Prohibition began in the United States in 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution took effect. The era that it ushered in lasted until 1933, when special conventions in three-fourths of the states repealed prohibition. Officially, prohibition refers to the outlawing of all manufacturing and sales of alcohol in the United States. Although there was widespread opposition to the ban, most Americans did obey the law; estimates indicate that alcoholic consumption was cut by over fifty percent.
It seems inevitable that people will seek to ban the bad habits of others. Certainly, there was cause for concern regarding the high consumption of alcohol in the United States and its effects on individuals and families. By all accounts, alcoholism was a serious problem in America, and people sought solutions for it.
Temperance movements seeking to stop the consumption of alcohol were part of a wider movement seeking to regulate morals in the direction assumed most beneficial to others by moral entrepreneurs. Although most of the world's religions condemn misuse of alcohol, and Islam bans its use entirely, most do not seek to eliminate it totally. Many religions, in fact, use some form of alcoholic beverage in their sacraments.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, rapid means for distilling alcohol increased its danger to public health and morals. Technology and the Industrial Revolution also provided more reasons for overindulging in alcohol. The abuses of the Industrial Revolution and the practice of encouraging workers to drink cheap alcoholic beverages to help ease their pains are well known.
Problems stemming from excessive use of alcohol were so widespread that government attempts to discourage drunkenness predate the U.S. Constitution. By the mid-nineteenth century the country had reached such a state that Abraham Lincoln, who was not a teetotaler, noted that alcohol was “used by everybody, repudiated by nobody” and that it came forth in society “like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay if not the first, the fairest born in every family.”
A few statistics on alcoholic consumption present a general idea of the huge amount of alcohol consumed by the American public. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the average American consumed seven gallons (27 L) of pure alcohol yearly. Understandably, many religious and political leaders viewed alcoholism as a national curse, connected with the rising crime rate, poverty, and violence. Many concerned citizens concluded that the only protection for society was to prohibit alcoholic consumption altogether.
Maine was the first state to prohibit the manufacture and sale of “spiritous or intoxicating liquors” not intended for medical or mechanical purposes. The state passed its law in 1851. By 1855 twelve other states had joined Maine in outlawing alcoholic production. By 1855 the average American consumption of alcohol had dropped to two gallons (8 L) per year.
Concern over the events leading to the Civil War distracted attention from the prohibition movement. Consequently, many laws were either repealed or ignored in practice. However, the Civil War ushered in numerous changes in the United States. Population and immigration, for example, increased greatly. The industrialization of the country sped forward. So did the number of saloons. There was one saloon for every four hundred men, women, and children in 1870, over one hundred thousand in the country. Capitalistic competition drove the price of alcohol down. Additionally, saloons allowed other disreputable practices to accompany drinking in order to stimulate business. Thus, gambling, prostitution, underage drinking, public drunkenness, and violence all accompanied the saloon.
Women were in the vanguard of the prohibition movement. In 1873 a “women's war” broke out in every region of the country. Literally thousands of women organized to protest drunkenness. They streamed from prayer services to saloons, using prayers and songs to beseech saloonkeepers to close their businesses. The movement grew quickly and many men joined. By 1900 millions of men and women joined the Anti-Saloon League of America (ASL). The ASL's headquarters were in Ohio, from which political action was organized. That action included endorsing candidates and pushing for referenda on prohibition.
By 1900 Carry Nation had become a dominant force in the temperance movement, urging people to take the law into their own hands by destroying saloons. Pictures of Carry Nation with a hatchet in hand are famous. Nation followed a common American pattern by getting arrested for her cause and ultimately forcing government to change the law. In this case the government in the state of Kansas, where Nation resided, changed its law in 1901, enacting temperance laws. By 1916 twenty-three of the forty-eight states had adopted prohibition laws. Further evidence of the power of the movement was the election of an American Congress in which the “dries,” those who supported Prohibition, outnumbered the “wets,” those who opposed it. The dries not only outnumbered the wets but did so by a two-to-one margin.
On December 22, 1917, Congress approved and sent to the states the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” By January 1919 eighty percent of forty-six state governments approved passage of the amendment.
The National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act after its sponsor, Congressman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, defined the prohibited “intoxicating liquors” as those with an alcoholic content of more than 0.5 percent. The usual exceptions were made for liquors sold for “medicinal, sacramental, and industrial purposes.” Interestingly, the law also made exceptions for fruit fermented for personal use in one's own home.
Prohibition began at midnight on January 16, 1920. Government agencies, however, were reluctant to appropriate sufficient resources to enforce the law. Opportunities to evade the law were legendary, and a new type of gangster emerged as the bootleggers and organized crime began to find new ways to make money from otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Prohibition did reduce drinking from 2.6 gallons (10 L) per person to 0.97 gallons (4 L) after prohibition. Contrary to popular belief there is no evidence of a great crime wave in the 1920s. Nevertheless, people grew tired of Prohibition as the 1920s progressed. The open violation of the law and its aid in corrupting law enforcement agencies was one reason among many for the turn against Prohibition. Others felt that individual freedom was more important than family protection. The increasing urbanization of the country was certainly a factor in shifting opinion. Many ethnic groups, moreover, used moderate drinking as an accompaniment to their family celebrations and felt that Prohibition was aimed at them while the “big shots” drank their imported liquor with impunity.
The Great Depression provided one final argument in favor of repeal, an economic one. Government revenue would increase with the taxation of alcoholic beverages, while the industry would provide jobs in a time of job shortage. The Association against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) used these arguments well.
Eventually, the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the Eighteenth, was submitted to the states as the AAPA suggested. Congress, in only the second time in its history, called for ratifying conventions in each of the states. The only other time that state legislatures were circumvented in the same way was for the ratification of the Constitution itself. Each state chose delegates to vote specifically on the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. By the end of 1933 the states passed the Twenty-first Amendment thereby repealing prohibition. It marked the end of the “noble experiment” and gave the states back control of the liquor laws.
Prohibition was indeed an experiment noble in purpose. It probably did reduce the general overall consumption of alcohol. It made Eliot Ness a hero and symbol of honest law enforcement. It also made Al Capone powerful, notorious, and, unfortunately, a hero to some. It made drinking glamorous to some, and not only to F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters. Some commentators blame Prohibition for increasing the number of women who drank publicly. Certainly, the speakeasies that replaced the saloons were not much of an improvement on them. Disregard for law and contempt for dishonest police did little to promote general law and order.
Moral entrepreneurs have often sought to use the power of the law to carry out their campaigns, such as prohibition of pornography, tobacco, and narcotics. Often the very suppression of movies, recordings, and drugs makes these items more attractive. The more attractive an item, the more costly it is likely to become. The War on Drugs of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond is a case in point. Interestingly, arguments in favor of legalization or decriminalization of drugs, with government control, are beginning to sound like the arguments that “wets” put forward to end Prohibition. The question of the attainment of morality through legislation has been one that has plagued the United States since its inception. Prohibition will continue to be a case to be studied for many years to come.