Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.
During the 19th century, alcoholism, family violence, and saloon-based political corruption prompted activists, led by pietistic Protestants, to end the alcoholic beverage trade to cure the ill society and weaken the political opposition. One result was that many communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries introduced alcohol prohibition, with the subsequent enforcement in law becoming a hotly debated issue. Prohibition supporters, called "drys", presented it as a victory for public morals and health.
Promoted by the "dry" crusaders, the movement was led by pietistic Protestants and social Progressives in the Prohibition, Democratic, and Republican parties. It gained a national grass roots base through the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. After 1900 it was coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League. Opposition from the beer industry mobilized "wet" supporters from the Catholic and German Lutheran communities. They had funding to fight back but by 1917–18 the German community had been marginalized by the nation's war against Germany, and the brewing industry was shut down in state after state by the legislatures and finally nationwide under the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, set down the rules for enforcing the federal ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited. For example, religious use of wine was allowed. Private ownership and consumption of alcohol were not made illegal under federal law, but local laws were stricter in many areas, with some states banning possession outright.
Criminal gangs were able to gain control of the beer and liquor supply for many cities. By the late 1920s a new opposition mobilized nationwide. Wets attacked prohibition as causing crime, lowering local revenues, and imposing rural Protestant religious values on urban America. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 5, 1933. Some states continued statewide prohibition, marking one of the last stages of the Progressive Era.
Although popular opinion believes that Prohibition failed, it succeeded in cutting overall alcohol consumption in half during the 1920s, and consumption remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s, suggesting that Prohibition did socialize a significant proportion of the population in temperate habits, at least temporarily. Rates of liver cirrhosis "fell by 50 percent early in Prohibition and recovered promptly after Repeal in 1933." Criticism remains that Prohibition led to unintended consequences such as a century of Prohibition-influenced legislation and the growth of urban crime organizations, though some scholars have argued that violent crime did not increase dramatically, while others have argued that crime during the Prohibition era was properly attributed to increased urbanization, rather than the criminalization of alcohol use. As an experiment it lost supporters every year, and lost tax revenue that governments needed when the Great Depression began in 1929.
In the United States, once the battle against slavery was won (indeed, even before it), social moralists turned to other issues, such as Mormon polygamy and the "temperance" movement.
The U.S. Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1918.
On November 18, 1918, prior to ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, the U.S. Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28%. (This act, which had been intended to save grain for the war effort, was passed after the armistice ending World War I was signed on November 11, 1918.)
Upon being approved by a 36th state on January 16, 1919, the amendment was ratified as a part of the Constitution.
The Wartime Prohibition Act took effect June 30, 1919, with July 1, 1919, becoming known as the "Thirsty-First".
On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The act established the legal definition of intoxicating liquors as well as penalties for producing them. Although the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol, the federal government lacked resources to enforce it.
By the terms of the amendment, the country went dry one year later, on January 17, 1920.
By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.
While Prohibition was successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, it stimulated the proliferation of rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity. Many were astonished and disenchanted with the rise of spectacular gangland crimes (such as Chicago's Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929), belying the claim that prohibition would reduce crime. Prohibition lost its advocates one by one, while the wet opposition talked of personal liberty, new tax revenues from legal beer and liquor, and the scourge of organized crime.
On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% (by weight) and wine of a similarly low alcohol content. On December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. However, United States federal law still prohibits the manufacture of distilled spirits without meeting numerous licensing requirements that make it impractical to produce spirits for personal beverage use.
Consumption of alcoholic beverages has been a contentious topic in America since the colonial period. In May 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts made the sale of strong liquor "whether known by the name of rum, whisky, wine, brandy, etc." to the Indians illegal.
In general, informal social controls in the home and community helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion." When informal controls failed, there were legal options.
Shortly after the United States obtained independence, the Whiskey Rebellion took place in western Pennsylvania in protest of government-imposed taxes on whiskey. Although the taxes were primarily levied to help pay down the newly formed national debt, it also received support from some social reformers, who hoped a "sin tax" would raise public awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol. The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party, which opposed the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, came to power in 1800.
