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The Rise and Demise of Prohibition

Prohibition is often called the “noble experiment.”  I’m not sure how noble it was, but it was certainly a miserable failure.  The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed Congress on January 16, 1919.  Effective January of 1920, the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the United States. Importation from other countries was also banned. Private consumption of liquor was still permitted.  Prohibition lasted 13 years.  To end it, another constitutional amendment was required.  By 1932, both parties in Congress advocated the repeal of Prohibition.  By December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states, and Prohibition came to a welcome end.

What Caused the Public to Urge the Passage of the 18th Amendment.

The movement began with the tent shows and religious revivals of the 1820’s.  Itinerant ministers roamed the country preaching fire and brimstone and the evils of demon rum.  These tent revivals were the entertainment of the times and quite popular. They converted many to their cause.  The result was the formation of religious groups who considered liquor a “national curse” and came together to form a temperance movement.

Most of us have heard of Carrie Nation.  She and her Women’s Christian Temperance Union became famous when she burst into saloons wielding an axe to destroy bars and break bottles.  Carrie Nation was arrested many times but the arrests only increased her fame as she continued her crusade.  Another, even more powerful group, was the Anti-Saloon League.  These organizations believed eradicating alcohol from society would end poverty, immoral behavior and violence.  The temperance movement continued to gain support over the years.  By the turn of the 20th Century, temperance was widely advocated by politicians and public organizations around the country. By 1916, 23 of the 48 states had passed state-wide prohibition laws banning saloons.

The temperance movement was overtly racist.  Frances Willard, a well-known leader of the movement used this language in one of her speeches: “The grogshot is the Negro’s center of power.  Better whiskey and more of it is the rallying cry of dark faced mobs.”

Racist images of drunken hordes of black men inciting violence and committing crimes was rampant in the temperance movement. 

Another form of racism that spurred the passage of the 18th Amendment was the strong anti-German sentiment created during World War I.  In the first two decades of the 20th Century, virtually all the breweries in the U.S. were owned by German immigrants.  The large breweries of the time were Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, and Pabst, all started and owned by German Americans.  The founders’ names made their country of origin obvious:  Eberhard Anheuser, Adolphus Busch, Frederick Miller, Johann Friedrich Pabst, and Adolph Coors.  The temperance movement had plenty of public support to get their breweries closed.

Prohibition advocates had lofty ideals of what would happen once alcohol was banned.  They expected an economic boom as revenue from alcohol consumption went to purchasing other consumer goods like clothing, furniture and housewares.  Theater attendance would increase as the public looked for other ways to entertain themselves.  Neighborhoods would improve with the closure of saloons and bawdy houses.  Violence and immoral conduct would reach new lows, and public health would improve.  Unfortunately, they were wrong.  They failed to anticipate the Mafia.

Prohibition Passes.

Anti-prohibition groups worked hard to prevent passage of the 18th Amendment, but their efforts were in vain.  There was widespread voter support for the ban on alcohol, and Congress easily passed the prohibition amendment on January 16, 1919.  The first section describes the purpose of the 18th Amendment. 

Section 1.

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Amendment goes on to give Congress and the state governments power to enact legislation to enforce Prohibition.  The 18th was easily ratified and became the law of the land on January 16, 1920.  While the Amendment proscribed the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol, it did not ban private consumption, nor did it ban medicinal or religious uses. 

Passage of the 18th Amendment was quickly followed by the Volstead Act on October 28, 1919.  The Volstead Act gave the U.S. Treasury Department the job of enforcing prohibition.

The Battle to Enforce Prohibition and Why it Failed.

None of the anticipated improvements came to pass with Prohibition.  Instead, the ban on alcohol resulted in economic depression and increased crime.  Theater and movie attendance dropped rather than rose.  The loss of tax revenue from alcohol sales pushed local and federal government to find new revenue sources like increasing sales taxes and income tax.  Millions of Americans learned to make beer and wine in their own homes.  My grandparents would tell the story of making beer in their kitchen when the preacher stopped by for an unexpected visit.  They were horrified when he appeared, embarrassed, and at a loss for words. Then, the preacher asked for a beer, and all was well.  They all sat at the kitchen table drinking beer and having a good laugh.

