Hypocrisy during Prohibition (1920-1933) was pervasive. It was the nature of it. In fact, the third episode of Ken Burns’ five part series on Prohibition was titled “A Nation of Hypocrites.”
I. White House Hypocrisy
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was appalled at the hypocrisy.
“Violation of the Eighteenth Amendment was a matter of course in Washington. But it was rather shocking to see the way President Harding disregarded the Constitution he was sworn to uphold. One evening a friend of the Hardings asked me if I would like to go up to the study. No rumor could have exceeded the reality. Trays with bottles containing every imaginable whiskey stood about.”1
As a senator, President Harding had voted for Prohibition. And a member of his cabinet operated an illegal still. The US Attorney General is the highest law enforcement official in the country. He was implicated in alcohol corruption.
II. Congressional Hypocrisy
There were many reports of cocktails enjoyed in the halls of Congress between sessions. Even sessions discussing Prohibition and its enforcement!
The Speaker of the House of Representatives had an illegal still. The National Prohibition Act of 1919 was commonly called the Volstead Act after Andrew Volstead. Yet even he privately drank alcohol himself.
The major bootlegger on Capitol Hill was George Cassiday. He later wrote that he had sold alcohol to about two-thirds of the members of Congress. But he wasn’t the only bootlegger in Congress. He estimated that 80% of the members of Congress drank.
III. Enforcement Hypocrisy: Hypocrisy During Prohibition
The director of Prohibition enforcement for Pennsylvania was guilty of conspiring to take 700,000 gallons of alcohol from storage. He also operated a slush fund of $4,000,000 to bribe Prohibition agents.
The head of Prohibition enforcement for northern CA publicly admitted “that he did drink occasionally because San Francisco is a wet community, and that he also served liquor to his guests because he was a gentleman and ‘not a prude.”’
A raid on one of New York City’s most famous speakeasies caught a number of its politicians and other leading residents. The police precinct captain had a regular table at the famous 21 Club speakeasy.
The most famous Prohibition agents were Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith. After a busy day arresting alcohol violators they enjoyed relaxing. They did so by enjoying their favorite beverages. Those were beer and cocktails.
A number of police in VT actually produced or sold alcohol on the side themselves. The list of of hypocrisy went on and on.
“When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it’s hospitality.”
IV. Resources: Hypocrisy During Prohibition
- Hayes, M. Democracy against Hypocrisy.
- Rosen, S. Bootleggers, Booze and Hypocrisy.
1 Sann, P. The Lawless Decade, p. 55.