Alcohol consumption is a divisive and enduring issue in Arkansas, driven over time by religion, politics, and economics. As early as 1768 Captain Alexandre de Clouet traveled to Arkansas Post on the orders of the Spanish governor to explain the debilitating effects of alcohol to the local Quapaw Indians. In 1787 the Spanish colonial government outlawed the sale of alcohol to the Quapaw, and Arkansas Territory extended the ban to all Arkansas Native American tribes in 1806. Ashen victims of the violent New Madrid earthquake, the first clutch of Little Rockians resettled here under a relief bill passed in the 1810s, found themselves toe-to-toe with traveling bands of swindlers, mercenaries, and traders, many of them "swallowed up in dram-drinking, jockeying, and gambling." By 1820 central Arkansas was so thick with saloons that the state government began taxing them to slow down growth in the business. It didn't work. The Little Rock Temperance Society, a chapter of the evangelical American Temperance Society, was founded in 1831. The Little Rock Temperance Society was populated with local businessmen and others in the middle class who wished to keep tippling at a minimum in order to promote order in a frontier society. Ten years later the Arkansas State Temperance Society organized a march through downtown Little Rock on Main Street.
In 1853 the Arkansas State Legislature banned the sale of alcohol to slaves without owner permission.
During the Civil War, the state banned the manufacture of whiskey in order to husband supplies of corn for military use. The Confederate governor Harris Flanagin later admitted that the banning had failed. After the war, federal revenue agents began hunting down moonshiners in the state flaunting the federal excise tax on whiskey and other spirits. Into the time of the Civil War Arkansas, and the South, continued to be known as "the land of Dixie and whiskey."
In 1876 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) founds the the first Arkansas chapter of that organization in Monticello. The first state conference of the WCTU took place in Searcy in 1879. By 1888 the state had seventy-five WCTU chapters.
General Assembly in 1879 passed a local-option law requiring that Arkansas communities vote on dry county measures at least every two years. An 1885 law closed saloons on Sundays, and an 1899 law outlawed the sale of alcohol from one private citizen to another. In 1894, prominent businessmen and politicians organized themselves into the Arkansas chapter of the Anti-Saloon League. Many counties by 1900 had already made themselves "dry." The Anti-Saloon League fell apart around 1906 because of intense rivalries between church member denominations.
The Arkansas Liquor Law of 1913 made the entire state officially dry, though anti-prohibitionists claimed a small victory in that the act allowed saloons and bars to petition county courts for licenses, much like Arkansas bars and clubs do today. The Newberry Act of 1915 outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol within state borders. In the year of the passage of the Newberry Act, only twelve counties remained "wet."
The shipment of liquor into the state was prohibited two years later under the Arkansas State Liquor Law of 1917. Commonly called the "Bone Dry" Liquor Law, the 1917 law outlawed "the transportation, delivery, and storage of liquor, excepting only alcohols used for scientific, religious, and medical purposes." The "Bone Dry" Law finally finished off "wet" supporters in Arkansas by attempting to completely eliminate alcohol sales in the state. The only victory left for them to claim was a Supreme Court decision that the "Bone Dry" Law did not prevent individuals from crossing into the state with alcohol.
The full intention of the "Bone Dry" Liquor Law of 1917 came to a climax in 1919 when Arkansas ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, making the sale of alcohol illegal in the entire United States. Arkansas became the twenty-seventh state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The Governor of Arkansas at the time, Charles Brough, was a major supporter of the 1917 act, as well as a supporter of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. An interesting footnote to the Prohibition fight in Arkansas is that many of the successes could be attributed to prominent African-Americans in the state urging blacks with voting rights to pass prohibition measures.
Prohibition laws in general made clandestine drinking and bootlegging much more popular. During Prohibition, the illegal distillation of alcohol was a significant business in Arkansas, especially in the Ouachita Mountains. Al Capone, who often visited Hot Springs for the spas and gambling, contracted with bootleggers in the Ouachita Forest to provide alcohol for his clubs in Chicago. This moonshine was shipped to Chicago in bottles and train cars labeled as belonging to the Hot Springs-based Mountain Valley Spring Water company.
During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas organized vigilante groups they called "Cleanup Committees" to enforce the prohibition laws. The Klan was especially active in the oil towns of southern Arkansas. In November of 1922, one "Cleanup Committee" expelled an estimated 2,000 people from the town of Smackover after attacking liquor and gambling dens there.
Prohibition ended in failure. Following the sweeping Democratic victories in the 1932 elections, long-time Arkansas Senator Joseph Taylor Robinson drafted and introduced legislation to repeal the eighteenth amendment. The measure received widespread support because many Americans believed the sale of alcohol would stimulate the economy, which was currently in the midst of the Great Depression. The federal withdrawal from legislated morality was accomplished by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933. Fifty-nine percent of Arkansans voted for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. For two more years, Arkansas prohibited the sale of beer and wine with more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume. In 1935, faced with yawning Depression-era deficits, the General Assembly legalized the manufacture and sale of all types and concentrations of alcoholic beverages to raise revenue.
Liquor sales in hotels and restaurants was permitted under a General Assembly law passed in 1943.
An act drafted by the Temperance League of Arkansas failed in election by an 167,578-122,252 margin in 1950.
A mixed-drink bill framed by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller passed in 1969.
Legislation championed by Senator Lu Hardin in 1993 made local-option votes on wet/dry counties more difficult by raising the petition requirement to 38 percent of all registered voters.
- Tom Dillard, "How's About a Drink?" Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 18, 2010.
- Jack Schnedler, "Bottle Battles: The Never-Ending War Over Alcohol in Arkansas Plays Out in a Sprightly Exhibit and Book," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 8, 2005.
- Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 234.
- Old State House exhibit - John Barleycorn Must Die: The War against Drink in Arkansas
- Old State House - Bone Dry Law
Articles in category "Alcohol"
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