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Living History: Note to evildoers, no happy hours for you
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

To call the Utah Legislature's approach to alcohol "puritanical" does historical injury to the Puritans, who shipped out to the New World with 42 tons of beer and 10,000 gallons of wine. And to say that the sober deliberations of the Founding Fathers were necessarily sober neglects the bar bills they ran up in Philadelphia.

It's also a mistake to think the LDS Church always had a hard line on alcohol. The Word of Wisdom, Joseph Smith's 1833 "health" revelation, has more to say about reducing beef intake than booze. For years it was treated as good advice, not divine diktat.

Brigham Young had barely said, "This is the place" before Mormon immigrants began building breweries. And on a visit to Salt Lake City, Mark Twain noted Mormons drank something called Valley Tan, "a kind of whisky, or close cousin to it."

Rather than revelation, the historical roots of Utah's screwy state liquor laws can be traced to the end of Prohibition. Before repeal of the 18th Amendment, Utah's relationship with alcohol more or less reflected what was going on in the rest of the nation.

In 1896, LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith discouraged a state constitution that would bring Utah into the Union as a "dry" state, fearing it would highlight the state's oddness. Utah Gov. William Spry, a Mormon, twice vetoed prohibition bills passed by the Legislature.

It was Utah's new Jewish governor in 1917, Simon Bamburger, who encouraged legislators to pass a statewide ban on alcohol.

In hard-drinking Park City, as the clock ticked down to implementation, the cost of a drink on Main Street plummeted until the saloons were giving it away to beat the midnight deadline.

Prohibition activist Heber J. Grant became president of the church in 1918 and put it firmly on the front lines in the war on alcohol.

The Word of Wisdom was transformed from a list of helpful health tips to a defining attribute of Latter-day Saints. For the first time, tipplers were denied admittance to the temple.

Final victory was achieved when Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920 with the 18th Amendment.

Yet, still the liquor flowed. Federal agents shut down hundreds of distilleries and seized tens of thousands of gallons of illegal alcohol but were never able to get ahead of the speakeasies that sprouted like mushrooms in Utah's underground-hospitality industry.

The state's attorney general complained that Utah was awash in just as much liquor as before Prohibition.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 pledging, among other things, to repeal Prohibition. Despite Grant's crusade to hold firm, Utah voters ignored him. The Utah delegates to a special constitutional convention were swept in on a repeal landslide.

The Utah delegation purposely waited to be the critical 36th state that killed Prohibition and ratified the 21st Amendment, saying, "No other state shall take away this glory from Utah."

This was salt in the wounds to Grant. Subsequent sermons on loyalty highlighted just how bitterly betrayed he felt.

Since taking direct control of liquor in 1935, the Utah Legislature has been solicitous of the views of the church. The screwy liquor laws Utah invents out of whole cloth, from private clubs to the infamous "Zion Curtain," are a result of trying to accommodate a legal activity by legislators who view it as wickedness. Evildoers shouldn't be rewarded with happy hours.

So common-sense reforms will always come as a reminder of just who ultimately controls the spigot.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist of The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at bagley@sltrib.com.

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