Benjamin Rush, one of the foremost physicians of the late eighteenth century, believed in moderation rather than prohibition. In his treatise, "The Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind" (1784), Rush argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health, labeling drunkenness as a disease. Apparently influenced by Rush's widely discussed belief, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York in 1808. Within a decade, other temperance groups had formed in eight states, some of them being statewide organizations. The words of Rush and other early temperance reformers served to dichotomize the use of alcohol for men and women. While men enjoyed drinking and often considered it vital to their health, women who began to embrace the ideology of "true motherhood" refrained from consumption of alcohol. Middle-class women, who were considered the moral authorities of their households, consequently rejected the drinking of alcohol, which they believed to be a threat to the home. In 1830, on average, Americans consumed 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week, three times the amount consumed in 2010.
The 1898 Congressional Record, when reporting on a proposed tax on distilled spirits (H.R. 10253), noted that the relationship between populations, tax on distilled spirits (made from things other than fruit), and consumption was thus: (The Aggregates are grouped by tax rate)
Development of the prohibition movement
The American Temperance Society (ATS), formed in 1826, helped initiate the first temperance movement and served as a foundation for many later groups. By 1835 the ATS had reached 1.5 million members, with women constituting 35% to 60% of its chapters.
The Prohibition movement, also known as the dry crusade, continued in the 1840s, spearheaded by pietistic religious denominations, especially the Methodists. The late nineteenth century saw the temperance movement broaden its focus from abstinence to include all behavior and institutions related to alcohol consumption. Preachers such as Reverend Mark A. Matthews linked liquor-dispensing saloons with political corruption.
Some successes were achieved in the 1850s, including the Maine law, adopted in 1851, which banned the manufacture and sale of liquor. Before its repeal in 1856, 12 states followed the example set by Maine in total prohibition. The temperance movement lost strength and was marginalized during the American Civil War (1861–1865).
Following the war, the dry crusade was revived by the national Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873. The WCTU advocated the prohibition of alcohol as a method for preventing, through education, abuse from alcoholic husbands. WCTU members believed that if their organization could reach children with its message, it could create a dry sentiment leading to prohibition. Frances Willard, the second president of the WCTU, held that the aims of the organization were to create a "union of women from all denominations, for the purpose of educating the young, forming a better public sentiment, reforming the drinking classes, transforming by the power of Divine grace those who are enslaved by alcohol, and removing the dram-shop from our streets by law". While still denied universal voting privileges, women in the WCTU followed Frances Willard's "Do Everything" doctrine and used temperance as a method of entering into politics and furthering other progressive issues such as prison reform and labor laws.
In 1881 Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in its Constitution. Carrie Nation gained notoriety for enforcing the state's ban on alcohol consumption by walking into saloons, scolding customers, and using her hatchet to destroy bottles of liquor. Nation recruited ladies into the Carrie Nation Prohibition Group, which she also led. While Nation's vigilante techniques were rare, other activists enforced the dry cause by entering saloons, singing, praying, and urging saloonkeepers to stop selling alcohol. Other dry states, especially those in the South, enacted prohibition legislation, as did individual counties within a state.
Court cases also debated the subject of prohibition. While some cases ruled in opposition, the general tendency was toward support. In Mugler v. Kansas (1887), Justice Harlan commented: "We cannot shut out of view the fact, within the knowledge of all, that the public health, the public morals, and the public safety, may be endangered by the general use of intoxicating drinks; nor the fact established by statistics accessible to every one, that the idleness, disorder, pauperism and crime existing in the country, are, in some degree...traceable to this evil." In support of prohibition, Crowley v. Christensen (1890), remarked: "The statistics of every state show a greater amount of crime and misery attributable to the use of ardent spirits obtained at these retail liquor saloons than to any other source."
Proliferation of neighborhood saloons in the post-Civil War era became a phenomenon of an increasingly industrialized, urban workforce. Workingmen's bars were popular social gathering places from the workplace and home life. The brewing industry was actively involved in establishing saloons as a lucrative consumer base in their business chain. Saloons were more often than not linked to a specific brewery, where the saloonkeeper's operation was financed by a brewer and contractually obligated to sell the brewer's product to the exclusion of competing brands. A saloon's business model often included the offer of a free lunch, where the bill of fare commonly consisting of heavily salted food meant to induce thirst and the purchase of drink. During the Progressive Era (1890–1920), hostility toward saloons and their political influence became widespread, with the Anti-Saloon League superseding the Prohibition Party and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as the most influential advocate of prohibition, after these latter two groups expanded their efforts to support other social reform issues, such as women's suffrage, onto their prohibition platform.
