Fiorello La Guardia on Prohibition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On October 28, 1919, the United States Congress passed the Volstead Act, which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationwide, effective January 17, 1920. This legislation carried out, to practical effect, the Eighteenth Amendment, which had been ratified in January 1919. In this 1926 speech before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, New York congressional representative Fiorello La Guardia argues that Prohibition was stunningly ineffective and had not only failed to prevent alcohol consumption, but may have increased it. In addition, the covert liquor trade had led to widespread corruption, disrespect for the law, and the rise of organized crime. Money that should have been used for social programs and civic improvements was in the hands of criminals instead. La Guardia calls for a widespread national survey to assess the extent of the damage caused by Prohibition and urges the government to reassess its position.

Summary Overview

On October 28, 1919, the United States Congress passed the Volstead Act, which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationwide, effective January 17, 1920. This legislation carried out, to practical effect, the Eighteenth Amendment, which had been ratified in January 1919. In this 1926 speech before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, New York congressional representative Fiorello La Guardia argues that Prohibition was stunningly ineffective and had not only failed to prevent alcohol consumption, but may have increased it. In addition, the covert liquor trade had led to widespread corruption, disrespect for the law, and the rise of organized crime. Money that should have been used for social programs and civic improvements was in the hands of criminals instead. La Guardia calls for a widespread national survey to assess the extent of the damage caused by Prohibition and urges the government to reassess its position.

Defining Moment

The first concerted anti-alcohol campaigns were part of widespread reformist movements that swept the nation in the 1830s and 1840s. Campaigns for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery saw the eradication of alcohol as an important step in the moral cleansing of the nation. After the Civil War, many abolitionist groups turned their attention to temperance, the limiting of alcohol, and then finally to its total prohibition. As immigrants flooded into the United States from all over Europe, nativist movements also linked their new neighbors’ foreign customs with alcohol: German immigration led to a brewing boom, whiskey was associated with the Irish, and the Italians with wine. White Protestant reformers who were determined to help the women and children of immigrant families saw their plight worsened by men’s alcoholism and failure to provide for their families. Several factors thus led to the successful passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. The brewing industry, associated with German immigrants, suffered as a result of anti-German fervor during World War I, and beer became associated with questionable patriotism. Income-tax laws were passed, lessening the government’s reliance on liquor taxes, and the Anti-Saloon League lobbied effectively for Prohibition.

On January 17, 1920, the criminalization of the sale, manufacture, and transportation of liquor went into effect. The alcohol trade went immediately underground, and the great social experiment that was Prohibition began. Although soft-drink producers and distributors, bolstered by support from the “drys” (Prohibition advocates), experienced a boom in business, many restaurants closed or sold liquor illegally. Loopholes in the law allowed for alcohol to be sold medicinally at licensed pharmacies and distributed at religious centers. Wine-making kits were widely sold, and low-alcohol “near-beer” was sold along with malt extract that, when fermented, produced beer. Bootleggers and home stills did brisk business, and low-quality, tainted alcohol was responsible for some fifty thousand deaths nationwide by 1927.

Perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of Prohibition was the changing attitude toward the law and criminal behavior. Prohibition turned millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals overnight, and the disrespect for the law that this engendered was aided by the precipitous rise in corrupt officials. Organized crime gangs paid out enormous bribes to maintain control of the illegal liquor trade, and the corrupt agent or police officer became a common stereotype. Criminal gangs fought for control of the trade and poured money from liquor sales into weapons, drugs, and bribes. The judicial system was overwhelmed by alcohol-related cases (as many as two-thirds of all criminal cases) and could not keep up. Defendants were allowed to plea-bargain, and many were released with a small fine or admonishment; however, fines and jail sentences for Prohibition violations varied widely from judge to judge and case to case. Far from eliminating alcohol, in many communities like New York City, Prohibition led to increased consumption of lower-quality liquor, skyrocketing crime rates, and plummeting tax revenue.

