Marlena Raines

The Prohibition, a ban on the importation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933, is largely known not for the alcohol ban that it enforced, but for being the only constitutional amendment to have ever been repealed in its entirety. A champion of the temperance movement, the amendment, amongst other negative effects, led to an increase in organized crime and spectacular public backlash. This backlash transcended race, geographic location, and age, meaning that, just like the rest of the United States, college campuses were a battleground in the fight to repeal the amendment. Yale University was no different.

The following is a transcript of a 1926 testimony in front of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary against prohibition by Senator James Reed of Missouri. Also testifying is Russell Lee Post, a Yale University student.

Senator Reed of Missouri: What are the facts with reference to the ability of students to obtain liquor?

Mr. Post: Why, it is obtainable, sir; the greater the attempts at enforcement the stronger the sentiment against it.

Senator Reed of Missouri: Do bootleggers ply their trade among the students?

Mr. Post: Well, it is the reverse; the students go to the bootleggers.

Senator Reed of Missouri: The students go to the bootleggers?

Mr. Post: Yes; they do not enter the university campus.

Senator Reed of Missouri: Is there any difficulty of any student of ordinary intelligence—and I presume they are all that at Yale University—getting all the whisky he wants to buy, or alleged whisky at least?

Mr. Post: No, sir.

Senator Reed of Missouri: Is this liquor drunk on the campus or in the quarters of the students?

Mr. Post: Yes, sir.

Senator Reed of Missouri: And is it drunk elsewhere?

Mr. Post: Yes, sir.

Senator Reed of Missouri: That is all.

Four years later, a 1930 article published in the Harvard Crimson described a poll conducted by the Yale Daily News, in which Yale students voted overwhelmingly (five to one) in favor of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. The same poll also found that around 75 percent of Yalies drank alcohol. Although the article was written in 1930, a thriving culture of alcohol on campus still persists: recent data from the Office of Institutional Research and the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiat​ive found that around 85 percent of Yale students drink alcohol, a consistent flouting of the laws that, in the spirit of the prohibition, continues to this day.

Let’s set the scene: it’s Old Campus on a Friday night, and you’re on the pathway below one of the dormitory buildings. We’ll say it’s Bingham. You can hear the thumping music reverberating from a few floors above you. You look up and see, outlined against the hazy sky, the lights of the room in question flitting indecisively between different colors. Green and then purple and then green again and then maybe a red thrown in for good measure. You can feel the music too, the bass merging with your heartbeat until you’re not quite sure whether the pounding in your ears belongs to you or the suite that you’re eyeing. Does it really matter? You walk up the stairs.

You enter, and a rush of body odor and heat crashes down around you, a wave of smells and people and the rhythmic thumping of the song that you could swear you’ve heard before, over and over and over. You make your way through the crowd, until you get to a part less filled with people than the part that you were just at, but the bass still hurts your ears and it’s still too uncomfortably hot, and the person you walked in with found the guy who sat two rows behind them in lecture that one day and, at least for the time being, is occupied. It seems like the music is getting louder. Is it getting louder? How on earth have the frocos not heard the music by now? (Upon reflection, you realize that they most definitely heard the music a long time ago).

And then, of course, there’s the alcohol. It feels illegal, for it to be sitting there so brazenly. It is illegal, for all intents and purposes. And yet, there it is. Surrounded by overturned red solo cups, the pinnacle of the American college experience. A mysterious stain seeps out of one of them and slowly spreads across the table, which is dotted by collectible shot glasses and empty and half-empty bottles. It’s yours for the taking, as long as you want it.

Yale is fully aware that underage drinking occurs. First-years watch a series of videos before arriving on campus that detail their policies surrounding alcohol safety, including laws that allow for people to seek help for intoxicated friends without facing punishment. Other videos include tips on how to drink safely, such as the proper ratio of alcohol to mixer. First-year counselors send reminders in group chats to drink in moderation on nights that are known to have parties. Underage drinking is against the law, and yet.

100 years ago, America was just entering the roaring ‘20s, a period known for rapid consumerism, an economic boom and then a devastating crash, a cultural renaissance, and, among much else, the prohibition. Drinking alcohol was illegal, and yet.

100 years has brought innumerable changes to American society. We have achieved inconceivable advances in technology, for one. Social media, “fake news,” automation. We have elected landmark politicians who have then passed landmark legislation. We have continuously hurtled towards climate catastrophe, which leaves a trail of natural disasters that have altered topography and lifestyles in its wake. But, in many ways, we’ve remained the same. Russell Lee Post, the Yale student who testified in 1926 in front of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, could very well have attended a similar suite party as the one in Bingham. Granted, there probably weren’t multicolored lights, and rap music with an overbearing bass likely didn’t rattle his eardrums. He definitely wasn’t drinking White Claw, which originated in the 1980s, nor was he using a Red Solo Cup — those weren’t available until 1936. But the alcohol, brazenly sitting on the mysteriously stained table, obtained off-campus and smuggled in with a paper bag — the alcohol that is illegal and yet, as he testifies in front of a Senate Committee, is available for anyone who wants it — well, that is not different at all.

Madison Hahamy | madison.hahamy@yale.edu

  • CaptainJackAubrey

    “The Prohibition, a ban on the importation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933, is largely known not for the alcohol ban that it enforced, but for being the only constitutional amendment to have ever been repealed in its entirety.”

    I disagree with this. I think Prohibition is known almost entirely for the ban.