An Argument for Prohibition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Richmond P. Hobson, a US representative from Alabama, spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives on December 22, 1914, to express his support for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcohol in the United States. In his speech, Hobson criticized his opponents for failing to support their positions with scientific facts. He also emphasized that the target of this amendment was not consumers, but those who sold liquor. Still, he made clear his belief that alcohol was an addictive “poison” that undermined every level of American society. Therefore, he argued, it was critical to destroy alcohol abuse by banning the sale of alcohol nationwide.

Summary Overview

Richmond P. Hobson, a US representative from Alabama, spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives on December 22, 1914, to express his support for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcohol in the United States. In his speech, Hobson criticized his opponents for failing to support their positions with scientific facts. He also emphasized that the target of this amendment was not consumers, but those who sold liquor. Still, he made clear his belief that alcohol was an addictive “poison” that undermined every level of American society. Therefore, he argued, it was critical to destroy alcohol abuse by banning the sale of alcohol nationwide.

Defining Moment

The movement to limit alcohol use in the United States grew significantly during the early nineteenth century, as Protestant groups became increasingly active in social reform efforts. Concerned about the high rates of domestic violence, child neglect, illness, and unemployment that accompanied alcoholism, Protestant groups called for moderation or outright abstinence from alcohol consumption. These so-called teetotalers and affiliated organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) appealed to Americans to limit their consumption of alcohol.

Following the Civil War, the explosive growth of America’s urban centers, economy, and infrastructure coincided with an increase in the social ills that had inspired the early temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Those who had urged moderation in alcohol use began calling for outright bans on all liquor sales. Instead of merely distributing pamphlets warning of the evils of alcohol in bars, prohibitionists began to take action against the liquor merchants themselves. They looked to defeat all components of the “liquor interests,” including the distillers, distributors, and even the political leaders who aligned themselves with the industry. Some were considered moderates, looking to restrict local liquor sales and increase public awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse. Others were more radical in their goals, calling for absolute teetotalism and seeking to implement state and even national laws banning the sale of alcohol.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the radical elements of the prohibition movement prevailed, finding support for the passage of legislation banning the sale of alcohol in several states. Much of the support was a by-product of the Progressive Era that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. During this period, considerable focus was paid to America’s social ills and political corruption. The crime and extreme poverty that were prevalent in the country’s urban centers inspired a wide range of social reformers, including prohibition advocates, such as the Anti-Saloon League.

In the early 1900s, the Anti-Saloon League, one of the leading organizations in the prohibition movement, began to shift its strategy from state-level reforms to the national stage. In 1913, the League announced its intention to sponsor a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcohol nationwide. The WCTU joined forces with the League in this endeavor.

In 1914, Representative Hobson, a longtime supporter of the prohibition movement, introduced the Hobson-Sheppard Resolution to the House of Representatives, proposing the adoption of a constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol nationwide. It was a lofty goal, as a constitutional amendment requires the support of a two-thirds majority in Congress as well as ratification by three-quarters of the states. Then again, the complexity and length of the process also meant that if passed and ratified, the amendment would be extremely difficult to remove from the Constitution.

Author Biography

Richmond Pearson Hobson was born on August 17, 1870, in Greensboro, Alabama. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1889. Hobson fought in the Spanish-American War and was a key figure in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, where he was taken prisoner by the Cubans. He retired from the Navy in 1903 as a war hero. In 1907, he won election to the US House of Representatives, and he went on to win reelection three times. In Congress, he introduced a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcohol, earning him the nickname “the father of Prohibition.” After losing the Democratic nomination for another term in 1916, he organized and held senior positions in a number of organizations dedicated to eradicating narcotics in the United States. In 1933, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba and, in 1935, he was advanced to the position of rear admiral by an Act of Congress. He died on March 16, 1937, in New York City.

Document Analysis

In Hobson’s speech from the floor of the House of Representatives, he makes two general arguments. First, he emphasizes that the purpose of the amendment is not to make the consumption of alcohol illegal but rather to ban the sale of alcohol in order to destroy the liquor industry that enables and encourages alcohol abuse. Second, he looks to debunk the arguments made by liquor-industry advocates (whom he refers to as the “Liquor Trust” or the “wets”) using “scientific” evidence.

