Prohibition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Advocates of temperance persuaded Congress and the states to adopt the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning the sale, manufacture, or transportation of alcoholic beverages. The attempt to legislate morality ultimately failed, however, as prohibition created a tremendous black market for banned liquor, providing the mechanism for a substantial rise in organized crime.

Summary of Event

National prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the United States had its roots in various temperance movements and in local and state laws. As early as 1851, Maine prohibited the sale of liquor, and in 1884 it passed a state constitutional amendment banning alcoholic beverages. Agitation to enact “Maine laws” became strong elsewhere, and by 1917 thirty-six states had already become “dry.” National prohibition was not far behind. Behind this drive to prohibition lay a belief in human perfectibility, the conviction that drunkenness squandered family income and was therefore evil, and a shrewd political campaign spearheaded by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Woman’s Christian Temperance Union[Womans Christian Temperance Union] (WCTU) but propagated more effectively (as women did not yet have the right to vote) by the Anti-Saloon League Anti-Saloon League[Antisaloon League] and the Prohibition Party. Prohibition Party Eighteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Prohibition Alcohol, U.S. prohibition against Organized crime;Prohibition Temperance movement [kw]Prohibition (Jan. 16, 1920-Dec. 5, 1933) Eighteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Prohibition Alcohol, U.S. prohibition against Organized crime;Prohibition Temperance movement [g]United States;Jan. 16, 1920-Dec. 5, 1933: Prohibition[05040] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 16, 1920-Dec. 5, 1933: Prohibition[05040] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 16, 1920-Dec. 5, 1933: Prohibition[05040] [c]Trade and commerce;Jan. 16, 1920-Dec. 5, 1933: Prohibition[05040] Volstead, Andrew J. Wheeler, Wayne Bidwell Hoover, Herbert [p]Hoover, Herbert;Prohibition Wickersham, George Woodward Kenyon, William Squire Webb, Edwin Yates Willebrandt, Mabel Walker Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;Prohibition Capone, Al

U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 made the public more receptive to austerity measures, such as the conservation of grain (used in making alcohol) for the war effort. Federal precedents existed as well. In 1913, Edwin Yates Webb and William Squire Kenyon had sponsored a bill to outlaw transporting alcohol from a wet state to a dry state. The easy passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act Webb-Kenyon Act (1913)[Webb Kenyon Act] over President William Howard Taft’s veto had been a clear indication of the mood of the legislature, if not the country. A coalition of political forces—rural, South, Southwest, West, Protestant, and women’s groups—combined with a prevailing suspicion of urban, especially Catholic and Jewish immigrant, traditions.

Government agents with confiscated barrels pour whiskey into a sewer.

(Library of Congress)

On December 18, 1917, Congress achieved the necessary two-thirds vote to pass what would become the Eighteenth Amendment and submit it to the states for ratification. The required thirty-sixth state ratified the proposal on January 16, 1919, and the Eighteenth Amendment became law, effective January 16, 1920. The amendment federalized the regulation of liquor previously under mostly state and local control. The enabling National Prohibition Enforcement Act National Prohibition Enforcement Act (1919) was passed on October 28, 1919, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Commonly known as the Volstead Act, Volstead Act (1919) the law was drafted by Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League, and introduced in Congress by Congressman Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota. The Volstead Act incorporated the strictest features of various state laws. Fines would run from one thousand dollars or six months in jail for the first offense to ten thousand dollars or five years in prison for the second, and the dispensing store could be closed for a year. The federal government could also impound automobiles or aircraft used to transport liquor.

The illegal sale of liquor, called bootlegging, Bootlegging became a growth industry, especially in urban areas such as Detroit, New York, and Chicago, where the infamous mobster Al Capone became rich selling illegal alcohol to otherwise law-abiding citizens. Enforcement, despite the dedication of some federal agents, became a futile cause. Some police officers and law-enforcement officials were corrupted by the criminal element; mobsters bribed or fought the “feds” as well as one another. Casualties resulted on both sides, but organized crime grew into a vast enterprise nonetheless. Many Americans, moreover, believed that drinking—at least beer and wine, long part of the traditions of even the oldest immigrant groups—was an innocent, even therapeutic, leisure activity. The social reform era that had given birth to the temperance movement had given way to the Roaring Twenties, with their revolution in social outlooks, manners, and attitudes; such a time was not propitious for the legislation of morality.

