Prohibition (Issue)

views updated May 29 2018


During the colonial period in America alcohol consumption was more common than it was at the end of the twentieth century. Some estimate per capita consumption of alcohol during colonial times at double the rate it was in the 1990s. Puritans brewed beer and ordinary citizens consumed prodigious amounts of hard cider. Part of the reason for so much alcohol consumption was the uncertainty of potable water. Cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s resulted in part from drinking unclean water. Although the abuse of alcohol was more common then, there is also considerable evidence that it was frowned upon. For example in Virginia as early as 1629, ministers were prohibited by law from excess in drinking, and in Massachusetts a 1633 law limited the amount of alcohol that could be purchased while another statute in 1637 limited the amount of time anyone could spend in a tavern. Later, many colonies imposed fines for excessive behavior as well as taxes and license fees.

The last half of the eighteenth century witnessed the beginnings of the temperance movement as religious leaders began to denounce not only excessive drinking but all consumption of alcohol. Technically, temperance meant moderation, but in fact people meant abstinence. In 1773 John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, declared that drinking was a sin and Anthony Benezet, a leading member of the Society of Friends, the Quakers, wrote a pamphlet in which he argued that drinking tended to make a man behave foolishly and even dangerously.

The medical community was also concerned. In 1785, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the leading physician of the day, published a pamphlet entitled "Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind," wherein he listed various diseases thought to plague those who consumed alcohol. At about this time temperance organizations began to appear. Among the first were the Organization of Brethren and the Litchfield Connecticut Association.

In the early nineteenth century, those who opposed alcohol became more strident because many people saw drinking as an impediment to the growth of democracy and U.S. nationalism. This period saw the first experiments with statewide prohibition. Maine passed the first prohibition law in 1843. During the next few years Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York followed suit. But most of these efforts were short-lived. They were vetoed, soon repealed or stricken down by the courts. There was also, of course, considerable opposition from the public. State prohibition laws were widely ignored while they were in effect and in some cases there was violence, as in 1850 when people rioted against Sunday closing laws in Chicago. Still, the advocates of prohibition persisted. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826, followed by the Washington Movement in 1840 and the Sons of Temperance in 1842. All these organizations advocated total abstinence.

By the late nineteenth century the prohibition movement, like other reform movements, was lobbying Congress. The National Prohibition Party was founded in 1869, and ran its first candidate for president, James Black, in 1872. The Women's' Christian Temperance Union was established in 1874. The organization was led by Frances Willard who was also an advocate of women's rights and suffrage. By 1884 the issue was clearly affecting the national parties. James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for president in that year, lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland (18851889), partly as a result of his ineffective handling of the temperance question. He succeeded only in alienating people on both sides of the debate.

In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League was founded. Over the next decade-and-a-half the Anti-Saloon League was to become the most powerful lobby for prohibition advocates. Supported mostly by rural, middle-class, white Protestants, the League conducted an aggressive campaign. The Anti-Saloon League argued that liquor was destructive to society because it contributed to divorce, poverty, pauperism, crime, child abuse and insanity. During the early twentieth century, the socalled Progressive Era when social and political reforms were in vogue, the League portrayed prohibition as one of the leading reform movements of the day, and the results were impressive. By 1913 nine states had adopted statewide prohibition, and 31 had chosen the "local option" which allowed cities or counties to go dry by referendum. As a result, 75 percent of the population lived under some form of prohibition. While this was regarded as a dangerous trend by wets (people in opposition to prohibition) and their leading organizations such as the National Brewers Association, the prohibitionists would not be satisfied until prohibition covered the entire country.

Between 1913 and 1915 prohibition resolutions were twice introduced in Congress by Congressmen Joseph B. Thompson of Oklahoma and Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas. These both failed, but when the United States entered World War I in 1917, things changed. Prohibitionists could argue that the liquor industry was unpatriotic because it drained resources like grain that should be used for food, that the use of alcohol undermined the effectiveness of soldiers, and that many of the families who owned breweries and distilleries were ethnic Germans.

The resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation, and importation of alcoholic beverages passed Congress in early 1918. Just a year later it was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment when on January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to approve it. The enforcement law, commonly known as the Volstead Act, passed Congress on October 29, 1919, and prohibition officially went into effect on January 17, 1920.

