President Franklin D. Roosevelt Celebrates the End of Prohibition, Reaching for a Drink of Fine Port

Breaking out a 51 year old bottle for Christmas 1933, just weeks after repeal, he says “It was a great privilege for the family to drink the family toast… in an honest product”.

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He envisions a great American wine-producing industry, while taking a swipe at European nations who were defaulting on their World War I debts

After the Civil War, a movement developed strength that had as its goal the outlawing of alcoholic beverages. Organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League,...

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Celebrates the End of Prohibition, Reaching for a Drink of Fine Port

Breaking out a 51 year old bottle for Christmas 1933, just weeks after repeal, he says “It was a great privilege for the family to drink the family toast… in an honest product”.

He envisions a great American wine-producing industry, while taking a swipe at European nations who were defaulting on their World War I debts

After the Civil War, a movement developed strength that had as its goal the outlawing of alcoholic beverages. Organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, aided by many religious groups, demanded and agitated for it for this prohibition for decades. The proponents of prohibition maintained that banning alcoholic beverages would reduce or even eliminate many social problems, particularly drunkenness, spousal and child abuse, crime, mental illness, and poverty. Moreover, they claimed that prohibition would eventually lead to reductions in taxes, since drinking supposedly produced half the business for institutions supported by tax dollars such as courts, jails, hospitals, almshouses, and insane asylums. Under the din of this pressure, in 1919 the requisite number of state legislatures had approved the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that implemented national Prohibition in the United States, effective in January 1920.

But these benefits did not pan out. During Prohibition, people continued to produce and drink alcohol, and bootlegging fostered a massive industry under the control of organized crime. Drunkenness and crime soared, and criminals like Al Capone became famous. Drinking in speakeasies became increasingly fashionable, and violating the law gained luster and allure. All of the activities associated with this underground life and iconoclastic worldview made the Twenties roar, and resulted in significant changes in society, particularly relating to women’s activities. Prohibitionists argued that Prohibition would be more effective if enforcement were increased. However, the federal government could not contain it, and increased efforts to enforce Prohibition simply resulted in the government spending more money with no appreciable effect. The economic cost of Prohibition is estimated as high as $11 billion in lost in federal liquor-tax revenue and $310 million spent on Prohibition enforcement, way more than enough to matter.

A movement to repeal Prohibition gathered steam in the 1920s, as the problems associated with it became more and more manifest. The onset of the Great Depression created momentum for the repeal movement, because of the tax and expense loss, but also because it seemed like government efforts should be concentrated on fighting the Depression, and people enduring hardships became less and less willing to accept that they could not have a drink to boost their spirits. The voice of the people became repeal, though the Prohibitionists remained strong.

Congress proposed and passed the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition on February 20, 1933. President Hoover did not sign it, but Franklin D. Roosevelt did on March 22, just 18 days after his inauguration. Upon signing, FDR, who liked to start to evening with a drink, made his famous remark,“”I think this would be a good time for a beer.” Worried that the lawmakers of many states were either beholden to or simply fearful of the temperance lobby, Congress did not send the amendment to the state legislatures, as it did with all other proposed amendments, but instead opted to send it to state conventions specifically called to consider ratifying this amendment. The Twenty-first Amendment was approved by 38 of these conventions and adopted on December 5, 1933. Prohibition was over.

During the war, mainly in 1917-1919, the U.S. had advanced allied European countries the astounding sum of $10 billion in goods and credit. The main debtor nations were France and Britain, with significant aid also going to Italy. Pursuant to the Versailles Treaty, Germany owed those nations huge reparations (an unrealistic $33 billion). But after the war, Germany could not pay, so the U.S. loaned it money to help pay those debts, making a triangle of payments/non-payments. Defaults by their creditors plus a disinclination to spend badly needed resources on debt repayment all resulted in the Europeans going into default on the payments due to the U.S. Americans were outraged, considering this a kind of betrayal, and this influenced America’s withdrew into isolationism in the 1920s. Then the Depression broke out, and the money the Europeans were not paying the U.S. was urgently and desperately needed, adding to American irritation.

The American wine making industry was decimated by Prohibition. Many talented winemakers had died or moved abroad, and vineyards had been neglected or replanted with table grapes. Americans who wanted wine had to buy a foreign product. Of course, the chief wine-producing countries were France, Italy and Germany, the very nations that had defaulted on their World War I debts.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, January 9, 1934, marked “Private”, to Sweet, just a month after his inauguration, admitting to enjoying a drink, thanking him for his gift of a bottle of fine port, slamming debtor nations, and foreseeing a time when Americans would again excel in wine production. ”On Christmas evening there was a family gathering at the White House and at the end of the dinner I made a little speech introducing New York State fifty-one year old Port. All I can tell you is that it was a great privilege for the family to drink the family toast (including one to Santa Claus, alias George Sweet) in an honest product, of an honest family of good old honest up state. Incidentally, you have confirmed my thought that this country, if it insists on remaining bibulous, might just as well make its own wine as buy it from people who do not pay their debts. You could not have given us a nicer Christmas present, and we are all duly grateful. Be sure to run down this winter to see me and let me know beforehand.”

FDR’s vision of a revived and prominent wine-producing industry could not gain traction during the Depression, when consumers needed cheap product, nor in the World War II years when attentions were diverted elsewhere. But starting in the 1960s and 1970s, an outstanding American wine industry arose that now fulfills every hope and dream Roosevelt could have had. The Debtor nations never did repay the U.S. as agreed. The installments had to be reduced in amount and extended over decades, in some cases sixty years. Then the Depression and World War II came, and made this a back burner issue. Hard to believe, but many nations, including Great Britain, are still paying off their World War I debt today.

This historic letter appears to be unpublished, as we can find no mention of it. It remained in the hands of the Sweet descendants until now, and has never before been offered for sale. Included is an ALS from a White House staffer to an aide of Sweet, dated January 12, 1934, acknowledging the gift of port and saying it was “very much appreciated”.

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