Accordingly, illegal distillation devices (known as stills) and do-it-yourself liquor preparation kits became commonplace. Ironically, the great success of the “drys” in making prohibition so restrictive and total proved to be counterproductive, even an incentive to try the “demon drink.” Women who had never entered a bar and some whose temperance-minded sisters had tried to smash saloons with hatchets were now frequenting the illegal underground alcoholic nightclubs called speakeasies.

Soon after taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed an eleven-member commission under former U.S. attorney general George Woodward Wickersham to launch an investigation into law enforcement in general and enforcement of prohibition in particular. While ambiguous enough not to offend President Hoover, the highly divided Wickersham Commission’s final report in 1931 seemed to confirm the breakdown in law enforcement and the disrespect for law in general that had grown up around prohibition, arguing for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.

The following year, a Democratic Congress mustered the necessary two-thirds vote to begin the repeal process, which would be completed when ratified by three-quarters of the states. Ratification was to be decided by specially called state conventions, rather than the customary state legislatures, to ensure the amendment’s success. The thirty-six ratifying votes were at hand by December 5, 1933. Section 1 of the resultant Twenty-first Amendment Twenty-first Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty first Amendment] reads, “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”

Significance

Although all the states eventually repealed their own separate prohibition laws—Mississippi not until 1966—most of them returned to the licensing system. Local option laws against liquor remain in effect in many dry towns and counties across the United States. National prohibition nevertheless left its mark on the American psyche. Its cast of characters included the “good guys” and “bad guys” that have become legendary parts of American popular culture, such as federal agents Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables,” “Izzie” Einstein, and “Mo” Smith. Their nemeses included the likes of mobsters Al “Scarface” Capone, Johnnie Torrio, George Remus, George “Bugs” Moran, and Bill McCoy, but even respected middle-class citizens were known to have enriched themselves thanks to national prohibition.

Another legacy concerns the larger issue of the advisability, indeed the practicability, of legislating certain kinds of moral behavior. Indeed, the phrase “You can’t legislate morality” has become a truism in American culture. The phrase refers, of course, to private behavior rather than immoral acts that impinge on the rights of others, such as robbery or murder. Prohibition remains in the American imagination as an enduring illustration of the impossibility or inadvisability of legislating morality. It has done little, however, to draw clear lines between public and private behavior in order to set the limits of what counts as “legislating morality”—a debate that continues in the twenty-first century. Eighteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Prohibition Alcohol, U.S. prohibition against Organized crime;Prohibition Temperance movement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cashman, Sean D. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York: Free Press, 1981. A cultural historian distinguishes between fact and legend as they relate to prohibition and profiles its heroes and villains. Illustrations, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engelmann, Larry. Intemperance: The Lost War Against Liquor. New York: Free Press, 1979. Focusing on Michigan, a key location during prohibition because of its proximity to Canada, this work evidences how every community became an embattled testing ground for the “noble experiment” and why Michigan was the first state to ratify its repeal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Using previously unavailable materials, this work traces the history of the pressure group largely responsible for the Eighteenth Amendment but also its decline for both internal and external reasons. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kyvig, David E., ed. Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An excellent collection of essays by contributors examining various aspects of national prohibition, such as its constitutional dimensions, crime, enforcement, and history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998. Long-term history of the American prohibition movement, from its beginnings through its success to its ultimate failure. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934. Chronicles efforts by the likes of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to continue prohibition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rumbarger, John J. Profits, Power, and Prohibition: Alcohol Reform and the Industrializing of America, 1800-1930. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. A scholarly treatment from a class-oriented perspective, using many original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinclair, Andrew. Era of Excess: A Social History of the Prohibition Movement. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. A comprehensive, highly annotated history based on primary and secondary sources and describing the evolution of the movement since colonial times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spinelli, Lawrence. Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1989. This well-documented scholarly study focuses on the impact of national prohibition on foreign, especially Anglo-American, relations in the light of rum-running from the British West Indian colonies to the U.S. coast.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Szymanski, Ann-Marie E. Pathways to Prohibition: Radicals, Moderates, and Social Movement Outcomes. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. Close analysis of the strategy and success of the prohibition movement in the early twentieth century. Argues that moderation in rhetoric and strategy was key to building the popular consensus that led to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Bibliographic references and index.

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