The national prohibition experiment was in effect for 13 years from 1920 to 1933. It was a disastrous failure in most parts of the country although in certain sections like the rural South it more or less worked because it had popular support. Generally however the results were not good. Smuggling increased during the early years followed by a rapid increase in crime as "bootleggers"'the manufacturers of illegal liquor sought to meet the overwhelming demand.

It is estimated that by 1930 the illegal manufacturing establishments numbered over 280,000, and illegal saloonsknown as Speakeasiesnumbered between 200,000 and 500,000. Moreover, people manufactured "home brew" in vast but unknown quantities and doctors issued prescriptions for equally vast quantities of whiskey to be used for "medical purposes." Contemporary estimates believe that doctors earned $40 million in 1928 alone by writing such prescriptions.

Because Congress never appropriated sufficient funds, the Volstead Act could not be effectively enforced and probably would have been repealed eventually under any conditions, but it was the coming of the Great Depression that hastened its demise. This was because the Depression triggered demands for increased employment and tax revenues.

By 1929 it was clear that prohibition was a failure and President Hoover (19291933) appointed a special commission to study the issue. Chaired by George W. Wickersham, a former Attorney General, the commission issued its report in 1931. Oddly enough, even though the commission recognized all the problems with prohibition, they nevertheless recommended that it be continued. This however was not to be.

At their 1932 national convention the Democrats advocated for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and their presidential candidate, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt (19331945) of New York, agreed. Roosevelt was easily elected and the repeal amendment was introduced in Congress on February 14, 1933, before the inauguration. It was approved by both Houses within a few days and submitted to the states for ratification. It was quickly approved and adopted by Congress on December 5, 1933.

Even though the national prohibition experiment failed, there remained millions of people in this country who thought alcohol and its use were sinful, wasteful and dangerous. Thus prohibition in one form or another persisted. The Prohibition Party, though minuscule, continued to campaign, certain churches demanded that their members practice abstinence from alcohol, and 40 states continued to permit the local option.

See also: Black Market, Great Depression, Illegal Drugs


Cherrington, E. H. The Evolution of Prohibition in the United States of America. Westerville, OH: American Issue Press, 1920.

Clark, Norman H. Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition. New York: Norton, 1976.

Dobyns, F. The Amazing Story of Repeal. Chicago: Willett, Clark and Company, 1940.

Furnas, J.C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: Putnam, 1965.

Krout, J. A. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928.

Sinclair, Andrew. The Era of Excess. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

Thornton, Mark. The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.


views updated May 17 2018


By the onset of the Great Depression, national prohibition was beginning to stagger. The ban on alcoholic beverages was ignored by a sizeable minority of Americans and disliked by many more. Nevertheless, both politicians and the general public assumed the dry law to be permanently embedded in United States public policy because of its status as a constitutional requirement. Not the least of the unexpected consequences of the Depression was the creation of circumstances in which national prohibition was overturned.


Advocates of temperance concluded during a century-long crusade that the only workable solution to the problem of alcohol abuse was government-enforced elimination of beverage alcohol. The movement to prohibit drinking attracted a broad base of support from women, churches, employers, urban social and political reformers, and rural nativists. Eager to avoid the backsliding that had followed earlier local and state liquor bans, members of the temperance movement began in 1913 to seek a constitutional amendment on the assumption that, once approved by the necessary two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states, it could never be repealed. Prohibitionists benefited from the wartime atmosphere of 1917 and 1918 and achieved ratification in January 1919 of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation, sale, import, and export of intoxicating beverages. The widespread support for the liquor ban was reflected in its approval by more than two-thirds of each house of Congress and then by forty-five state legislatures. Before prohibition took effect one year later, Congress adopted the Volstead enforcement act, which defined as intoxicating any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol (thus including beer and wine as well as distilled spirits). Alcohol prohibition appeared to be both absolute and unshakeable.


During the 1920s most Americans observed prohibition most of the time. Alcohol consumption dropped by nearly two-thirds, according to the best estimates. Resistance was concentrated in ethnic communities where recent immigrants saw no harm in drinking, and among the urban upper classes who were able to afford the high price of bootleg liquor and inclined to regard it as culturally sophisticated to ignore the dry law. Other citizens, both urban and rural, took advantage of Volstead Act loopholes allowing the personal use of wine fermented from natural fruit juices and the prescribing of spirits for medicinal use. Despite the less than complete observance of the dry law, not to mention a wave of films and novels depicting drinking as widespread and fashionable, its constitutional status kept prohibition firmly in place. Its advocates frequently gave prohibition credit for the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s. In the 1928 presidential campaign Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith talked of ending prohibition while Republican Herbert Hoover defended it as "a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and farreaching in purpose" (New York Times, February 24, 1928, p. 1) Hoover's landslide victory was taken as evidence of continuing support for the liquor ban.


