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Alcohol Prohibition in the United States

Prohibition was a 13-year period in which the production and distribution of alcohol were made illegal in the United States. While Prohibition’s goal was to reduce the threat that alcohol posed to the safety and well-being of Americans, the law resulted in many unintended consequences ranging from public health concerns to corrupted law enforcement and an explosion of organized crime.

Why Was Prohibition Introduced?

The march toward Prohibition began more than a century before the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. In the early 19th century, unrest, fueled by war and the deterioration of social order, fostered a new wave of domestic alcohol production and heavy drinking. This widespread consumption sparked the Temperance Movement, which championed sobriety.1

After the American Revolution, traditional hierarchical boundaries were somewhat erased as the colonies were no longer under British rule. The societal disorientation that ensued may have been further promoted by the dissolution of traditional sanctions and social expectations about the consumption of alcohol.1

Public drunkenness was common, as was the emergence of saloons. Many viewed alcohol as a significant threat to society. Small anti-alcohol unions formed and disseminated information about alcohol’s threat to public health.1 These ideas became the centerpiece of the Temperance Movement that exploded in the 1820s.

In 1826, The American Society of Temperance was formed. By 1836, the society had multiplied to 13 million members with more than 5,000 chapters across the nation.1 In 1838, Massachusetts passed a law banning the sale of alcohol in quantities less than 15 gallons. Maine followed suit in 1846, passing the first state prohibition law.2

Following the Civil War, millions of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy crowded into American cities and brought with them the customs of their homeland. German-American brewing businesses burgeoned, and alcohol consumption continued to grow.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Temperance Movement was present in communities across the country. Women, who strongly opposed alcohol’s effects on the family and community, played a powerful role in the movement.2

During World War I, proponents spread messages that alcohol was a costly indulgence, especially when young men were fighting abroad.1 As anti-German sentiment hit an all-time high, leaders of the temperance movement distributed propaganda connecting alcohol consumption with treason.4

Who Supported Prohibition?

At the turn of the century, the Temperance Movement reached its peak. Many groups strongly advocated for Prohibition including clergymen, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Prohibition Party. These groups mobilized to spread fear-inducing messages about the threat of alcohol on home life and society.

In the 1870s, wives and mothers who believed alcohol had destroyed their families banded together to create the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The group achieved many successes including local laws restricting alcohol and anti-alcohol educational campaigns that infiltrated nearly every school in the country. The WCTU rallied to vitalize progressives, who aimed to secure women’s rights and protect the rights of children. Alliances with women’s rights advocates including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton furthered the WCTU’s cause for Prohibition.4

Another powerful group emerged in the 1890s with the same determined mission to abolish alcohol: The Anti-Saloon League (ASL). The ASL partnered with nearly every political party from the Progressives to the Populists to the Ku Klux Klan to instill urgency around their cause.4

In 1869, the Prohibition Party was organized. Unlike the ASL, which operated across party lines, the Prohibition Party believed a separate political party was necessary to end the traffic of liquor.5

Together, the ASL, WTCU, and Prohibition Party formed the “dry” forces that assembled to inundate legislators and the public with information supporting Prohibition.

When Did Prohibition Begin in the U.S.?

On January 29, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States. Later that year the National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, was passed to provide the government with the necessary support and funds to enforce Prohibition. The following year, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect and Prohibition began.6

Prior to federal law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, many states had already established local laws that set the precedent for national Prohibition. By 1916, 23 of the 48 states had passed legislation prohibiting saloons and liquor.6

Another victory for the prohibitionists was the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913. Prior to its passage, the federal government was reliant on alcohol taxes and was hesitant to remove alcohol distribution from the economy. In fact, around 30% to 40% of the government’s income came from alcohol tax dollars.7 The 16th Amendment allowed a federal income tax, which helped to reduce the burden of lost tax dollars from Prohibition.

How Was Prohibition Enforced?

To the dismay of Prohibition advocates, the federal government was not able to adequately enforce the new law. Only 1,500 federal agents, under the newly organized Bureau of Prohibition, were dispatched to enforce the law, which equated to only 30 agents per state. In addition, Canada and Mexico remained “wet” countries and did not limit the exchange of alcohol near the borders.8

The Bureau of Prohibition tracked bootleggers, focusing on interstate and international cases where local law could not act. However, the bureau lacked the size necessary to enforce the law between America’s vast borders.3

What Were the Effects of Prohibition?

To make matters even more difficult, Prohibition led to several unintended consequences that burdened the country’s financial stability and safety.

