As it does every so often, Pennsylvania’s state run liquor system is once more making headlines.
Should it be sold? Who should it be sold to? Would selling it cost more money than it would bring in? What would happen to all of the workers who currently work in the state run liquor stores? Would crime increase or decrease?
None of these questions would have necessarily seemed unfamiliar to Pennsylvanians who were there in 1933 when the system was created. And you would not have had to ask anyone at that time who was behind its creation.
Governor Gifford Pinchot, a militant prohibitionist, made no apologies for his role in the state liquor system. In fact, he saw it as one of the most important achievements of his career.
Pinchot was much more than a prohibitionist. Although his family had made a fortune denuding the state’s landscape of trees, he was a militant conservationist. In fact it might well be said that as the first chief forester of the United States he was the father of the conservation movement. A Progressive Republican, in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he had a close personal and political friendship, Pinchot believed it was the duty of the state to regulate industry and nature for the good of all.
Whether it was creating a rural road system to “get the farmers out of the mud” or arguing for the state to take over electrical utilities from the power companies, he was militant about it.
And those who did not agree with him were not just political opponents- they were, in his eyes, enemies and morally evil. Pinchot believed it was the state’s duty to set a higher moral standard. When a legislator suggested a state lottery to help bring in revenue in the Depression, Pinchot reacted with scorn. “That is the most absurd suggestion that has been made to me in many a moon,” he dryly remarked.
When a state senator made a comment that Pinchot’s wife had been seen drinking, the governor charged into the Senate chamber, confronted the offending legislator and threatened to horsewhip him if he did not take back his remark. The senator meekly complied.
But even those who supported his point of view- including Roosevelt- sometimes found Pinchot too rigid for his own good and for the causes he was supporting. “Gifford is a dear,” Roosevelt wrote a friend, “but he is a fanatic.”
Pinchot firmly believed that liquor was at the root of evil political corruption. It led to saloon keeper politicians buying the votes of ignorant immigrants and using them to corrupt the system, he thought. Not one for half measures, Pinchot firmly believed that the country needed Prohibition. He cheered the passage of the 18th amendment that brought its arrival in the 1920s.
As the decade wore on it soon became clear to many that whatever its supporters had hoped, Prohibition was not working out. General Harry C. Trexler, a longtime foe of Pinchot for a number of reasons, noted in 1928 that prohibition was not working. “It has taken the liquor business out of the hands of perfectly respectable citizens and turned it over to the worst class in society,” he told a Philadelphia newspaper man.
Pinchot and those who thought like him did not want to hear these arguments. He increased state funds to support the law and was cheered on by the Anti-Saloon League and other groups. But in 1932 the election of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt on a platform to repeal Prohibition meant that the issue would soon be dead.
As always, Pinchot had a plan. If the federal government was going to make “booze buying” legal he was going to be sure that the state of Pennsylvania was not only going to regulate it but also profit from it.
On November 13, 1933 at a special session of the legislature, Pinchot outlined his proposal. The state would have a monopoly on the buying and selling of liquor. It would collect taxes on it. And a system of state stores staffed by state employees would run it. Money would go to unemployment relief, schools, old age pensions, and public works construction.
But the state store concept drew some fire as a new and dangerous innovation. The Morning Call took the issue straight on in a November 16, 1933 editorial:
“Objection is that this is Socialistic in tendency and an encouragement to spread of the idea to other business. 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 will be discouraged because it can’t compete with the legal place and the legal article.”
In the end the state store system had an appeal that surprised some. It would provide jobs in the middle of a Depression. The House passed the legislation by a vote of 144 to 61 and the Senate did the same by a vote of 33-14.
Allentown Representative Eugene J. Gorman was among those opposed. He saw the state store system as the “curtailment of a man’s right to drink when and where he pleases and it is an infringement on personal freedom.”
But the job was done and Governor Pinchot thanked the General Assembly for creating “the best system of liquor control yet devised in America.”