It is difficult for us today to grasp what a powerful issue Prohibition was in its heyday. We instinctively see the 18th Amendment as an aberration that was never fully accepted or enforced, and surmise that the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was repealed in 1933, having been the law of the land for only about 14 years. If remembered at all, these years are recalled as a time of corruption and racketeering, while the widespread alcoholism and its attendant evils, which spawned the reform movement, are not focused on.
However, it is also true that the passage of the Volstead Act also was the culmination of a powerful reform movement that had its roots deep in the 19th century. The widespread use and abuse of alcohol led to the formation of a nationwide temperance movement (“temperance” being something of a misnomer, as the crusaders’ goal was not temperate use of alcohol but its total abolition) and one in which women played a key role from the beginning, thus paving the way for the simultaneous suffrage movement.
The divide between “drys” and “wets” ran across party lines, but generally the “progressives” were more fervently on the “dry” side. Most leading national politicians of the 1920s paid lip service to the dry cause while not being enthusiastic supporters. Woodrow Wilson, for one, was enough of a progressive to understand and support in principle the cause, but also enough of a realist to appreciate that his party’s strength depended in no little part on hard-drinking ethnicities. He enjoyed the occasional highball, and appeared to believe that moderation was an acceptable form of temperance. Following ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920, not one of the six men who ran for president on a major party ticket – Warren G. Harding, James M. Cox, Calvin Coolidge, John W. Davis, Herbert Hoover, and Al Smith – was an unequivocal advocate of Prohibition, Smith being the first to dare run an openly wet campaign. Warren Harding’s Washington was basically awash in alcohol from the moment he took the oath of office. He had been a dry as a matter of convenience only, staying just barely on the good side of the powerful Anti-Saloon League. His laissez-faire attitude toward liquor was demonstrated in a sociable nature that made him not at all averse to putting a foot on the brass rail.
The Coolidge White House and the Harding White House was famously described by the acid-tongued Alice Roosevelt Longworth as being as different “as a New England front parlor is from the back room of a speakeasy.” While no teetotaler, Coolidge had not much use for alcohol and there is every reason to believe that he remained personally dry during his years in the White House. When the artist Frank O. Salisbury came to the White House to paint the presidential portrait, Coolidge offered him a cigar; when Salisbury replied that he did not smoke, Coolidge said, “Well, there is very little in these days that we can offer you.” In his excellent volume on Prohibition, “Last Call”, author Daniel Okrent makes the case that Coolidge’s belief in limited government rendered him reluctant to strengthen enforcement. According to Okrent, apart from beefing up the Coast Guard against alcohol smuggling, Coolidge’s most visible effort in behalf of Prohibition occurred during a state visit to Cuba, where he toasted Cuban president Machado with a glass of water. On the other hand, Coolidge cut the Prohibition Bureau’s budget during the boom year of 1926. Overall, Republican progressives and drys, such as Pennsylvania governor Pinchot considered Coolidge a wimp or, worse, a closet wet. The most powerful man in the cabinet, Andrew Mellon, who as Treasury Secretary also was the nation’s Chief Prohibition Enforcement Officer, loathed the law and was less than zealous in his efforts.
Historian Robert H. Ferrell is probably correct in summarizing that what seems to have happened during the Prohibition era is that political leaders [Coolidge included] gave in to the dry movement because they felt they had to, and then followed a course of benign neglect toward enforcement, sensing that Prohibition would either gather support and make itself effective or lose support and go down to defeat.
I can’t resist adding an anecdote related by Coolidge biographer Donald R. McCoy: on their single long post-presidential trip, Calvin and Grace Coolidge visited publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst‘s palatial California estate, San Simeon, in January 1930. Here, Coolidge
“took a drink, perhaps for the first time since prohibition went into effect. Hearst asked him whether he would prefer a cocktail or an apéritif. Coolidge said, “I don’t drink.” “Neither do I,” the publisher replied. “But I find that a sip of this wine is an excellent appetizer.” The former president asked, “Is it alcoholic?””Not perceptibly,” Hearst said. “The alcoholic content is slight.” Coolidge tried a glass of Tokay, found it to his liking, and had another. Then he said brightly, “I must remember this.” (McCoy, Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President,p.397 cited from the Hearst biography, Citizen Hearst)
It should be noted that Prohibition did not make possession and consumption of alcohol illegal; those who, like Hearst or film star Mary Pickford, who reportedly bought up an entire liquor store, bought theirs before Prohibition took effect, were on the good side of the law.
Please also refer to the excellent commentary on Coolidge and Prohibition by Cyndy Bittinger on the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation website.