Prohibition and the good Bordeaux
When Prohibition became the law of the land, it was not very popular in south Louisiana. I’m told that some of the best illegal whiskey made anywhere during those supposedly dry days came from communities along Bayou Teche, and that smuggling in factory-made stuff was a substantial enterprise along parts of the Louisiana coast and in the Atchafalaya Basin.
The ban on booze went into effect on Jan. 17, 1920, when the Volstead Act spelled out how the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be implemented. The Louisiana legislature had ratified the amendment by only a narrow margin in November. Legislators from north and central “dry” parishes scraped together just enough votes to overcome vigorous objections from New Orleans and the “wet” parishes of south Louisiana.
But then French Louisiana found an unexpected ally in Mrs. Chauncey Olcott, a woman in Paris who mounted a serious, though short-lived, legal fight, claiming that Louisiana should have been exempt from the law altogether because of our French heritage.
She argued that the Louisiana Purchase treaty between France and the United States in 1803 gave France the perpetual right to send liquor to the Louisiana Territory, and that the treaty superseded the prohibition amendment She maintained that the treaty was international law, while the Constitution was limited only to the United States.
The New York Times reported the story on Aug. 6, 1922, and said that U.S. constitutional lawyers were “unimpressed” with her argument.
It could have been a big problem if she was right. Said the Times: “Officials ... pointed out that if France possessed any such treaty right, superior to the American Constitution, the great belt of States west of the Mississippi ... would again become wet.” That would include not only Louisiana, but Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
“The Washington viewpoint,” the Times said, “is that no treaty can rise superior to the Constitution. It has been repeatedly held by the Supreme Court that treaties, like law, to be valid must be constitutional and that any treaty contravening the Constitution must fall of its own weight.”
Scholars said the key fault in Mrs. Olcott’s argument was that the treaty granted rights to France in “the Louisiana Territory.” They said parts of the treaty that protected French trade while Louisiana was only a territory may have had some validity, but that the 1803 treaty became generally moot once Louisiana became a state.
It does not appear that the case ever actually went to court, so Prohibition continued to be observed in Louisiana, but not as religiously by the people of south Louisiana as in some other places. Lots of them took full advantage of the fact that it was never illegal to drink during Prohibition. The law never actually banned consumption of alcohol — just making it, selling it, and shipping it. If you could get it, you could drink it.
That kept a good many folks busy making their own replacements for the good French Bordeaux Mrs. Olcott wanted to sell us, or running out into the Gulf to meet boats hauling crates of fine scotch or good bourbon distilled someplace else.
A ditty of the day sums up the attitude in much of south Louisiana:
Momma makes brandy from cherries;
Poppa makes whisky and gin;
Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine —
My gosh, how the money rolls in!
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.