On a warm spring day, a hearse pulled from the small town of Warm Springs, GA, while the mournful sounds of an accordion played Dvorak’s Going Home. A military escort led the vehicle down the roadway lined with soldiers as they watched in silence as the American flag-draped coffin was taken to the rail station. The train pulled out in the early morning, the windows of the last car of the train were down so that the thousands of people who gathered at the train tracks could watch the final time that Franklin D. Roosevelt would leave Georgia and head to Washington DC.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, better known as FDR, died the day before, on April 12th, 1945. That morning he had woken with a slight headache but was soon focused on a busy day at hand. FDR had scheduled a barbecue for that afternoon and a visit to the children at Warm Springs for a minstrel show rehearsal. He needed to focus on his presidential duties during the morning hours while getting his portrait painted. Such was the life of a busy and engaged President of the United States.
At around 1 pm, FDR mentions that it is time to wrap up the portrait and get ready for a light lunch before leaving for his afternoon priorities. He lights a cigarette, and raises his hand to his head, and complains of a ‘terrific headache,’ then just as quickly, his arm falls to his side, and his entire body slumps in the chair. The President had suffered from a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died that afternoon in his beloved home away from home.
FDR was the President that got elected four times, serving only 82 days into his 4th term before he died. FDR was the President that was selected to lead the country when 13 million Americans were unemployed, and the Great Depression had dug its dirty fingers into the hope of those who lived in this country. FDR led this country through WW2, created the Lend-Lease Program, Social Security Administration, the Farm Security Administration, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the Civil Works Administration, the list keeps going.
F.D.R. has been a controversial president, as all of our presidents have been. It is easier to debate flaws than it is to acknowledge achievements. However, in light of the hours that I could spend on all of his accomplishments and shortcomings, I wanted to focus on one interesting fact that I believe made him so popular. After spending a tough first nine days of his first term as President dealing with a banking crisis and the national budget in the crapper- FDR directed Congress to repeal Prohibition. By March 23rd, he signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized the sale of beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2%. It was recorded that after FDR signed the Act, he exclaimed, ‘I think this would be a good time for a beer.’ The Cullen-Harrison Act officially went into effect on April 7th, which we now celebrate as National Beer Day.
But why was this important? I recently read an article by Mark Thornton, The Real Reason for FDR’s Popularity’, that within his first 30 days, FDR did more for Americans’ liberty than any President since the Founding Fathers. This was because America had been a ‘dry country’ since the 18th Amendment was enacted in January 1919 and further empowered by the Volstead Act on January 17th, 1920. 13 years of not being able to go to a bar, a pub, or have an open bar at a wedding. We are a year into the COIVD restrictions, and most Americans are losing their minds- and they can go to a liquor store and drink at home. Can you imagine what would happen if that was not an option?
However, the origins of Prohibition started much earlier than the Roaring 20’s- historically speaking, states were calling for temperance laws in the 1820s and 1830s due to a wave of religious revivalism called the ‘perfectionist’ movement. And while many states were passing prohibition laws as early as 1846, a calamity hit the U.S. that would change the country as they knew it- the Civil War. The end of the Civil War saw 624,511 dead between the Union and Confederate service members.
After the Civil War, drinking increased ten-fold as soldiers resumed their pre-war lives in the destruction of a post-war world. As you can imagine, it would not have been a pretty picture as men and women used alcohol consumption to dull the nightmares from the war. Nevertheless, this rationale usually leads to devastating aftermath for families as crime, abuse, and unemployment numbers rise due to drinking in excess. At the turn of the century, temperance societies popped up in communities across the nation to combat the effects of what they believed to be a destructive force in families and marriages. Factory owners supported the movement, believing that prohibiting drinking would prevent accidents, increase the employees’ efficiency, and bring in a more significant profit.
Then on April 6th, 1917, the U.S. entered into World War I. President Woodrow Wilson enacted a temporary federal wartime prohibition to save the grain used for alcohol and instead focused it on food production. Americans could buy into that thought process and supported any law or Act that would support our boys overseas. WWI ended November 11th, 1918, and many of the service members, mainly the adult male population who enjoyed beer, were not home when Congress passed the 18th Amendment. Imagine their surprise when they were finally home and found that alcohol was banned and that the laws would get stricter in the coming year.
After WWI, production lines slowed down, jobs were hard to come by, the rich were getting richer, and the poor got poorer. Many Americans found that life of crime put food on the table and money in their pockets. The nation saw an increase in speakeasies, gang violence, and bootlegging. Criminals such as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Gloyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, and Ma Barker all made the underground world look sexy and inviting. Many Americans found that hard liquor was easy to make and easier to conceal, turning the country from a beer-drinking nation to a ‘rot-gut whiskey’ country. And just the idea of getting away with committing a crime while drinking at a speakeasy or transporting a gallon of whiskey to your neighbor’s made the idea of homemade alcohol more attractive to the masses.
By 1932, crime was at an all-time high, and alcohol consumption was higher than before- but now the drink was poorly made, high in alcohol content, and able to remove tar from wood. FDR saw the problems and agreed to become a ‘wet’ candidate to receive the Democratic Party nomination in Chicago. He followed through with his promise to overturn the 18th Amendment and legalize drinking- within the first 30 days of his Presidency.
The effects of this repeal were almost immediate. Distilleries, breweries, and wineries reopened and re-hired their employees. Bottle makers, barrel makers, hop and grain farmers, pub and bar owners were now able to make a living again. Murder rates dropped from 10 per 100,000 population down to 5 per 100,000 population- which is where it was initially before the national Prohibition. And even though many southern and western states would still prohibit alcohol with their state laws, the repeal provided a significant increase in tax revenues for the state and federal government, up to 20 percent. The increase in revenue meant that school budgets increase, cities could hire firefighters, cities and towns finally fixed roads promptly. The country celebrated with a beer.
I believe that this is the actual reason why FDR was so popular coming out the gate. Regardless if you agree with his political stance in the coming years, FDR brought something to the American people that had been taken from them slowly for the last 50 years- liberty. I understand the thought process behind Prohibition; I can even see some of the benefits. However, the 18th Amendment proved that if you take away a tiny right of Americans- the right to have a beer- Americans will always find a way around it. FDR gave that right back to the American people, and when you find a good leader, you will follow them to the ends of the world and back.
As always, my friends, I invite you to do more research on your own. There is no way I could fit almost 25 years of historical moments into a single blog- but I had fun researching the Roaring 20’s. There is so much more to FDR than being the ‘cool’ President, and I will include some fantastic books down below if you want to learn more about the Roaring ’20s, Prohibition, or FDR.
And remember- be Great at something you are Good at!
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Prohibition in the United States: A History From Begining to End by Hourly History
Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation by Marc Mappen
FDR’s last days in Georgia – the DLG B (usg.edu)Advanced Search | New Georgia EncyclopediaThe Real Reason for FDR’s Popularity | Mises InstituteCullen-Harrison Act of 1933 | National Beer Day – PorchDrinking.comWhy Prohibition? | Prohibition (osu.edu)Gangsters and G-Men – American History: The Great Depression – LibGuides at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNYAnti-Saloon League | Prohibition (osu.edu)Death of FDR (Famous Painting) – On This DayCivil War Casualties | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)Statistics on the Civil War and Medicine | eHISTORY (osu.edu)