Arguments against prohibition predated the autumn 1929 economic collapse. Opposition to the dry law came most prominently from the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). The AAPA complained that giving federal and state authorities the power to control an individual's choice of drink was putting too much power into the government's hands. Furthermore, the liquor ban was producing alarming enforcement practices, including warrantless searches of automobiles, wiretapping of telephones, and gun battles between prohibition agents and bootleggers in which innocents had been killed. The WONPR, worried that prohibition was causing a breakdown of respect for law and the Constitution, echoed these concerns.


Economic hard times focused attention on the costs of alcohol prohibition, which the AAPA claimed had totaled more than $300 million in enforcement expenses and $11 billion in lost tax revenues by 1931. Enforcing the law increased police costs, jammed federal and state courts, and dramatically expanded the prison population. During the 1920s federal criminal cases more than quadrupled, to more than 85,000 per year; most involved Volstead Act violations. By 1930 two-thirds of those found guilty received only fines, but still federal prisons bulged with twice the number of inmates for which they were designed, and an overflow resided in state and local jails. Not only did taxpayers bear prohibition's considerable direct costs, the AAPA complained, but the outlawing of the liquor trade, once the nation's seventh-largest industry, also eliminated many legitimate jobs and did away with liquor taxes, an important source of government revenue. Ending prohibition, antiprohibitionists argued, could eradicate the federal budget deficit, create employment, and ease the Depression. Temperance advocates responded that the AAPA consisted of wealthy businessmen simply trying to reduce their income taxes. The economic cost of prohibition was unintentionally underscored in 1931 by the successful federal prosecution of the nation's most notorious bootlegger, 32-year-old Alphonse Capone of Chicago. Like many other ambitious young immigrants who found few opportunities open to them in legitimate business or even organized crime (gambling, prostitution, loansharking), Al Capone turned to bootlegging. He prospered in a business that, as he pointed out, satisfied a public demand, and targeted (albeit violently) only rival bootleggers, not paying customers. Despite a great deal of effort, federal prohibition agents were unsuccessful in thwarting him until they apprehended him not for Volstead Act violations, but for income tax evasion. Capone's conviction served as a reminder that bootleggers were not paying taxes on income from an illegal trade, while the government was spending a great deal to enforce prohibition.


Upon taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed a presidential commission to study prohibition and the general problem of crime. By the time the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement released its report in January 1931, the U.S. economy was in shambles. Commission chairman George Wickersham and his ten colleagues called for continuation of the liquor ban, but their individual statements revealed skepticism as to whether the law was enforceable, at least at an acceptable cost. Seven of the commissioners indicated that they actually favored immediate or eventual adoption of the Swedish system of licensing responsible drinkers to purchase controlled amounts of alcohol from state dispensaries.


Despite the Wickersham Commission report, Hoover continued to defend prohibition. The 1932 Republican Party platform pledged continued enforcement of the law, but it also gave tepid support to a qualified proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to exempt themselves from national prohibition. Hoover was widely perceived as the candidate of an alcoholic as well as economic status quo. The Democratic Party struck a different pose. Alfred E. Smith and his supporters, including Democratic National Chairman John J. Raskob, a leader of the AAPA, demanded that the party platform endorse repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had avoided the issue throughout his career, grudgingly agreed. The party convention embraced a platform plank calling for immediate and unqualified repeal more enthusiastically than it supported Roosevelt's nomination. When Democrats swept to a landslide victory in November 1932, the party position on repeal, one of its clearest contrasts with the Republicans, was given partial credit.


Congress acted on a prohibition repeal amendment even before Roosevelt took office. The Seventy-second Congress, meeting in a lame-duck session from December 1932 until March 1933, was unable to agree on measures to deal with a collapsing economy, but it did adopt by more than a twothirds margin in each house a constitutional amendment overturning the Eighteenth. Congress heeded AAPA and WONPR demands that the proposed amendment not be sent for ratification to state legislatures, where dry sentiment was thought to be still strong; instead, ratification was entrusted to specially elected state conventions. When he took office on March 4, Roosevelt quickly called the Seventy-third Congress into session. One of his first proposals for improving the economy and public spirits involved revising the Volstead Act to allow the manufacture, sale, and taxation of beer with 3.2 percent alcohol content. Promptly adopted, the Beer Bill made weak beer legal beginning April 7, 1933. To many Americans, the worst of prohibition was over. With breweries immediately hiring twenty thousand workers and the federal government receiving $4 million in tax revenue during the first week of sale, the return of beer was hailed as a step toward economic recovery.

