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Prohibition: A strange idea

American politics is frequently absurd, often zany, and sometimes downright crazy. Among the most outrageous past ideas was the legal Prohibition of alcohol, which was put into the US Constitution as the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920. Prohibition lasted until 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment brought repeal and tight government regulation of alcohol.

How and why one of the world’s hardest-drinking societies embarked upon a scheme to ban alcohol is a tale worth remembering. Prohibition shows the difference between good intentions and bad results. It also offers a cautionary note to all who would propose government-mandated legal bans to other social ills; such bans may have unanticipated negative results.

After the American Revolution the widespread availability of cheap whiskey caused drinking to soar. By the 1820s the typical white American man drank a half pint of whiskey a day. Workplace drunkenness, alcohol-induced poverty, public fights, wife-beating, and child abuse led evangelical Protestants to organize the Temperance Movement. Half the population stopped drinking. To dry out the other half, reformers enacted local and then state Prohibition, which 11 states adopted during the 1850s. These laws, however, quickly disappeared, partly due to heavy-drinking immigrants. The Irish loved their whiskey and the Germans their beer, which gradually became the country’s favorite alcoholic beverage after the Civil War.

In 1874 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) began to push local, state, and national Prohibition. By 1890 the WCTU’s 200,000 members made it the largest women’s organization in the world. Under the brilliant leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU advocated for Prohibition, women’s suffrage, and many other reforms, but Willard’s “Do Everything” policy may have weakened its Prohibition mission.

In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), the first national single-issue political action group, joined the dry crusade. The ASL elected dry legislators to pass statewide Prohibition and dry members of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment. The main political opposition came from national brewers and the thousands of saloons that they controlled. These “tied-house” saloons, which served only one brand, often were voting precincts for corrupt political machines. Many saloons harbored prostitutes and illegal gambling. Most observers, however, doubted that the ASL could ever pass a dry constitutional amendment.

“In January 1919, the amendment was ratified, and a year later legal alcohol production and sales ended, but most of the country was already dry—at least in theory.”

The First World War, which began in 1914, changed the political odds. Until 1917 the United States was neutral, but American business interests and sympathies were with the British and French rather than the Germans. Most brewers were of German ancestry, as well as one-quarter of all Americans. The German government sponsored sabotage inside the United States against American businesses that supplied the British and French. In the event that the United States joined the war against Germany, there was fear that German agents would use saloons to recruit spies and saboteurs.

By 1916 very few American politicians wanted money from brewers or their saloons, and the Anti-Saloon League won two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. In early 1917, German U-boats attacked American shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war against Germany in April 1917. Congress quickly adopted wartime anti-liquor measures. No one in uniform could be served alcohol, which was also blocked from areas near military bases or defense contractors. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.

Because the United States shipped large quantities of food to Europe, shortages developed. Congress banned distilling hard liquor such as whiskey from any food substance, and the legal strength of beer was cut to 2.75 percent alcohol. Eventually, Congress passed wartime Prohibition, which was designed to end alcohol consumption even before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. In January 1919, the amendment was ratified, and a year later legal alcohol production and sales ended, but most of the country was already dry—at least in theory.

In the early 1920s alcohol consumption may have dropped by two-thirds. Moonshine and hard liquor smuggled from Canada often replaced beer. By the mid-twenties, alcohol consumption rose, as the number of people willing to defy the law increased. Speakeasies attracted both young men and women, which marked a change in drinking patterns. By the late twenties gangsters controlled much of the illegal alcohol industry. They made millions and used political payoffs and violence to protect their business. In the early thirties the Great Depression left all governments with declining tax revenues and growing demands for social services.

In 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt ran for president, he promised to repeal Prohibition. Congress authorized 3.2 percent beer in April 1933. The Twenty-First Amendment brought total repeal eight months later. Both the federal and state governments imposed high alcohol taxes, and the substance became highly regulated. Eighteen states sold hard liquor only in state stores in order to put bootleggers out of business. Almost every state legally separated producers, wholesalers, and retailers to prevent the return of the prewar tied-house saloons.

Americans went through three distinct phases with alcohol. Before Prohibition, alcohol had been mostly unregulated with many dubious business practices and harmful results. As a consequence, a backlash had produced Prohibition, which enriched gangsters, eroded confidence in government, and deprived government of revenues. Finally, repeal brought tight government regulation and significant alcohol taxation.

Featured image credit: “Orange County Sheriff’s deputies dumping illegal booze, Santa Ana, 3-31-1932” courtesy of Orange County Archives via Creative Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. a gracier

    Why no mention of anti-immigrant aspects of Prohibition, which was aimed mainly at urban, Catholic immigrants like the Irish and Italian?

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