Hobson claims that the purpose of his proposal is to defeat the alcohol industry itself rather than to target individual Americans who drink. Liquor merchants and businesses (“agents”) were, in Hobson’s estimation, encouraging alcohol abuse and the “organized debauching of our youth.” To be sure, he declares, Americans could continue to make and consume their own liquor in the privacy of their homes, if they so desired. Hobson insists, however, that the sale of alcohol is a social evil that he aims to “destroy.”

Hobson takes aim at the arguments of the “wets,” which he claims have no basis in fact. For example, he challenges the Liquor Trust’s claim that a ban on liquor sales is a matter of state and not federal law. By proposing an amendment to the US Constitution, Hobson says he is demonstrating his confidence that more than three-quarters of the states would ratify the proposed amendment. The House might not give Hobson’s bill the two-third majority it needed to pass today, he said, but the day would soon come when the constitutional referendum would go to the states for approval. Hobson dismisses the argument that each state has the right to determine whether to be a “wet” state, insisting instead that “there is an inherent right in every State . . . to be dry, and these rights are now being trampled upon” by the liquor industry in its quest for profits.

Hobson also provides “scientific” evidence of the “debauchery” alcohol is causing in the United States. Liquor, he said, had addictive properties that immediately affect the willpower and character of the individual who consumes it. These addictive properties turn people into slaves to the liquor industry. Meanwhile, he claims that alcohol reverses evolution, turning men into savages. Hobson employs extremely racist arguments to claim that African Americans and American Indians are even more susceptible to the dangers of alcohol because they are not as “evolved” as white people and would be further hurtled back into a state of regression by alcohol use. Furthermore, Hobson claims “it is [the] spiritual nature of man that makes him in the image of his Maker,” arguing that alcohol turns men into savage animals and strips them of their spirituality and godliness.

The only recourse, Hobson says, is for the matter of prohibition to be brought straight to the people. The Constitution, he argues, provides an “organic” legal vehicle for the public to use to advance their welfare. According to Hobson, American politicians have been corrupted by the liquor industry, and the matter must be turned over to the states for ratification. Hobson concludes with the hope that the passage of his proposed resolution would lead to both a generation of Americans growing up sober and the disintegration of the corrupt Liquor Trust.

Essential Themes

Hobson was an ardent prohibitionist, and he used this speech to assail the main arguments of his opponents, whom he refers to as the Liquor Trust. Opponents of prohibition claimed that a national ban on the sale of alcohol represented a violation of states’ rights and the destruction of property owned by the manufacturers and distributors of liquor. In his speech before the House of Representatives, Hobson countered these arguments by painting the liquor industry as a corrupting force that undermined not only individual well-being but also the entire US political system. Because the Liquor Trust was so financially powerful and politically connected, he urged his fellow representatives to vote for and advance his resolution in order to destroy the liquor industry for the benefit of the American people. In making his arguments in favor of nationwide prohibition, Hobson relied on incendiary rhetoric that he claimed to be scientific fact. Namely, he invoked Social Darwinist principles that were in vogue at the time to claim that alcohol had a degenerating effect that reversed evolution, particularly for nonwhite drinkers. By appealing to his listeners’ religious beliefs and racial fears, Hobson hoped to advance his resolution and ban the sale of alcohol nationwide.

Although the Hobson-Sheppard Resolution received majority support in the House, it failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to advance. Nevertheless, on August 1, 1917, the Senate passed the prohibition amendment with the necessary two-thirds majority, and the measure passed the House later that year. Within thirteen months, three-fourths of state legislatures voted to adopt the proposed amendment, and the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and took effect on January 17, 1920. Ironically, Hobson’s goal of curtailing corruption and crime by banning the sale of alcohol was not borne out. The Eighteenth Amendment was ultimately repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment after thirteen years of prohibition saw rising rates of crime and corruption related to the unregulated black market sale of alcohol.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Graham, Amy. A Look at the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments: The Prohibition and Sale of Intoxicating Liquors. Berkeley Heights: Enslow, 2007. Print.
  • Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2011. Print.
  • Slavicek, Louis Chipley. The Prohibition Era: Temperance in the United States. New York: Chelsea, 2008. Print.
  • Szymanski, Ann-Marie E. Pathways to Prohibition: Radicals, Moderates, and Social Movement Outcomes. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
  • Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900–1920. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966. Print.
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