There was a time when the United States government ran on hooch. Hard up for cash, taxes on whiskey and beer funded the Civil War. With 40 percent of government revenues coming from liquor taxes, alcohol made the dramatic post-war expansion of government possible so that by the 20th Century, the Federal government would have been unrecognizable in scope and function to a man of the 1800s, but would have been all too familiar to us.
The Department of Education was created in 1867, the Department of Justice in 1870, the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. Within that time, the Federal government had become concerned with every aspect of life throughout the country. After the Civil War, the same whiskey taxes that had paid for cannons, aerial balloons and widows’ pensions began paying for the transformation of the government into a booming engine of social change.
During the same period that the government was being unrecognizably reshaped, the major cities were being transformed by a tremendous immigration boom. Immigration had made it possible for the Union to win the war by providing an endless supply of fresh bodies to throw into the fight. German, Irish and Jewish immigrants came by the hundreds of thousands and made the Union victory possible.
Republican Progressives had looked forward to freeing the slaves, but were far less enthusiastic about filling the country with Catholics and Jews, who were not only bound for Democratic precincts, but did not share their faith. Germany had produced a liberal variant of Judaism that was rather close to Unitarianism and had prospered nicely among upper class Jews in the United States, but the Jewish immigrants who were arriving were members of a more traditional faith in Russia and Eastern Europe. But it was the Catholics who truly worried them.
The Draft Riots during the Civil War had to be put down with the military and the armories were a hulking reminder that the cities could go up in flame at any moment if the Democratic Party’s radicals chose to light a match. Those same Catholic immigrants had been invaluable to building the Union, but with the South defeated, and the expansion of the Union underway, they had become a problem.
Progressive reformers cast an uneasy eye on the slums and the Democratic political machines that ran them and pursued a grab bag of strategies for curing their ills, from birth control to temperance to socialism.
The progressive vision of a New America was being funded by liquor taxes, but a combination of bigotry and health-nuttery, which was another of the elements of the modern country taking off, brought quite a few reformers around to temperance. Associating Catholics with liquor, they went after liquor itself. But liquor could not be outlawed, without also outlawing big government.
For the practical politician the link between liquor and big government was a web that should not be touched. The drinking American was making big government possible and should be left to drink in peace. But progressive reformers are ever deaf to such logic and quick to cut Gordian knots. Faced with a liquor revenue problem, they contrived a solution in the form of the personal income tax.
The personal income tax was unconstitutional, but with the end of the post-Civil War era and the revival of the Democratic Party as a progressive political movement, the country had entered a period where the Constitution meant very little. During the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, that document, then not very much more than a century old, had come to be regarded as an outmoded work with very little relevance to modern times.
The Anti-Saloon League, rising out of the mists of an uncertain time, had assembled a coalition encompassing Klansmen, Suffragists, Socialists and Preachers focused on a single-minded agenda, but pushing whatever laws it had to along the way to reach its goal. And the road to Prohibition lay through such policy territories as the personal income tax.
Prohibition today is remembered mainly for the quaint scenes of smugglers and lawmen chasing each other on dark roads, speakeasies where liquor made in massive illegal stills was served and the end of national integrity as an age of national hypocrisy was ushered in by wet politicians who voted dry. But Prohibition as a phenomenon matters little compared to the ways in which the campaign to achieve it and then hold on to it transformed the country.