The final reference to statistics showing an increased longevity of the drinkers over the total abstainers, as a fact which appeared in the British Medical Journal, is notoriously untrue and mischievous.

Such are some of the allegations which challenge the author for particulars and specifications, to make good his assertions. As they are presented in a historic form, they are apparently based on defective knowledge and incorrect statements and faulty observations of facts, or the construction of facts, according to some theory or purpose, irrespective of all relations or inferences.

It would seem useless to make any detailed study of statements that are unverifiable even if true, in which no appeal to facts is made, especially statements that will not bear the most casual scrutiny. Reformers and their opponents who battle with each other in a "Donnybrook-fair style," striking in all directions, with the wildest dogmatic assertions, reckless of history, facts, and truth, never advance any cause however meritorious.

If the prohibitionary laws are dangerous and injurious there should be facts and data to prove it clearly, and no arguments based on assumed facts, with crooked deductions and doubtful statements, should ever be urged in its defense.

Leaving Mr. Morgan's strange statements, we turn to some general considerations of the alcoholic evil, and the legislative efforts to check and remove it.

To any one who will examine from the scientific side the various questions concerning the drink problem, and the remedies offered, many new facts and conclusions will appear. From this point of view, the accumulation of facts and their comparative accuracy is required, with indifference concerning any possible conclusions they may indicate. Wherever personal feelings and self-interest enter into such inquiry, the value and accuracy of the results are impaired. As in a law court, the question is simply one of facts and their meaning. Some of the facts may be grouped and studied!

In a general way it may be stated that the physiological action of alcohol on the body is practically unknown. Theories of its value as a food, as a nutrient, and as a force-producer, and its usefulness as a beverage, when examined, are found to be unverifiable or untrue. Evidence of its value in health and in moderation rests on theory and superstition, and is not sustained by appeals to facts.

The question of its value as a medicine is by no means settled. Men eminent in science, and fully competent to decide, express doubt, or deny its value altogether. Leading physicians and teachers of medicine prescribe less and less spirits, and the extent of its use in disease is becoming more limited every year.

The evidence of its value as a beverage is doubtful, to say the least, while the disastrous effects of alcohol can not be questioned, and the accumulated evidence of years brings this fact into increasing prominence.

A historical retrospect of the legal efforts to control and restrict the use of spirits suggests an evolution and growth that has not been considered before. Outside of biblical literature, whose teachings and laws are so often quoted, a remarkable chapter of legal enactments and restrictions can be traced. Beginning with the fragmentary inscriptions found on Egyptian papyri and monuments, and extending to the codes, philosophies, and enactments of the greatest philosophers, rulers, and judges of Grecian and Roman civilization, there is a continuous record of prohibitory laws and restrictions concerning the use of spirits and drunkenness. The laws of the Spartans were far more absolute than any modern enactments, and were also remarkable for the clear comprehension of the nature of spirits and their action on the body. These laws were active for many years, and were highly commended.

English history contains many records of prohibitory, restrictive laws, some of which were very prominent for a time, then fell into disuse. Laws of similar import have followed the path of civilization from the earliest dawn and wherever spirits have been used. They have been urged and defended by the greatest philosophers, teachers, and leaders of civilization.

Prohibitory laws and enactments in this country are a repetition of the reform efforts of centuries ago, only on a higher plane, showing decided evolution and growth. The laws of those early times were based on observation of the ill effects of spirits, and the expediency of checking these evils. The same laws in modern times are founded on moral theories and facts which seem to indicate no other means for relief.

In all times the sanitary evils of drink have been recognized at first only faintly, then in an increasing ratio, down to the present. To-day scientists and sanitarians are beginning to understand the perilous and dangerous influence of alcohol in nearly all conditions of life.

Modern prohibitory laws appear to be founded on mixed theories, and are not clear or harmonious in their workings. The applications of these laws, from the earliest settlements of the country down to the present time, give abundant illustrations of this. In several States prohibitory laws have been on trial for a quarter of a century and more, and have seemed to meet the expectations of their supporters. In others such enactments have been abandoned after a short experiment for various complicating reasons. Political partisanship has been so intimately concerned with these questions that the facts are very obscure.

The assertions and denials of the practical value of prohibitory enactments are equally confusing. The only unbiased authority from the census and internal revenue reports, in the states where these laws are in force, points to a diminishing use of spirits, better social and sanitary conditions, and lessened lawlessness.

Widely different explanations of this fact are urged and defended with great positiveness. High license and local option have their warm defenders and bitter opponents. Their value in different communities rests on the same uncertain and differently explained facts; often their adoption or rejection is mere caprice, political selfishness, and the changing sentiment of the hour.

The theoretical scientific study of spirits and their effects opens up another field that brings a wider conception to the problem. Here the student is confronted with the same evidence of evolution. Theories urged two thousand years ago—that drunkenness was a disease, and that spirits was an exciting cause, in some cases merely exploding a condition which was due to influences more remote and widely varied, or building up a morbid state which will require the narcotism of spirits ever—after have become demonstrable facts of modern times.