Prohibition was an important force in state and local politics from the 1840s through the 1930s. Numerous historical studies demonstrated that the political forces involved were ethnoreligious. Prohibition was supported by the dries, primarily pietistic Protestant denominations that included Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, New School Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Scandinavian Lutherans, but also included the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America and, to a certain extent, the Latter-day Saints. These religious groups identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. Other active organizations included the Women's Church Federation, the Women's Temperance Crusade, and the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. They were opposed by the wets, primarily liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians and German Lutherans) and Roman Catholics, who denounced the idea that the government should define morality. Even in the wet stronghold of New York City there was an active prohibition movement, led by Norwegian church groups and African-American labor activists who believed that prohibition would benefit workers, especially African Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers generally supported prohibition, believing a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products. A particularly effective operator on the political front was Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, who made Prohibition a wedge issue and succeeded in getting many pro-prohibition candidates elected. Coming from Ohio, his deep resentment for alcohol started at a young age. He was injured on a farm by a worker who had been drunk. This event transformed Wheeler. Starting low in the ranks, he quickly moved up due to his deep rooted hatred of alcohol. He later realized to further the movement he would need more public approval, and fast. This was the start of his policy called 'wheelerism' where he used the media to make it seem like the general public was "on in" on a specific issue. Wheeler became known as the "dry boss" because of his influence and power.
Prohibition represented a conflict between urban and rural values emerging in the United States. Given the mass influx of migrants to the urban centers of the United States, many individuals within the prohibition movement associated the crime and morally corrupt behavior of American cities with their large, immigrant populations. Saloons frequented by immigrants in these cities were often frequented by politicians who wanted to obtain the immigrants' votes in exchange for favors such as job offers, legal assistance, and food baskets. Thus, saloons were seen as a breeding ground for political corruption.
In a backlash to the emerging reality of a changing American demographic, many prohibitionists subscribed to the doctrine of nativism, in which they endorsed the notion that America was made great as a result of its white Anglo-Saxon ancestry. This belief fostered resentments towards urban immigrant communities, who typically argued in favor of abolishing prohibition. Additionally, nativist sentiments were part of a larger process of Americanization taking place during the same time period.
Two other amendments to the Constitution were championed by dry crusaders to help their cause. One was granted in the Sixteenth Amendment (1913), which replaced alcohol taxes that funded the federal government with a federal income tax. The other was women's suffrage, which was granted after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920; since women tended to support prohibition, temperance organizations tended to support women's suffrage.
In the presidential election of 1916, the Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, and the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, ignored the prohibition issue, as did both parties' political platforms. Democrats and Republicans had strong wet and dry factions, and the election was expected to be close, with neither candidate wanting to alienate any part of his political base.
In March 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans. With America's declaration of war against Germany in April, German Americans, a major force against prohibition, were sidelined and their protests subsequently ignored. In addition, a new justification for prohibition arose: prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages would allow more resources—especially grain that would otherwise be used to make alcohol—to be devoted to the war effort. While wartime prohibition was a spark for the movement, World War I ended before nationwide Prohibition was enacted.
A resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917. By January 16, 1919, the Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it law. Eventually, only two states—Connecticut and Rhode Island—opted out of ratifying it. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment when it went into effect in 1920.
Start of national prohibition (January 1920)
Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. A total of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents (police) were tasked with enforcement.
Supporters of the Amendment soon became confident that it would not be repealed. One of its creators, Senator Morris Sheppard, joked that "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."
Prohibition became highly controversial among medical professionals, because alcohol was widely prescribed by the era's physicians for therapeutic purposes. Congress held hearings on the medicinal value of beer in 1921. Subsequently, physicians across the country lobbied for the repeal of Prohibition as it applied to medicinal liquors. From 1921 to 1930, doctors earned about $40 million for whiskey prescriptions.