  • Business. Real estate developers expected rent to rise with the closure of seedy neighborhood saloons, and entertainment venues anticipated increased revenue from people looking for new ways to entertain themselves. Instead, entertainment and restaurant businesses flopped without liquor to spur spending, and the economy suffered after many people lost their jobs due to the closure of breweries, distilleries, and saloons.9
  • Taxes. Prohibition severely affected tax revenues. The loss of liquor sale taxes resulted in $11 billion in lost revenue. Meanwhile, Prohibition cost the federal government more than $300 million to enforce.9
  • Loopholes. Under the Prohibition law, pharmacists were allowed to prescribe whiskey for several ailments. This led many bootleggers to trade liquor under the guise of pharmacists.9 Other loopholes included the acceptance of wine for religious purposes. This led to increased enrollments at churches and synagogues across the country, and bootleggers operated within the safe spaces of religious sanctuary.9
  • Home brewing. Many people turned to home brewing and underground bars to appease their quench for liquor. This led to the unregulated production of alcohol, resulting in a serious threat to public safety. On average, 1,000 Americans died every year during Prohibition from the effects of tainted liquor.9
  • Corruption. One of Prohibition’s most detrimental effects was the corruption of law enforcement. Police officers and federal agents were often bribed to turn a blind eye to bootlegging, and many participated in the illegal business themselves.9
  • Crime. Due to widespread illegal trade, the Prohibition era witnessed a massive influx of criminals. The legal system was unequipped to handle the growing number of court cases and inmates. It turned to practices like the “plea bargain” to clear hundreds of cases at once.9

How Did Prohibition Lead to Organized Crime?

Illegal bootlegging became a powerful underground industry during the Prohibition era, and gangsters exploited the demand for alcohol.

Al Capone, a Chicago gangster, became one of the most notorious players in illegal bootlegging. Capone monopolized illegal trade in Chicago by coordinating alcohol distribution on a mass scale. He dominated the market through vicious threats and relentless follow-through when people tried to thwart his operations. Capone reportedly earned more than $100 million per year, which allowed him to leverage hefty bribes with law enforcement and maintain his dominance.10

A common practice among gangsters in the 1920s was labor racketeering. Gangsters infiltrated legal businesses and used them to cover for illegal operations and speakeasies. Anyone who attempted to stop the gangsters faced merciless execution.10 Between 1927 and 1930, more than 500 murders took place within Capone’s region of dominance.3

Other gangsters including Arnold Rothstein and Bugs Moran organized illegal operations with similar intensity. Rothstein established his business at Lindy’s Restaurant in Manhattan and brought alcohol across the border from Canada.8 Meanwhile, Bugs Moran competed directly with Al Capone in Chicago.11 The resulting competition led to the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 when Capone’s men murdered several members of Moran’s gang.3

Why Was Prohibition Repealed?

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, most Americans had long since concluded that it was ineffective.

John D. Rockefeller Jr, a prominent businessman and philanthropist who supported Prohibition before the 18th Amendment’s passage, proclaimed its failure in a letter to The New York Times in 1932. He wrote: “Drinking generally has increased… speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit but probably two-fold if not three-fold… a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale.”12

The collapse of the economy in 1929 and the resulting Great Depression created desperation for economic solutions. Many believed a repeal of Prohibition would create new jobs and expand tax revenues. During the 1932 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt’s platform included a campaign for the legalization of beer to raise “the federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year.”13

Roosevelt won office and immediately went to work to repeal Prohibition. Within 2 weeks of taking office, he called for a bill to rewrite the Volstead Act. The bill called for the legalization of beer with 3.2% alcohol content and light wines. It was signed in March 1933.13

Meanwhile, the 21st Amendment to repeal the 18th Amendment made the rounds for a state vote. On November 7, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to approve the 21st Amendment, placing it rightfully in the Constitution. Prohibition was over, and the new amendment placed alcohol distribution laws mainly in the hands of the states.13

Some states continued Prohibition by maintaining their own laws. For example, Mississippi did not end Prohibition until 1966.14 Even today, Prohibition lives on in some regions. Many counties in Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Oklahoma enforce dry laws, and dry municipalities make up about 10% of America’s landmass.15

Prohibition ultimately failed to control alcohol over-consumption in the United States, and questions persist about how to control the threat of alcohol misuse that many continue to face. In fact, in 2019, 25.8% of people over the age of 18 reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and 14.5 million people over the age of 12 had an alcohol use disorder.16

If you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol, don’t hesitate to get help. Rehabilitation programs and 12-Step groups are available in almost every community, and they can help you turn your life around.

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