The committee of fifty and the origins of alcohol control by Harry G. Levine

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Originally published in The Journal of Drug Issues (special issue on the political economy of alcohol), Winter, 1983 pp. 95-116.


By Harry G. Levine

Abstract: This paper examines the ideas and policy recommendations of an early 20th century, upper-class research organization called the Committee of Fifty. The paper discusses the Committee of Fifty’s ideas about prohibition (which it opposed), about the working class (which it sought to control), about social order (which was its primary concern), and about U.S. alcohol control policy (which it was the first to systematically outline)

I. Introduction

The story of the liquor problem in America has almost always been told as the story of “Prohibition.” The passage of constitutional Prohibition and the experiences of the 1920’s have so affected American consciousness that they have determined the shape and content of virtually all subsequent historical inquiries. Thus the 19th century temperance movement, a broad movement concerned with a range of social issues, has been viewed as the prohibition movement. The still definitive work on the invention or discovery of the liquor question in the early 19th century was written in 1925, in the middle of Prohibition; and the issue which underlay all the rich social history the author, John A. Krout, reported, was reflected in the title: The Origins of Prohibition. For Krout, and most everyone since him, national Prohibition was the lens through which the history of concern and public discussion about drinking, drunkenness and temperance was viewed.

Further, most writing about Prohibition has been done from the perspective of those who were relieved it ended. Prohibition has been presented as an unusual episode and repeal as evidence that common sense prevailed among the American people and its politicians. The general impression given is that a sane, reasonable system for controlling the production and distribution of alcohol replaced Prohibition. What is almost never mentioned, much less discussed, is that the system or systems of control and regulation—alcohol control it was called—which replaced national Prohibition in the 1930s, was a political creation. It was formed with conscious design and intention to do particular things and not others, and to meet only certain needs and interests. What the alternatives to Prohibition were, where they came from, who advocated them and why, is part of the largely unknown history of the liquor question.

Once one’s gaze moves away from Prohibition to its alternatives, a new and unexplored set of questions appears. Where did the alternatives to Prohibition come from? What were the arguments made on behalf of them? Where did the phrase “alcohol control” come from and what has it meant—what have people been talking about when they have talked about alcohol control? Who has advocated alcohol control and what has been their class background? What has been the history and fate of various plans for a legalized alcohol beverage industry? How have they changed over time? Have the experiences of other nations been important in formulating American plans? Have ideas or programs spread from country to country? What has been the role of the liquor industry in formulating alternatives? Have they put forth their own plans? What happened at the end of national Prohibition—where did the plans which were actually adopted come from? What was the character of public discussion around the time of repeal? And so on.

This paper begins to answer some of the above questions about the origins of contemporary alcohol control policy. Most of the main political and economic structures which today govern the sale and distribution of alcohol beverages were fully designed and put into place in the years immediately proceeding and following the repeal of national prohibition in December 1933. Around that time there was probably the greatest public attention and publicity given to the question of the principles which should govern alcohol policy. A great many articles, books, research projects, pamphlets, and speeches criticized and analyzed Prohibition, and discussed alternatives to Prohibition which they called “alcohol control” (Levine and Smith, 1977). However, there was by the 1930s a rich European literature on the question of alcohol control, and it was not the first time such ideas had been proposed in America. Thirty years earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, many of the key ideas which would be again articulated in the years preceding and following repeal, were first developed and presented.

The question of alcohol control—that is, the use of government to routinely and systematically regulate, control, supervise, and police the manufacture and especially the distribution of alcoholic beverages—was not a 19th century concern. “Laissez-faire” is the phrase most used to describe government regulation in the 19th century, especially with regard to alcohol; state action tended to negate, prohibit or abolish; or when positive, it tended to be one-shot: creating or making something possible. However, the emergence of corporate capitalism at the end of the 19th century produced a new vision of the role of the state in society. Now government was to be an active manager, watching over, controlling and regulating everyday production and consumption. It was in the 20th century that Congress and Presidents created a wide variety of governmental boards and commissions to watch over and regulate routine affairs of trade, commerce, business, welfare, sanitation, transportation, housing, health, and so on.

The origins of contemporary alcohol control policy are found in this broad effort—sometimes identified by the name Progressivism—that in the early 20th century sought government regulation in many areas of daily life. Those individuals and groups seeking regulation were usually from the new corporate society—representatives of the corporations and of the new middle-class professionals. The literature on alcohol control was not written by reformers tied to broad social movements. Rather, it was the work of members of the upper class, and of professionals, scientists, academics, journalists, and administrators—people with a stake in and commitment to the new society. (Perhaps the best overview of the rise of the regulatory ethos is Wiebe, 1967; also see Kolko, 1963, and Hofstader, 1955).

The Committee of Fifty was a private research group organized in 1893; by 1905, it had completed its work and had issued five books on the liquor question. The Committee is known by some individuals working in alcohol studies, especially sociology and history. But except for the dissertation chapter [and later book chapter] by John J. Rumbarger, nothing has been published on it. Sometimes the Committee is mentioned in passing in histories of temperance of Prohibition (e.g., Timberlake, Sinclair), but because it was not prohibitionist, and because it did not have a significant political impact at the time, it is invariably ignored.

This paper briefly discusses the background and explicates the main ideas of the Committee of Fifty, identifying the sometimes hidden targets of its arguments and the social contexts of its analyses. The main theme of this paper is that the Committee of Fifty represents the first substantial articulations of what would be the distinctive 20th century intellectual and political framework for viewing the place of alcohol in society. This involved a) a borrowing and critique of temperance positions on alcohol; b) a political and administrative critique of prohibition, and c) the presentation of alternate policies and guidelines for governmental management of the distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Further, the Committee’s position was worked out by active and important members of the American upper class, and skilled professionals that they knew and trusted. The Committee’s findings and policy recommendations were in general shaped in response to broad economic and political conditions of the times, and to questions and problems facing the new middle-class professionals, and especially the corporate elite.

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