While the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal in the United States, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed wine and cider to be made from fruit at home, but not beer. Up to 200 gallons of wine and cider per year could be made, and some vineyards grew grapes for home use. The Act did not prohibit consumption of alcohol. Many people stockpiled wines and liquors for their personal use in the latter part of 1919 before sales of alcoholic beverages became illegal in January 1920.
Since alcohol was legal in neighboring countries, distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or smuggled into the United States illegally. The Detroit River, which forms part of the U.S. border with Canada, was notoriously difficult to control, especially rum-running in Windsor, Canada. When the U.S. government complained to the British that American law was being undermined by officials in Nassau, Bahamas, the head of the British Colonial Office refused to intervene. Winston Churchill believed that Prohibition was "an affront to the whole history of mankind"
Three federal agencies were assigned the task of enforcing the Volstead Act: the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Treasury's IRS Bureau of Prohibition, and the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Prohibition
Bootlegging and hoarding old supplies
As early as 1925, journalist H. L. Mencken believed that Prohibition was not working. "Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor." Historian Lizabeth Cohen writes: "A rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor and get by, it seemed, but if a poor family had one bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble." Working-class people were inflamed by the fact that their employers could dip into a private cache while they, the employees, could not.
Before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January 1920, many of the upper classes stockpiled alcohol for legal home consumption after Prohibition began. They bought the inventories of liquor retailers and wholesalers, emptying out their warehouses, saloons, and club storerooms. President Woodrow Wilson moved his own supply of alcoholic beverages to his Washington residence after his term of office ended. His successor, Warren G. Harding, relocated his own large supply into the White House after inauguration.
After the Eighteenth Amendment became law the United States embraced bootlegging. In just the first six months of 1920 alone, the federal government opened 7,291 cases for Volstead Act violations. In just the first complete fiscal year of 1921, the number of cases violating the Volstead Act jumped to 29,114 violations and would rise dramatically over the next thirteen years.
Doctors were able to prescribe medicinal alcohol for their patients. After just six months of prohibition, over fifteen thousand doctors and fifty-seven thousand pharmacists got their license to prescribe medicinal alcohol. Grape juice was not restricted by Prohibition, even though if it was allowed to sit for sixty days it would ferment and turn to wine with a twelve percent alcohol content. Many folks took advantage of this as grape juice output quadrupled during the Prohibition era.
In October 1930, just two weeks before the congressional midterm elections, bootlegger George Cassiday—"the man in the green hat"—came forward and told members of Congress how he had bootlegged for ten years. One of the few bootleggers ever to tell his story, Cassiday wrote five front-page articles for The Washington Post, in which he estimated that 80% of congressmen and senators drank. The Democrats in the North were mostly wets, and in the 1932 election, they made major gains. The wets argued that prohibition was not stopping crime, and was actually causing the creation of large-scale, well-funded and well-armed criminal syndicates. As Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, especially in urban areas, its repeal was eagerly anticipated.
One of the main reasons why Prohibition did not proceed smoothly was the inefficient means of enforcing it. From its inception, the Eighteenth Amendment lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the public who had previously been drinkers and law-abiding citizens. In some instances the public viewed Prohibition laws as "arbitrary and unnecessary", and therefore were willing to break them. Law enforcement found themselves overwhelmed by the rise in illegal, wide-scale alcohol distribution. The magnitude of their task was unexpected and law enforcement agencies lacked the necessary resources. Additionally, enforcement of the law under the Eighteenth Amendment lacked a centralized authority. Many attempts to impose Prohibition were deterred due to the lack of transparency between federal and state authorities. Clergymen were sometimes called upon to form vigilante groups to assist in the enforcement of Prohibition. Furthermore, American geography contributed to the difficulties in enforcing Prohibition. The varied terrain of valleys, mountains, lakes, and swamps, as well as the extensive seaways, ports, and borders which the United States shared with Canada and Mexico made it exceedingly difficult for Prohibition agents to stop bootleggers given their lack of resources. Ultimately it was recognized with its repeal that the means by which the law was to be enforced were not pragmatic, and in many cases the legislature did not match the general public opinion.
