Prohibition in Tennessee: Good Beginning, Sad Ending

Each state’s Prohibition and Repeal experience was both similar yet unique. Prohibition in Tennessee, along with its repeal, was no exception. Discover Tennessee’s experience with both.

          Overview

I.   Prohibition Welcomed

II.  Repeal

III. Resources

I. Prohibition in Tennessee Welcomed

Prohibition in Tennessee was welcomed. Temperance had a long history in the state. By 1907 the sale of alcohol was prohibited throughout most of Tennessee. Ten years later state-wide prohibition occurred. Then it became illegal for anyone to possess any alcoholic beverage.

The popularity of National Prohibition in Tennessee reflected the fact that most residents thought it would be beneficial. They thought it would to lead to improved health, less violence, and greater safety. That it would increased public morality and create a better environment for young people. The General Assembly voted almost unanimously for it.

Problems

But many people were not willing to give up their freedom to drink. Also the state’s rugged terrain was ideal for hiding moonshine stills.

Corruption

With easy, untaxed money to be made, police and sheriffs were routinely bribed. Politicians were also widely on the take.

The rampant graft and corruption caused by Prohibition created a deep lack of respect for the law. It became fashionable to flaunt it, especially among women and young people. For the first time in history, women began to drink in public.

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. They went to guzzle alcohol while they could.

Bootleg Dangerous

prohibition in Tennessee
Prohibition in Tennessee had a sad fate.

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made. It often contained lead toxins. In addition, some bootleggers added creosote and even embalming fluid.

Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and even death. This led some drinkers in the state to switch to hair tonic, mouthwash and illegal drugs. This would have been unlikely in the absence of Prohibition.

Other Problems

Prohibition denied the state tax revenues from alcohol. This, at the very time it was causing big increases in criminal justice costs.

Widespread crime and other problems caused by Prohibition mushroomed. Hypocrisy was rampant.

II. Repeal

Prohibition was overturned nationally in 1933. Nevertheless, states were able to their own prohibition. Tennessee decided to maintain its own prohibition.

However, more and more residents decided that it was a dismal failure. It didn’t stop drinking. On the other hand, it created enormous problems. They decided that the presumed cure was much worse than the disease. So they called for repeal. Therefore, the state repealed its own prohibition in 1937.

Yet temperance sentiment still endures in neo-prohibitionism. For example, Tennessee still prohibits the Sunday sale of spirits. This is despite the fact that Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week.

III.  Resources on Prohibition in Tennessee

Beard, M. The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State. Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1962.

Hooper, B. Prohibition in Tennessee. Westerville, OH: American Issue, c 1913.

Isaac, P. Prohibition and Politics. Knoxville: U Tenn Press, 1965.

Lacy, E. Tennessee teetotalism. Social forces and the politics of progressivism. Tenn Hist Q,  24(3),   219-240.

Modey, Y. The Struggle over Prohibition in Memphis, 1880-1930. Memphis State U, 1983.

Pulliam, W. Harriman, the Town that Temperance Built. Harriman, TN: Pulliam, 1978.

Wolfe, M. Bootleggers, drummers, and national defense. Sideshow to reform in Tennessee, 1915-1920. East Tenn Hist Soc, 49, 77-91.