Prohibition and Problems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Eighteenth Amendment (1919) prohibited the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within … the United States,” capping a decades-long effort by leaders of the Temperance Movement to ban the drinking of alcoholic beverages (“demon drink”) in America. The onset of World War I, and the heightened awareness of moral purpose and sacrifice that it brought, helped in no small way to advance the cause. The Volstead Act, which implemented the amendment, defined liquor as any beverage having 0.5 percent or more alcohol content. This meant that most beer, in addition to all distilled spirits and wine, was illegal. The act provided for enforcement measures and penalties for violators. Prohibition supporters felt that the law would lead to the end of crime and vice in the nation and would contribute to the demise of poverty (since, it was thought, drink either produced or prolonged the condition).

The Eighteenth Amendment (1919) prohibited the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within … the United States,” capping a decades-long effort by leaders of the Temperance Movement to ban the drinking of alcoholic beverages (“demon drink”) in America. The onset of World War I, and the heightened awareness of moral purpose and sacrifice that it brought, helped in no small way to advance the cause. The Volstead Act, which implemented the amendment, defined liquor as any beverage having 0.5 percent or more alcohol content. This meant that most beer, in addition to all distilled spirits and wine, was illegal. The act provided for enforcement measures and penalties for violators. Prohibition supporters felt that the law would lead to the end of crime and vice in the nation and would contribute to the demise of poverty (since, it was thought, drink either produced or prolonged the condition).

Almost as soon as it became the law of the land, the war over, Prohibition was looked upon as an annoyance by the majority of Americans–or at least by those living in the larger cities. The economy was thriving as the “roaring twenties” took off, and more people had disposable income to use in celebrating the modern urban lifestyle. Under the circumstance, the only recourse was to establish private drinking clubs and illicit speakeasies, some of them operating on the premise that private stocks of liquor purchased prior to the Volstead Act were permitted under the law. The major suppliers in this new environment were gangsters, who imported liquor from abroad, and bootleggers, who manufactured it in less-than-ideal production facilities. The gangsters and bootleggers enriched themselves at the expense of the states, which not only lost tax revenues but had to greatly expand their law enforcement efforts to control the traffic in liquor. Worse, local officials and members of police forces became participants in the underground economy, leading to widespread corruption. Organized crime thrived.

In this section we look at some of the ins and outs of the Prohibition experiment, a defining moment of the 1920s. We hear from President Warren Harding on the increase in lawbreaking, and from Representative Fiorello La Guardia of New York (the future New York City mayor) on the failure of the experiment. In addition, we include a news account of the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, the results of a turf war in Chicago among competing organized crime “families.” The violent event would seem to mark the death knell of Prohibition, and yet the National Commission of Law Observance and Enforcement, otherwise known as the Wickersham Commission (headed by Attorney General George Wickersham), continued to espouse the government party line, as it were, supporting Prohibition even while allowing that it was largely unenforceable. Although gangster suppliers like Al Capone, the instigator of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, were increasingly looked on as criminals rather than as heroes by the American populace, Prohibition itself would continue as a public policy until the early 1930s, when it was overturned under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Categories: History