What was Prohibition Introduced? In the 1920's American politics was dominated by democracy and the idea of isolationism to keep America prosperous was incredibly apparent. However in 1919, President Wilson passed the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, distribution and consumption of alcoholic drinks (any drink containing over 0.5% alcohol).
Prohibition was not just a novel American idea, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, other countries were also experimenting with limiting or totally banning the production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic drinks the primary origins can be found all over the world. However, to find the origins for the American Prohibition
we must look back to rural America in the Nineteenth Century.
Wilson was also pressured into passing the Prohibition Act
by the powerful temperance movement
during the Great War, claiming that alcohol was unpatriotic as it was made by American's from German descent. Even though he tried to veto the amendment, he was overturned by Congress and reluctantly passed the legislation.
The law itself was amazingly ambitious as alcohol was the seventh largest industry in a nation which was ruled by "big business" and was an established and respected as part of the businesses which provided the wealth of America.
Although the technical reason as to why the Prohibition Law was passed was because 66% of the Constitution voted for it, one of the main reasons why Prohibition happened was because of its mass support. By 1920, thirty-three out of forty-eight states had passed Prohibition laws, making approximately 63% of the total population of America 'dry'.
The main support for Prohibition came from moral crusaders in the South who were very anti-urbanisation like the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance in Boston and the Washington Temperance Society, whose groups grew in number between the 1820's and the 1840's. These groups campaigned against the effects of drinking liquor. Often this excessive drinking was blamed on the industrialisation of the rural areas in many counties as a result of social and economic change at this time. There were some protesters like the Irish Catholics who apparently were against prohibition because of their love of gin (!) as well as the congressmen of Massachusetts who famously said that, "the better the county the higher the alcohol content". Still this was the beginning of the battle where it appeared that it was a case of "cornbelt over conveyor belt".
Supporters claimed that alcohol deprived families of money for clothing and food as well as encouraging domestic violence and street crime and reduced efficiency in the workplace. Support also came from religious groups and reformed alcoholics who had "seen the light", encouraged by current temperance literature. By 1885, many of the eastern states in America had already passed legislation controlling or prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic drink. In the 1850's pressure increased for the Prohibition Act to be passed and employers who had joined the American Anti-Saloon League joined forces with religious groups such as the Methodists and Episcopal Churches. Together with the female action of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (founded by Frances Willard in 1874), the pressure was mounting. Unfortunately so was the number of saloons and drunken violent acts.
Prohibition also had support from middle class, white Protestants as a crusade for 'moral decadence' as well as many Industrialists who hoped for a boost in work efficiency as a result of a ban on alcoholic consumption.
There was also a racist angle on this matter as some Southern Americans wanted to deprive their African-American neighbours of alcoholic drink and it was also supported by Catholics who associated the consumption of alcohol with their European counterparts in an effort to enforce conformity of the immigrant population.
In the western states, the women and their families were the most influential, empowered by the fact that they could now vote (unlike women in other areas of America) organised the Women's War (where they walked to saloons to make examples of them) and encouraged female candidates to run for official positions, which inturn provided a chance to pass their beliefs through the system to Congress.
In the short term, the Prohibition Act could be a result of The Great War. By the time the First World War had broken out, nineteen states had passed the Prohibition legislation. The World War provided another platform for protesters to argue from, stating that in war-time it would be necessary to conserve all of the grain and that alcohol manufacture would be a waste of valuable food supplies. They also pointed out that many alcohol brewers were from German descent with names such as Pabst, Schiltz and Anheuser-Busch and so they harnessed all the anti-German war-time hostility in the name of patriotism.
Prohibition also came at a time when it was seen as the government as responsibility to solve all social problems, such as prostitution and child labour. Prohibition was seen as another social issue because of its link with domestic violence.
In conclusion, Prohibition was passed in 1919, not only because of its mass support but also due to America's huge religious community, Wilson's government and its reaction to the First World War, its belief that it should be representing 'Progressivism' by solving social problems, and America's industrial concerns and racial issues. It was indeed a 'noble experiment' but it was surely a bit naive and small minded to expect all of America's social and economic programs to disappear along with the breweries.
What were the effects of Prohibition? When the Prohibition Act was passed its supporters thought that the effects would be less domestic violence, better efficiency at work, more grain for the war-time effort and a social push towards isolationism and patriotism. The actual effects of the Eighteenth Amendment were somewhat different.