People wanted their alcoholic beverages.  Without a legal source, they sought other avenues of supply.  Suddenly, the Mafia, which had been a small-time criminal organization in the U.S., became a powerful and unstoppable force.  Organized crime, with Al Capone as one of its chief players, rose to power with the importation and sale of illegal booze.  At the height of his success, Capone was making $100 million per year.  A 1925 dollar would be worth more than $14 today.  So, in today’s money, Capone was making more than a billion dollars a year.

Later, the Mafia branched out to other illegal enterprises, but they came to power on illegal alcohol. 

Prohibition also meant a loss of jobs.  Breweries had employed a large work force to manufacture and transport their beer. These people were now out of work.  Bottle manufacturers were forced to close with no market for beer bottles.  Trucking companies, barrel makers, waiters, whiskey distilleries, and distribution centers all took an economic hit.  Thousands of jobs were lost in related industries.  Political and police corruption reached all-time highs.  It was easier for low paid cops to turn a blind eye to the local speakeasy in exchange for cash than to try and enforce the law. That was especially true when prosecutors who were on the take failed to prosecute the Prohibition violators the police arrested.

The expected health benefits of banning alcohol never came to pass.  While deaths from cirrhosis of the liver dropped, deaths from adulterated liquor soared with more 50,000 deaths during the 1920’s.  That doesn’t count the number blinded or paralyzed by adding poisonous ingredients to bootleg liquor.

Another interesting irony was the proliferation of the speakeasy.  Before prohibition, there were less than 15,000 legal bars in the U.S.  By 1927, more than 30,000 illegal speakeasies were operating in this country, selling illegal booze.  Drinking became glamorous because it was forbidden, and young people flocked to speakeasies to create “the Roaring Twenties.”

Prohibition was impossible to enforce.  The Treasury Department did not have sufficient staff or resources for the fight.  Even when arrests were made, government and police corruption made conviction impossible.  During one period, 7000 people were arrested.  Of that number, only 17 were convicted.  By 1925, six states had enacted laws to prevent police from investigating Prohibition violations.  Cities in the east and Midwest lost all interest in prosecuting alcohol related crime.  Prohibition became a joke.  When the mayor of Berlin visited New York City in 1929, he asked James J. Walker, the Mayor of New York, when prohibition was starting.

When Fiorello LaGuardia, another Mayor of New York, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said: “It is impossible to tell whether Prohibition is a good thing or a bad thing.  It has never been enforced in this country.”

The Great Depression Signals the End of Prohibition.         

When the Great Depression began in 1929, people were disillusioned with Prohibition and the crime wave that came with it.  There were no jobs, yet, speakeasies flourished.  In Chicago, New York, and other major cities, mob wars with armed thugs on the streets made citizens anxious and afraid.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, the repeal of Prohibition was a key part of his platform.  Roosevelt swept into the Presidency offering change and hope in a time of desperate economic need.   Most of us living today have never experienced anything like the Great Depression.  Work was scarce, and people all over the country were starving.  Ending Prohibition would reopen distillaries and breweries, providing jobs.  All the associated industries would also benefit.  There would again be jobs in barrel making, bottle making, warehouses, liquor stores, restaurants, and trucking.

Congress was also eager to end Prohibition.  Income tax revenues had sharply declined with the onset of the Depression.  The federal government needed money to operate, and the tax revenues from alcohol sales were an attractive source of potential income. In February of 1933, Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.    The entire purpose of the 21st Amendment was to repeal the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.  By December of 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, and Prohibition was over.  Thereafter, the states would be in charge of controlling liquor sales.  A few states continued a state-wide prohibition, but by 1966, there were no dry states left in the country.

Did Prohibition Ever Have a Chance to Succeed.

It is never easy to regulate human behavior.  Many of the cultures in our American melting pot have traditions that include alcohol.  Forcing people to abandon tradition and give up toasting the bride and groom at weddings, a glass of wine with dinner, a beer after work with friends is no easy task.  Lack of resources and failure to prosecute offenders made it a losing battle.  Once the Mafia stepped in to control the flow of alcohol, the battle was lost.               

Resources

https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxviii

https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxxi

https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xviii/interps/169

https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/18th-and-21st-amendments

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