Police in Chicago and in other major U.S. cities, often directed and permitted illegal activities in area's largely invisible to the city's powerful and wealthy. These areas consisted largely of poor immigrant communities. This direction of crime into immigrant communities created a widespread linkage of foreigners with criminality.
The Ku Klux Klan talked a great deal about denouncing bootleggers and threatened private vigilante action against known offenders. Despite its large membership in the mid-1920s, it was poorly organized and seldom had an impact. Indeed, the disgrace of the Klan after 1925 helped disparage any enforcement of Prohibition.
Prohibition was a major blow to the alcoholic beverage industry and its repeal was a step toward the amelioration of one sector of the economy. An example of this is the case of St. Louis, one of the most important alcohol producers before prohibition started, which was ready to resume its position in the industry as soon as possible. Its major brewery had "50,000 barrels" of beer ready for distribution since March 22, 1933, and was the first alcohol producer to resupply the market; others soon followed. After repeal, stores obtained liquor licenses and restocked for business. After beer production resumed, thousands of workers found jobs in the industry again.
Prohibition created a black market that competed with the formal economy, which came under pressure when the Great Depression struck in 1929. State governments urgently needed the tax revenue alcohol sales had generated. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 based in part on his promise to end prohibition, which influenced his support for ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal Prohibition.
Naval Captain William H. Stayton was a prominent figure in the anti-prohibition fight, founding the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment in 1918. The AAPA was the largest of the nearly forty organizations that fought to end Prohibition. Economic urgency played a large part in accelerating the advocacy for repeal. The number of conservatives who pushed for prohibition in the beginning decreased. Many farmers who fought for prohibition now fought for repeal because of the negative effects it had on the agriculture business. Prior to the 1920 implementation of the Volstead Act, approximately 14% of federal, state, and local tax revenues were derived from alcohol commerce. When the Great Depression hit and tax revenues plunged, the governments needed this revenue stream. Millions could be made by taxing beer. There was controversy on whether the repeal should be a state or nationwide decision. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, known as the Cullen–Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of 3.2% beer (3.2% alcohol by weight, approximately 4% alcohol by volume) and light wines. The Volstead Act previously defined an intoxicating beverage as one with greater than 0.5% alcohol. Upon signing the Cullen–Harrison Act, Roosevelt made his famous remark: "I think this would be a good time for a beer." According to a 2017 study in the journal Public Choice, representatives from traditional beer-producing states, as well as Democratic politicians, were most in favor of the bill, but politicians from many Southern states were most strongly opposed to the legislation.
The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 21 Utah members of the constitutional convention voted unanimously on that day to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, making Utah the 36th state to do so, and putting the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment over the top in needed voting.
The Twenty-first Amendment does not prevent states from restricting or banning alcohol; instead, it prohibits the "transportation or importation" of alcohol "into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States" "in violation of the laws thereof", thus allowing state and local control of alcohol. There are still numerous dry counties and townships in the United States that restrict or prohibit liquor sales.
Additionally, many tribal governments prohibit alcohol on Indian reservations. Federal law also prohibits alcohol on Indian reservations, although this law is currently only enforced when there is a concomitant violation of local tribal liquor laws.
After its repeal, some former supporters openly admitted failure.
It is not clear whether Prohibition reduced per-capita consumption of alcohol. Some historians claim that alcohol consumption in the United States did not exceed pre-Prohibition levels until the 1960s; others claim that alcohol consumption reached the pre-Prohibition levels several years after its enactment, and has continued to rise. Cirrhosis of the liver, a symptom of alcoholism, declined nearly two-thirds during Prohibition. In the decades after Prohibition, any stigma that had been associated with alcohol consumption was erased; according to a Gallup Poll survey conducted almost every year since 1939, two-thirds of American adults age 18 and older drink alcohol.
Shortly after World War II, a national opinion survey found that "About one-third of the people of the United States favor national prohibition." Upon repeal of national prohibition, 18 states continued prohibition at the state level. The last state, Mississippi, finally ended it in 1966. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option which enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition. Therefore, despite the repeal of prohibition at the national level, 38% of the nation's population lived in areas with state or local prohibition.