La Guardia had foreseen some of these problems and opposed ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment due to the lack of government resources needed to enforce Prohibition and the natural fact of fermentation. He rightly predicted the corruption of law enforcement officials, including Prohibition agents themselves. La Guardia remained adamant in his view and, in 1926, spoke before Congress on the issue.

Author Biography

Fiorello Henry La Guardia was born in New York City on December 11, 1882, to Italian American and Jewish parents. He spent much of his childhood in Arizona, where his father was stationed at Fort Whipple with the US Army. La Guardia traveled and lived extensively abroad and worked for the State Department at consulates in Austria-Hungary from 1901 to 1906. In 1907, La Guardia returned to his native New York City, where he earned his high school equivalency diploma, attended New York University, and worked as an interpreter on Ellis Island. He graduated in 1910, passed the bar, and began to practice law.

La Guardia was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916, but took a leave of absence during World War I to serve in the Army Air Service, resigning his seat in Congress in 1919. La Guardia was elected president of the New York City Board of Aldermen in 1920 and then returned to Congress in 1922, serving until 1933. He was known as a Progressive reformer and worked in support of labor issues and immigration reform. He was also one of the first Republicans to take a stand against Prohibition. La Guardia was elected mayor of New York City in 1933 and served until 1945. He was known for his stance against corruption, his ambitious public works projects, and his support of immigrants and ethnic minorities. La Guardia died on September 20, 1947 and was buried in the Bronx, New York City.

Document Analysis

La Guardia begins his statement with the assertion that Prohibition, the act, had never actually been tried, since actual Prohibition of alcohol had never been achieved. He asserts that over a million quarts of liquor are consumed daily in the United States. It is obvious to him that this could only be the case with the knowledge and collusion of corrupt officials. Prohibition was a resounding failure and actually encouraged the illegal sale of certain kinds of alcohol, more easily produced in stills or imported from Canada. He states that “the percentage of whisky drinkers in the United States now is greater than in any other country of the world. Prohibition is responsible for that.”

Prohibition also costs the government one billion dollars per year in lost tax revenue, in La Guardia’s estimation, money that was instead being used to undermine law and order. He decries this corruption, saying, “The liquor traffic is going on just the same. This amount goes into the pockets of bootleggers and in the pockets of the public officials in the shape of graft.” Rather than controlled (if unpleasant) saloons, the nation was now riddled with underground, unregulated outlets: “delicatessen stores, pool rooms, drug stores, millinery shops, private parlors, and 57 other varieties of speak-easies selling liquor.”

The most egregious unintended consequence of Prohibition, in La Guardia’s opinion, was the massive amount of corruption it caused. He calculates that “at least a million dollars a day is paid in graft and corruption to Federal, State, and local officers” and goes on to warn that such bribery and corruption is a threat to legitimate government. The government had even seen an increased production of large bills because of this illegal activity. “The bootlegging industry has created a demand for bills of large denominations, and the Treasury Department accommodates them,” La Guardia claims.

It was important for all, including the “drys,” to take an honest look at the situation. La Guardia urges that a national survey be undertaken to ascertain the truth about Prohibition. He is convinced that such a survey would “reveal incredible conditions, corruption, crime, and an organized system of illicit traffic such as the world has never seen.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this speech is the failure of Prohibition, both as a law and as a reality. La Guardia is unsparing in his denunciation of it, arguing that it has made law enforcement officers into criminals and criminals into millionaires, all the while costing the government billions in revenue. Rather than reducing drinking, Prohibition had made alcohol consumption more dangerous, less regulated, and undiminished, if not increased, in volume. Only a hard look at the realities of Prohibition could reveal its true cost, in his view.

During the Great Depression, Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, and a vigorous repeal movement began, with La Guardia as one of its chief supporters. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, financed by some of the nation’s wealthiest families, supported candidates for Congress who would support repeal, and in February 1933, Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment. The amendment was ratified that December, ending the nation’s thirteen-year social experiment.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade, 2011. Print.
  • Blumenthal, Karen. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. New York: Flash Point, 2011. Print.
  • Jeffers, H. Paul. The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. New York: Wiley, 2002. Print.
  • Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
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