Prohibition of Alcohol

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Prohibition of Alcohol

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibited the "manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors." The amendment, passed by Congress in 1917, was written to become effective one year after its ratification by the states. The amendment outlawed only the manufacture, sale, and transport of liquor, not the possession of alcohol for personal use. It did not make buying liquor from bootleggers (people who produced alcohol illegally) a crime.

To carry out the intent of the amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act allowed supplies of alcohol to be produced and transported for scientific and other commercial purposes. It also defined an intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. It could have set the permissible level higher to allow the production, transportation, and sale of beer, but it did not.

Prohibition took effect in 1920. A Prohibition Bureau was established within the Treasury Department. Under the Volstead Act, Treasury agents could obtain a search warrant only if they could prove that alcohol was being sold. This meant that agents could not search individual homes, no matter how much liquor might be there. Some wealthy people, who had plenty of notice that Prohibition was coming, stored enough alcoholic beverages to last them through most of the following decade. Others began manufacturing alcohol at home. Even people strongly in favor of Prohibition believed that the public would not tolerate any effort to make the act of drinking itself a crime. The Volstead Act, unlike some state laws, permitted the manufacture of beer as long as the beer contained no more than 0.5 percent alcohol (this low-alcohol-content beer was called near beer).

Prohibition did not change the attitudes of most Americans about the morality of drinking. But it did succeed at eliminating 170,000 saloons, and drunkenness during Prohibition decreased. In New York and Massachusetts, two states that had no restrictions on alcohol consumption before 1920, hospital admissions for alcoholism declined sharply. Admissions to state mental institutions for dementia and psychosis caused by alcoholism also declined. Under Prohibition, deaths from alcohol-related diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver, fell, and arrests for drunkenness decreased. Commander Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army observed that there were fewer broken homes because of wages lost to drinking or violence related to drinking during Prohibition.

For the working class, liquor simply became too expensive, and so rates of consumption decreased. The price of a quart of beer or a quart of gin was five to six times higher in 1930 than before Prohibition. However, as bootlegging increased, medical problems linked to alcohol use began to rise again. Still, they did not reach the high levels experienced before 1920.

One unintended consequence of Prohibition was an increase in crime because of bootlegging. Many bootleggers became quite wealthy. Some who were involved in illegal activities before Prohibition directed the wealth flowing in from bootlegging toward organized criminal enterprises. Some of these enterprises later became involved with trafficking illegal drugs. One of the most notorious figures of the era was Al Capone, a central player in Chicago's organized crime racket.

The quality of bootlegged liquor was unreliable, since it was often produced using industrial alcohol. Some industrial alcohol could simply be flavored and sold as scotch, gin, or bourbon. Much of it, however, had been mixed with methanol (methyl alcohol) or other chemicals. These additives made the alcohol undrinkable, or denatured. Bootleggers hired chemists to remove the additives by redistillation ("washing"). Much of the liquor produced in this way was toxic (poisonous) or even lethal. The liquor produced in England and Canada and smuggled in by ship or truck was of a higher quality. One smuggler who brought in such quality liquor, Bill McCoy, provided the basis for a term still used to describe an authentic product—the "real McCoy."

Public criticism of Prohibition grew, and the Volstead Act was difficult to enforce. Many supporters of Prohibition became hostile toward the act's opponents. Supporters believed that Prohibition would eliminate the problem of drunkenness, and that, as a result, treatment of alcoholics would become unnecessary. They were intolerant of drunkards, and some suggested that drinking itself should be a crime. In the nineteenth century, the Temperance Movement had called for the physical and spiritual rehabilitation of alcoholics. In the 1920s a more severe attitude took hold, with some calling for stiffer jail terms, or even exile, for alcoholics.

Despite growing criticism, Prohibition was still alive and well when Herbert C. Hoover was elected president by a large margin in 1928. An overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress and nearly all the state governors supported the Eighteenth Amendment. Even opponents of Prohibition did not expect to see it repealed . But the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 dramatically changed the situation. Opponents of Prohibition now argued that the revival of the liquor industry would provide jobs and tax revenue. In the 1932 campaign for the presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to repeal Prohibition. Almost immediately after his inauguration, he introduced changes in the Volstead Act to legalize the sale of beer.

In 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. It was brief and to the point: "Section 1. The Eighteenth Article of Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed." The federal government, however, would still be responsible for regulating and taxing alcoholic beverages. States could continue Prohibition if they wished, and some states did so. New alcoholic beverage control laws restricted the hours when alcohol could be sold (to make taverns and bars less attractive) and banned liquor sales on Sundays and election days. In 1972 a single agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the Department of the Treasury, took responsibility for overseeing all federal laws concerning alcohol.

see also Alcohol: History of Drinking; Temperance Movement; Treatment: History of, in the United States.


Politicians are ducking, candidates are hedging, the Anti-Saloon League is prospering, people are being poisoned, bootleggers are being enriched, and government officials are being corrupted.

Fiorello H. La Guardia, Mayor of New York City, describing Prohibition in 1928.

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Prohibition of Alcohol

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