Spirited Debate: How Students Received Prohibition
Updated: Jul 18
How students received Prohibition.
By Jordana Narin
“What’s all this talk of Prohibition being repealed? We ain’t never even heard of Prohibition,” declared a “joint statement from a joint on the fifth floor of John Jay” in the Columbia Daily Spectator on December 4, 1933. Booze, banned after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919, was back.
Then again, it didn’t go far in the first place. Just as Columbians today generally ignore the ban on cannabis, few Prohibition-era students abided by the dry laws—a May 1930 poll found that campus was 88 percent wet. “The speakeasy has been regarded by him as no more a phenomenon than the corner-drug store or delicatessen,” said the Spectator upon the law’s repeal.
But despite what seems to be a nearly universal flagrant disregard of the law, Prohibition provided a general framework of complex, conflicting, and often combative campus discussion. It was the subject of a decade’s worth of essay competitions, guest lectures, panels. Had a University Senate existed at the time, it is doubtless that students would have attended town halls on the matter.
Campus media, as it is today, was fertile ground for mudslinging on both sides. Fond of polls, the Spectator frequently tabulated student opinion on the ban. While Prohibition’s popularity waned over the course of its thirteen year lifespan, it initially found strong support from the student body. The Spectator reported overwhelming approval in 1916 and, three years later, published a straw poll noting that 1151 students were unqualifiedly in favor, 221 unqualifiedly opposed, and 512 in favor with the exceptions of light beer and wine.
Unsurprisingly, by 1930, another Spectator poll indicated that only 105 students voted for continued enforcement of Prohibition, with 248 in support of modification and 509 for all-out repeal. While straw polls were common at this time, this particular poll recorded the highest percentage of ballots cast against the Eighteenth Amendment of any college in the east.
Student opinion notwithstanding, the Spec editorial board took a decidedly War On Fun stance on the matter. Responding to a letter calling Prohibition a failure and advocating for repeal written in 1924 by University President Nicholas Murray Butler (of library fame), Spec wrote, “Prohibition is not a bad thing simply because it is not easy. What great reform was ever accomplished along the lines of least resistance?” On the position of Barnard activists against Prohibition (in contrast to ardent support they, along with other women’s movements, initially gave the law), the Spectator published, “They still refuse to admit that the Prohibition law, put through by their votes in 1918, is a failure and a reflection on their use of the voting privilege” in 1932.
Despite all this fervent editorializing, the next year on December 6th, 1933, one day after the repeal of Prohibition, the paper wrote, “To the average student, Prohibition never really meant anything.” This seems like an oversimplification. Prohibition played a huge role—perhaps only gleaned in hindsight—in providing students on campus with a constant source of contention and debate, despite failing to regulate what they drank.