The remedies for these are restraint, control, and medical treatment of the victims, by legal enactments prohibitory and coercive. It is also evident that vast ranges of unknown causes and conditions, which enter into the phenomena of life and living, are the basal factors of drunkenness and inebriety. Remedies—legislative, social, and medical—to be effectual must be founded on some general knowledge of these causes. Such are some of the general facts of the drink problem as seen to-day. Many of them are very significant, and have a meaning which is unmistakable.

Tlie great revolutions of theories concerning alcohol and its physiological action on the body, together with the rapid accumulation of evidence contradicting all previous conceptions of its value as a nutrient, stimulant, and beverage, are conclusive that the facts are not all known. Countries and cities where wine and beer and other alcoholic drinks have been used freely, without question, are invaded by temperance and total abstinence societies. Theories of the value of spirits that have come down unquestioned are being challenged and proof of their truth demanded.

The French National Temperance Society, the Society against the Abuses of Alcohol for the Rhine Provinces, the Belgian Total Abstinence Society, the Netherland Society, the Swiss Society, the Italian Society, the Austrian and Prussian Society, the Norwegian, Russian, Danish, and numerous other societies, are urging total abstinence theories, and denying the value of spirits in the very centers of all spirit-drinking countries. Four international congresses have been held in these countries during the past ten years, in which eminent medical men have presented and defended the total abstinence side of the drink problem.

The real facts, separated from all partisan sensationalism, agree that alcohol is a poison, a paralyzant, and narcotic, and its defenders admit this as true, but only in large and reckless quantities. The question then turns on what quantities are safe or dangerous, and what is the possible amount that can be taken within health limits. This is similar to drawing boundary lines between twilight and darkness, and is obviously impossible with the present limits of our knowledge.

The evidence up to this time from the chemical laboratory, from experiments, from hospital studies, from statistics, and other sources, clearly proves that alcohol is a poison and is positively dangerous to health—in what way, in what conditions, and under what circumstances is yet an open question, in which difference of opinion will exist until more exhaustive experimental studies are made. Text-books for schools and colleges and partisan discussions often contain statements conveying the misleading impression that the facts about alcohol are known, when, in reality, beyond a few general principles, we are profoundly ignorant of its physiological action. The facts concerning its ravages and baneful influence are too common to be called in question, and the statement that it is the greatest peril to modern civilization has a basis in actual experience.

It appears to be a conclusion, which all scientific and sociological progress is verifying, that a more complete knowledge of alcohol will demand some form of prohibitory laws; whether like those existing at present or not it is impossible now to say. Such laws will not depend on any sentiment or any theory, but will be founded on demonstrated truths, and the necessity for self-preservation. It will not be a question of Maine law, or whether prohibition prohibits, or whether any party or society or public sentiment favors or opposes it. Action will be taken on the same principle that a foul water supply is cleansed or a sanitary nuisance removed. The questions of high or low license, local option, and all the various schemes of partial or complete restriction, with the vast machinery of moral forces that seek relief by the church, the pledge, the prayer, and the temperance society, will be forgotten, and the evil will be dealt with in the summary way in which enlightened communities deal with other ascertained causes of dangerous disease.

While the average citizen may be slow to unlearn and change his views about alcohol, he is ever quick to recognize and provide for dangers that peril his personal interests. Show this man that every place where spirits are sold as a beverage is a "poison center" and every drinker is a suicidal maniac, whose presence is dangerous to the happiness and peace of the community, and he will at once become a practical prohibitionist. This is the direction toward which all temperance agitation is drifting.

Sanitary boards, government commissions, and hospital authorities must gather the facts from very wide sources, and the generalizations from these will supplement and sustain the laboratory and hospital work and point out conclusions that will be real advances in this field. Inebriate asylums (at present obscure and bitterly opposed) will become very important aids in the study of the causes of inebriety. Like prohibitory laws, they will become a recognized necessity when the disease of inebriety and the poison of alcohol are understood.

Beyond all theory and agitation there is another movement of startling significance. Everywhere the moderate and excessive drinking man is looked upon with suspicion. His capacity is doubted, and his weakness is recognized as dangerous in all positions of trust and confidence. Corporations and companies demand employees to be total abstainers. Railroads, manufactories, and even retail liquor dealers of the better class require all workmen to be temperate men. This is extending to all occupations, and the moderate drinker is being crowded out as dangerous and unfit. This movement has no sentiment, but is the result of experience and the recognition of the danger of the use of alcohol as a beverage. Nothing can be more absolute than these unwritten prohibitory laws which discharge workmen seen in saloons and refuse to employ skilled men because they use spirits in moderation.

To repeal all restrictive and prohibitory laws and open the doors for the free use of rum is to act in opposition to all the facts or observation and experience. On the other hand, to insist that prohibitory laws are the only measures to correct the drink evils, or that high license and local option are equally powerful as remedies, is to assume a knowledge of alcohol and inebriety that has not been attained. The highest wisdom of to-day demands the facts and reasons for the use of alcohol, and why it should be literally and theoretically the cause of so much loss and peril to the race. All hope for the future solution of these questions must come from accurately observed facts and their teachings, and, like the problems of the stars above us, be determined along lines of scientific inquiry.