Evasion of this law seemed to be so easy. Now that alcohol was illegal people seemed to need it more than ever, even those who were not keen on drinking before suddenly made it a regular pastime, illegal liquor was now risqué and as a result trendy. It became increasingly easy to get hold of illegal 'booze' There were three main ways to get hold of alcohol. Firstly, you could make and distribute your own alcohol. This was known as bootlegging, with the name originating in the Seventeeth Century, when the British Empire owned thirteen states in America. The smugglers at this time where known to wear knee high leather boots which they smuggled bottles of alcohol in, hence the name 'bootleg'.
This bootlegged alcohol was given a name, "moonshine". This deceivingly innocent title did not inform the people how potentially lethal this drink was, with many of its customers suffering from negative mental and physical effects from this inexpertly distilled alcohol. Some of these effects included paralysis and blindness as well as death in extreme cases. Arrests for disorderly drunkenness rose 600% over the next few years. The supplying part of bootlegging was to provide a huge part in crime later.
Many farmers at this time were suffering enormously from the Depression and as there grain was almost worthless when they tried to sell it to make flour, it seemed much more appealing to sell it to bootleggers for a much higher price (which they could well demand as alcohol was illegal and so the bootleggers were forced to pay high amounts in order to keep their punters happy. Certain allowances had to be complied to however, such as Malt Whiskeys being made rather than proper whiskeys because of the short supply compared to the now huge demand.
Secondly you could obtain alcohol from 'speakeasies'. These places were bars, shops or dancing clubs which sold liquor, calling themselves 'speakeasies' because you had to be careful not to speak about them outside( you were supposed to 'speakeasy' about them.). These places were also homes for gamblers, drug takers and prostitution.
These 'speakeasies' multiplied rapidly in the larger cities with Chicago top of the list, with reports of it having over 10,000 'speakeasies' at the height of Prohibition. There was a certain glamour attached to 'speakeasies' with its blue piano music, relaxed jazz clubs and smoky badly lit rooms, making it even more attractive to drink, and because there were so many of these 'elite' clubs it was a horrifically difficult to shut them down.
Finally if you had the right connections you could obtain alcohol through gangsters.
This prohibition law was so unenforceable that most disregarded it and disregard for this law led to disregard for other laws such as stealing, breaking and entering, violence and so forth. This also led to an upsurge in crime levels, people, especially those who opposed the Prohibition Law, became rebellious and felt a sense of injustice and resentment for taking away their civil right to have a drink.
Now that alcohol was illegal, the price of it went up and because of that, gangsters got involved, and because they are gangsters and alcohol is illegal, disputes can only be settled by violent means.
Perhaps the most famous gangsters are Al Capone and John Torrio, who operated mainly in Chicago as a result of Prohibition. Torrio led an Italian-American gang which had notorious Mafia connections. Single-handedly he managed to get Chicago separated into gang territories to reduce tension between rival gangs. He bought the 'protection' of the current Mayor, Mayor Bill Thompson and ensured political support for him by riggin elections. Torrio's main business however was 'bootlegging' and 'speakeasies' from which he made a huge profit, which he enjoyed at leisure when he retired to his home-land of Italy in 1925 (the reported sum being $30 million!).
Al Capone was his successor but he was altogether far more violent than Torrio. Capone was not fussy when it came to illegal happenings, he was famous for being a part of any criminal activity that existed. He employed 'professional' gangsters, predominantly Italian men who were renowned to be reliable. Those who were not trained in gang warfare were used as 'ropers' (those who pulled punters into the speakeasies), 'friskers', (those who frisked for weapons inside speakeasies and when going to a meeting with important clients) or 'bankers' (those who worked on the gambling circuits, which were nearly always rigged in favour of the gangsters). Capone was also renowned for organising 'rackets' or raids on shops and shop owners of rival gangs or those who owed money.
A public face thanks to his continued work of protecting Mayor Thompson whilst extorting millions of Chicago's citizen's dollars, making a fortune in 'speakeasies', brothels and drug trafficking as well as openly indulging in gang warfare, the relatively peaceful reign of Torrio was long gone. In just two years Capone's criminal capers had earnt him over $27 million. Big businesses like Rockefeller, cast a blind eye to the illegal nature of his gangs in order to benefit from his gang. Capone however was not unaware of the people who hated him. As an example of his wariness, he travelled around in an armour-plated Cadillac. Many ask how he was allowed to continue like this.
