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No Beers for Years in DC

December 5 holds a special place in the hearts of countless tipplers across America. This is for good reason: it was on that day in 1933 that the accursed 18th Amendment was repealed and Prohibition officially ended. Many bars mark the holiday with specials and there’s even a national movement to commemorate alcohol’s triumphant return.

But DC beer drinkers with an acute sense of history should also toast March 1. That’s the day that alcohol was made legal again in the District. Yep, residents in the nation’s capital were forced to endure many dry days after the repeal of Prohibition before they could (legally) knock one back.

We all know the basics of Prohibition: the temperance movement, the Anti-Saloon League, the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act, gangsters, rum-runners, etc. But did you know that DC had been dry for over three years before Prohibition swept the country?

You see, states had the right to outlaw alcohol within their borders. Maine did so for a spell in the mid-19th century and Kansas actually wrote it into their Constitution (thanks in part to a hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation). But Washington, DC, which came under federal jurisdiction, had no such control over its destiny. Heck, we couldn’t even elect a mayor until 1974. Instead, Congress would determine the fate of drinking in the District and, as with so much else here, it came down to politics.

In 1916, the lame-duck Congress felt a change in the winds of national opinion. The temperance movement was gaining traction. In the presidential election, dry supporters helped carry the day for the incumbent, Woodrow Wilson. Opponents of alcohol were wielding considerable political power, and legislators were keenly aware of their growing influence.

The District had long been a testing ground for broader Congressional initiatives, and the criminalization of alcohol was no exception. In what amounted to a dry run to Prohibition (pun intended), Congress passed the Sheppard Act, which prohibited the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol into the District of Columbia. Passage of the bill wasn’t easy. It took some legalistic maneuvering to get around the House District of Columbia Committee, which oversaw DC affairs and chafed at the imposition. An attempt to foil the bill by putting it to a DC referendum also stalled. Besides, as President Wilson noted, Washington – ahem – had no voting mechanism.

Still, there was no guarantee that Wilson, who supported temperance rather than outright prohibition and later went on to veto the Volstead Act, would give the bill his signature. But given that much of his support came from dry states and that the District of Columbia fell under Congress’s purview, Wilson had no choice but to sign the Sheppard Act into law. On November 1, 1917, Washington, DC officially dried up.

I say “officially” because the District, like elsewhere in the United States, was never one hundred percent alcohol-free. Enterprising shopkeepers and bartenders found ways to slake the public’s thirst on the sly, although logistics made cocktails a more attractive and lucrative option than beer. Embassies made full use of diplomatic immunity to serve drinks with impunity (sorry for the rhyme). And of course, Congress itself was well-stocked, with politicians surreptitiously sipping away for a drink while publicly decrying alcohol as the scourge of the nation.

These selfsame politicians went on to pass the 18th Amendment, followed shortly thereafter by “An act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries,” which was mercifully shortened to the National Prohibition Act of 1919 or the Volstead Act. The law provided the parameters and enforcement mechanisms for Prohibition. When the law went into effect on January 16, 1920, alcohol was outlawed throughout the entire nation.

Enforcement of the Volstead Act was uneven and slipshod at best; drinking went underground, with all of the attendant seediness. As time wore on, the public grew to resent the oppressive restriction and came out against Prohibition in droves. In 1932, the Democratic candidate for President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ran on a repeal platform (and the New Deal, but that’s neither here nor there).

FDR won handily and, in what amounted to a partial repeal of Prohibition, signed the Beer Revenue Act into law on March 22, 1933, which legalized beer and wine under 3.2% alcohol by weight (roughly 4.0% in today’s more common abv). States had to pass corresponding laws allowing the sale of these “low-point beers”; in those that did, people finally got to enjoy their first legal beers since 1920.

But DC remained dry.

Even before the Beer Revenue Act was on the books, Congress got working on full repeal. On February 20, 1933, the legislature proposed the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th. Of the 48 states (sorry, HI and AK), 38 ratified the amendment by convention, 1 rejected it (boo, SC), 1 rejected having a convention to consider it (NC), and 8 did not ratify (NE, KS, MS, OK, LA, ND, SD, and GA).

On December 5th, the measure passed, and Prohibition ended. Although repeal was to take effect on December 15th, many chose not to wait those 10 extra days.

But people still couldn’t have a cold one here in the nation’s capital. The District fell under federal jurisdiction, and the Sheppard Act remained on the books, so Washingtonians could not put the measure to a vote and were kept unwillingly dry. It was only with concerted effort from repeal groups that the Sheppard Act was rolled back. Beer and its cousins were finally made legal again in Washington, DC on March 1, 1934 – 86 long, painful days after Prohibition ended.

So on March 1st, I hope you’ll raise a (local) pint in honor of one of the happiest days in DC’s history.

Among the great resources on Prohibition and sources for this piece are the book “Prohibition in Washington, DC: How Dry We Weren’t” by the incomparable Garrett Peck; DCist and Washington Life interviews with Peck; Mark Benbow’s great Rusty Cans site; Prohibition in Washington DC; Alcohol Problems and Solutions; and Prohibition Repeal.

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