Despite the unprecedented requirement of state ratifying conventions, the repeal amendment moved forward rapidly. Most state legislatures quickly agreed to offer voters one slate of convention delegates pledged to support the new amendment and another committed to retaining the Eighteenth. The electorate left no doubt as to its preference. Between April and November thirtyseven states held delegate elections, and nationwide 73 percent of voters expressed a preference for prohibition repeal. Only South Carolina, by a 52 percent margin, favored retaining the alcohol ban. When the final state conventions were held in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Utah on December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment was completed.

Repeal increased legal employment and largely wiped out the illicit liquor trade. During the 1930s alcohol consumption remained well below preprohibition levels—some Americans had learned to do without liquor during prohibition, and others found it difficult to afford in the depressed economy. But the end of prohibition was one of the events of 1933 that reduced social discontent and raised spirits.



Blocker, Jack S., Jr. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. 1989.

Burnham, John C. Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. 1993.

Guthrie, John J., Jr. Keepers of the Spirits: The Judicial Response to Prohibition Enforcement in Florida, 1885–1935. 1998.

Haller, Mark H. "Bootleggers and Businessmen: From City Slums to City Builders," in Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition, edited by David E. Kyvig. 1985.

Hallwas, John E. The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America. 1998.

Hamm, Richard, "Short Euphorias Followed by Long Hangovers: Unintended Consequences of the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments," in Unintended Consequences of Constitutional Amendment, edited by David E. Kyvig. 2000.

Kyvig, David E. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776–1995. 1996.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. 2nd ed. 2000.

Martin, James Kirby, and Mark E. Lender. Drinking in America: A History. 1982.

Murchison, Kenneth M. Federal Criminal Law Doctrines: The Forgotten Influence of National Prohibition. 1994.

Murdock, Catherine. Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870–1940. 1998.

New York Times, February 24, 1928, 1.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. 1998.

Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of National Prohibition. 1996.

Spinelli, Lawrence. Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition. 1989.

Vose, Clement E. "Repeal as a Political Achievement," in Law, Alcohol, and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition, edited by David E. Kyvig. 1985.

David E. Kyvig


views updated May 18 2018


Excerpt from the Eighteenth Amendment—Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors

Adopted on January 29, 1919

Reprinted from the Findlaw Web site at

Alcohol is the most frequently used drug in the United States. Rum was often present in community gatherings in the early colonial settlements. Concern began to rise over those who drank too much. Laws were passed focusing on alcohol abuse and its disruptive effects on small communities. A call for a ban on alcohol grew throughout the nineteenth century among social workers, clergy, and others part of what were called temperance movements.

By the 1870s organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union crusaded around the nation promoting the prohibition of alcohol. Another key national group, the Anti-Saloon League, joined the fight for prohibition in the 1890s.

Passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages came in January 1919. To put the amendment into effect, Congress passed the Volstead Act in October 1919. The act expanded the prohibition to include beer and wine as well as hard liquor and criminalized its possession.

"The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors . . . for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."

Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Eighteenth Amendment—Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors:

  • Prohibition officially went into effect on January 16, 1920.
  • Prohibitionists believed enforcement would be easy and inexpensive.
  • Crime syndicates had previously been organized around gambling, prostitution, and other vices. It readily adapted to the new financial bonanza of bootlegging illegal liquor.
  • Since the United States did not have a personal income tax until 1915, money from liquor taxes became a primary source of funding for the federal government from 1870 to 1915.

Excerpt from the Eighteenth Amendment—Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislature of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

What happened next . . .

Prohibition did not curb America's desire to drink alcoholic beverages, but it did create a crime wave including dramatic growth in organized crime. Gangs operated their own alcohol distilleries and paid off local police and politicians to look the other way. In addition, gangsters smuggled (bootlegged) liquor into the United States from Canada and Mexico. With so much bribery and corruption, there was a significant decrease in the respect for law enforcement.

By the late 1920s gangsters had become well established and wealthy. Some gang leaders became millionaires as the cost of drinks rose significantly. The number of saloons increased from some 16,000 before Prohibition to 33,000 speakeasies (illegal drinking places) following the passage of Prohibition.

