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Pinchot's Legacy: Pennsylvania's Liquor Control System

History's Headlines: Pinchot's Legacy: Pennsylvania's Liquor Control System

Over the 83 years since it was founded, Pennsylvania's state controlled liquor system has seen changes that have moved with the speed of a pre-global warming glacier. As recently as the 1980s it was still necessary in some places to have a store where a clerk went and picked a bottle for you from the back room after you told them what it was you wanted. The recent passing of legislation to extend wine sales beyond the state stores by allowing any business that holds a hotel or restaurant liquor license to sell up to four bottles of wine to go, has been hailed as a major breakthrough. But reports suggest that complex rules and regulations need to be drawn up before even this relatively modest proposal comes into action.

Why is Pennsylvania - a supposedly progressive northeastern state- still struggling with a liquor law that would do justice to the era of bootleggers and rum runners? Well the major reason is that after what social critic H.L. Mencken called "the 13 awful years" of Prohibition, in 1933 Governor Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) disagreed with the repeal of the 18th amendment. Since he was not prepared to impose a total ban on alcohol on the state he decided to create a system that gave the state the profits from the sales of it, and tight control of the distribution and use of it.

Who was Pinchot and why did he feel this way? Born into a wealthy family of timber barons in Milford, Pennsylvania, he is best known as one of the founders of the modern conservation movement. He was totally committed to the cause of wise use of America's forest resources. But as a Progressive Republican, Pinchot also made a strong commitment to the reform movement in politics. Because political bosses of the day ran a lot of their political activity out of saloons Pinchot, like many others, saw drinking alcohol as the root of the country's political corruption problem. He also believed it was the duty of government to safeguard the public and democracy itself by regulating public morality. Although many agreed with him, and recognized his desire to do public good, few were quite as outspoken about it as Pinchot. "Gifford is a dear," his close friend Theodore Roosevelt said of him, "but he is a fanatic."

Pinchot was to serve two terms as Pennsylvania's governor. The first was from 1923 to 1927, in which time he created many government programs like rural road building projects. He also saw to it that Prohibition was vigorously enforced. When the legislature refused some of his more drastic measures he got $150,000 from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Despite the rise of crime that came in its wake, Pinchot clung to Prohibition all the tighter. "Prohibition at its worst has been better than booze at its best," he replied to critics. By the time Pinchot began his second term in 1931 the country was in a general uproar against Prohibition. Even the governor could see the handwriting on the wall. And he decided to do something about it.

In November, 1933, after Pennsylvania voters voted overwhelmingly for the repeal of the 18th amendment, he called a special session of the legislature and with bi-partisan support drafted a plan that included a state monopoly of liquor sales, taxes and a system of state stores. This would provide revenue for unemployment relief, schools and old age pensions. Pinchot estimated by the end of his term in 1935 it would provide the state with $53 million. He contrasted it with efforts to raise revenue by establishing a state lottery system. Hating gambling, particularly state gambling, almost as much as he did drinking, the governor exploded at the suggestion. "That is the most absurd suggestion that has been brought to my attention in many a moon," he said, dismissing the concept out of hand. This caused one state official to quip "every Sunday the governor tries to make some change in the universe where the Lord hasn't done it right."

There had been agitation to repeal Prohibition in Lehigh County for quite some time. In 1928 General Harry C. Trexler pointed out that all Prohibition did was take the liquor trade out of the hands of respectable businessmen and turn it over to the worst possible elements in society. But the local press saw a lot to like in Pinchot's plan. In a November 16th 1933 editorial the Morning Call noted that relief funds were drying up. "Objection is made that this plan is Socialistic in tendency and an encouragement to the spread of the idea to other business," the editor wrote. "This may be nothing more than giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it. Certainly what is sought is a measure whereby enough revenue can be derived but whereby also bootlegging be discouraged because it cannot compete with the legal place and the legal article."

But the state store system still stuck in one local legislator's craw. State Rep. Eugene P. Gorman of Allentown felt it was a "curtailment of a man's right to drink when and where he pleases and is an infringement on his personal liberty." Apparently the rest of the State House did not agree, voting 144 to 61 to accept the state store system. On November 28, 1933 by a vote of 33 to 14 the State Senate approved the measure as well. The reason for their support may have had to do with the promise of state civil service jobs that the state store system brought with it. The newspapers were filled with articles about people lining up to take the test to get the coveted jobs in the midst of the Depression. Pinchot was also pleased, calling it "the best system of liquor control yet devised in America."


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