For the Good of the People

It is always a challenge in an ostensibly secular, but often overtly religious country to publicly address the purported divide between church and state. While the actual wording of the US Constitution does not explicitly state any such separation, Thomas Jefferson did, however, use the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, by way of explaining the intent of the First Amendment as it was ratified in 1791. A Deist himself, Jefferson did not believe in any of the traditional forms of Abrahamic god, and took the liberty of clipping out whole passages from the Four Gospels of the New Testament that did not fit Enlightenment or scientific ideas in order to create his own edition, the Jefferson Bible, or, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, his lack of religious devotion is cited as ratio decidendi in his proposed removal from Texas state history books in 2010 (a decision ultimately rescinded two months later due to public outrage).

Throughout history, the curious mixture of religion and politics has often resulted in explosions felt around the world. An interesting case occurred in 1920s America during its fanatical Prohibition stage. Passed in large part through an interdenominational organization of obstinate Anti-Saloon League members who had found their way into Congress during the 1910s, the 18th amendment had its own foundations in religious works. The ASL was founded by Congregational Church Reverend Howard Hyde Russell in 1893 due to his newfound conversion to religion, and adherence to the code set down in the bible; Dr. Robert Teachout summarized the Old Testament god’s take on intoxicating beverages as “Alcohol is never approved by God in any amount for the obedient Christian.” Through the 1920s, American politics was split into drys and wets, those who fervently supported Prohibition, and those who figured moderately spirited ingestion from time to time is a-ok.

Things got really interesting in 1926. The possibility of obtaining legal alcohol had been out of the question for six years already, and people were finding their own methods for formulating the drink. As early as 1904, poor people had been developing drinkable whiskey through the diluted use of cheaply obtained methyl alcohol, also known as wood alcohol. Useful in manufacturing, by government order industrial alcohol had been infused with different poisons (including wood alcohol) since 1906, and was available throughout most of Prohibition for legal use. Amateur chemists found ways to remove many of the poisons added, but wood alcohol remained an elusive foe; regardless, the drink developed from these industrial alcohols went up for sale. Unbeknownst to the average poverty-stricken alcoholic (or perhaps simply underestimated by them), wood alcohol breaks down into formaldehyde and formic acid upon human ingestion. Entering the bloodstream, it often blinded its victims before attacking the brain, and then catastrophically breaking down their lung tissue.

Wets and drys in Congress were aware of the problem of continued alcoholic consumption, as well as the related deaths, and on December 29, 1926 the New York Times announced the decision of the political elite: GOVERNMENT TO DOUBLE ALCOHOL POISON CONTENT AND ALSO ADD BENZINE. As dry legislators proclaimed, no one would be dead if people simply obeyed the law and tried to live in a morally upright fashion. This double dose was to be added by industrial manufacturers starting January 1, 1927, and remained a part of the system until the introduction of a new chemical, alcotate, in December of 1930, which was non-poisonous but made the stuff taste terrible. Countrywide, by the time Prohibition quietly came to a close in 1933, an estimated 10,000 American citizens had been poisoned by their government in an abject lesson in “morality”.

Main sources:

Blum, Deborah. The Chemist’s War. Feb. 19, 2010.

Blum, Deborah. The Poisoner’s Handbook. Penguin Press, 2010. pp 152-164.

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