Although most feared him, the main reason Capone was allowed to continue was that the law enforcers had no power over him whatsoever. Judges and police officials were frequently on the payroll of the gangsters. Not only did he partake in criminal matters to do with money, there were also 227 gangland murders for which no one was ever convicted. The Valentine's Day Massacre is an infamous example where four members of Capone's gang dressed as police officials, trapped and shot seven members of a leading rival gang ( The Irish-American Moran gang) in the back. Such levels of violence were horrific but it seemed that nobody could touch him until 1931,where Capone was finally arrested for tax evasion rather than the four hundred murders he was alleged to have committed.
In short the gangsters thrived because they had enough money to be in charge of huge money making businesses like the 'speakeasies' and 'bootlegging' and they also had enough money to bribe the under-paid, over-worked police officials. Corruption also played a huge part, the police, the judicial system and even the President were known violators of the Prohibition Law, providing no role models for the average American citizen to look towards.
Other effects of Prohibition include the boost of soft drink sales and an increase on smuggling on the Canadian, Caribbean and Mexican borders.
Soft drinks, especially Coca Cola, had been steadily growing in popularity since the early 1900's. Coca Cola was being branded , "The Grand National Temperance Drink" as early as 1905. By the time Prohibition had been abolished, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola where household names, increasing their annual output from 17.4 million cases to 182 million. Smuggling also increased dramatically with the most famous story being that of President Kennnedy's father being a known smuggler.
In conclusion the effects of Prohibition were generally very negative. The Temperance Movement pushed for Prohibition because they thought it would stop drinking altogether, which would then lead on to the end of domestic violence and an increase in productivity. What they actually got was a huge increase in drinkers across America and an upsurge in crime and corruption which is certainly not productive!
Why was Prohibition abolished? There are several reasons why the Prohibition Act was eventually abolished. It was an unenforceable law for a start. One of the main reasons which could be seen from the start was that it was appallingly under funded.
The Bureau of Prohibition was only given a budget of $4,500 to work with a year and a handful of agents sent to enforce this ambitious law. It is reported that each agent had over 2,000 square miles to cover. Also these agents had very low morale and self esteem because they were enforcing the law everybody loved to hate. These people were seen as taking away their right to have a drink and as a result they were hated. This was also the reason that there were so few agents, because the job was so unattractive.
One argument behind why it failed is that the immigrants who made up an astounding proportion of America's population, were used to drinking as an intrinsic way of having fun and socialising. Not drinking seemed alien to these people as drinking was almost part of their culture and /or heritage. For the Puritanist Americans however, temperance was more of a way of life.
Another reason for the repeal of Prohibition was that in the late 1920's American's priorities began to change. Individual freedom became more important than individual morality. The Democratic Party picked up on this fact very quickly and in the next campaign for the presidential election in 1928, Alfred Smith promised the voters to abolish Prohibition, but in spite of that, he lost to a landslide victory of Herbert Hoover of the Republican Party. The small town mentality group of voters did not like the fact that Smith was a 'wet' Catholic who supported immigration.
The final nail in the coffin for Prohibition was the Depression which followed the Wall Street Crash of 1919. The return of the brewery industry promised more jobs for the masses of unemployed workers. Businessmen also supported the idea because it may have boosted taxation which would take some of the burden off of themselves. By the 1930's a strong argument for repeal of the Prohibition Act was present. Also at this time people started to move into the cities from the town, reducing the rural 'dry' vote and boosting the urban 'wet' vote and when Franklin D. Roosevelt stood as a Democratic candidate, promising repeal he was soon voted to victory with the aid of groups like the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) who were rival groups for the slowly weakening Anti Saloon League (ASL).
These factors together forced the Congress to pass the Twenty-First Amendment, a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment which had imposed Prohibition. This was not the end however. Even though Congress voted to repeal Prohibition by 73% the state governments still had the power to introduce their own versions of restrictions on the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Inevitably after the act had been passed the consumption of alcohol increased but it was significantly lower than in the Nineteenth Century, when the Prohibition Act was first discussed.
In conclusion Prohibition was abolished because of lack of funding and support from the government and because it was too ambitious. It was almost impossible to enforce and if anything there were more drinkers than ever before. Even the sentencing for drinking alcohol was not that intimidating, a mere $1000 fine or six months prison sentence and that was only when the law enforcers were not corrupted by the gangsters. People's attitudes changed, they wanted freedom and prosperity like they had had in the early 1920's. Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" for the American people suggesting it was about time Americans sat down and had a drink.