Overall, Prohibition was a disaster causing many unexpected problems. Besides leading to widespread disrespect for the criminal justice system and creating extremely wealthy criminals, Prohibition cost the lives of many police officers in shootouts with criminals, the deaths of citizens drinking bootlegged alcohol containing poisonous chemicals, thousands of lost jobs in breweries and the wine industry, and massive law enforcement expenses.

By 1930 various organizations opposed to Prohibition joined together to form the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Their common goal was to repeal Prohibition. They drafted the Twenty-first Amendment and submitted it to Congress in February 1933 to begin the ratification process.

With the arrival of the Democratic Party to the White House in March 1933 led by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), the failed experiment in Prohibition officially ended. Roosevelt immediately cut government funds for Prohibition enforcement and pressed Congress to pass a bill raising the permissible alcohol content for beverages to begin beer production. The beer act was passed on April 7, 1933. Some two hundred breweries began operation.

The Twenty-first Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, and added to the Constitution repealing the Eighteenth Amendment. Caught in the grips of the Great Depression (1929–41), the government desperately needed the tax revenues it could earn from alcohol production and sales, the creation of jobs, and the decreased costs of law enforcement.

Organized crime leaders had to find a new means of making money. They turned to loan-sharking (charging very high interest rates on loans), labor racketeering, and drug trafficking. By the end of the twentieth century drug trafficking, a natural extension of Prohibition, was organized crime's biggest business.

Did you know . . .

  • Only about one-third of the adult population was willing to abstain from alcohol during Prohibition; instead, drinking became a symbol of independence and sophistication.
  • In the first few years of Prohibition most illegal alcohol came from private home stills (distilleries, to distill and produce alcohol), while all necessary supplies were easily available at most stores. Organized crime groups, however, eventually took over most production.
  • Public intoxication remains a crime as well as having an open container of alcohol while in public. Drinking and driving laws have steadily become more severe in enforcement and punishment.
  • Intoxication cannot be used as a defense in a criminal trial for committing some other crime.

Consider the following . . .

  • Given the high costs of drug enforcement and the lack of success, some want to end the prohibition on illegal drugs and regulate drugs like alcohol. What would the effects be of such an effort? How would the rate of drug use change? Would organized crime decrease? Would government taxes on drugs be helpful in funding drug treatment programs?
  • What were the problems law officials faced in enforcing Prohibition? Would there be more effective ways of enforcing it today?
  • What led the promoters of Prohibition to believe the nation would readily accept the ban? Research the history of your local community in the 1920s. How did it respond to Prohibition?

Concurrent: Jurisdiction by two authorities at the same time.

Ratified: Approved by a required number of states.

For More Information


Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

Kobler, John. Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.

Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Web Sites

Court TV's Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods.http://www.crime (accessed on August 19, 2004).

"Temperance and Prohibition." Ohio State University Department of History. (accessed on August 19, 2004).


views updated May 21 2018


Early in the years following the American Revolution (1775–83), alcohol consumption in the United States increased dramatically. Saloons were built in every city and village and provided a setting for illegal activities such as prostitution (the selling of sex), which led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and gambling. Domestic violence became more commonplace as men spent the family money on too much alcohol, leaving wives and children with little or nothing to eat.

Reformers (people working for change) saw a problem and took measures to correct it. At first, they encouraged people to cut down on the amount of drinking, but eventually they called for total abstinence (no drinking at all). In their eyes, drinking was a sin that led to disease, crime, and the ruin of family relationships. In 1836, those advocating temperance (avoiding excess) formed the American Temperance Union and called for an end to all alcohol consumption.

The temperance movement took hold of government and politics, and by 1855 thirteen states had banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. By the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), most of these laws had been repealed, but six states were still dry (without the legal manufacturing and sale of alcohol).

Reformers and the Eighteenth Amendment

There were still many saloons throughout American cities in the early 1900s. But medical research was providing evidence of the negative effects of alcohol consumption. Americans were also concerned about the power that breweries and distilling companies held. These companies

owned many of the saloons, and they made high profits from the sale of their product.

More groups concerned about alcohol consumption formed, including the Prohibition Party in 1872. This political party sponsored presidential candidates who opposed alcohol. Although men were included in prohibition activities, women, considered the moral guardians of society, primarily headed the movement. Women also had a special interest in seeing alcohol consumption outlawed, as they often suffered the most from their husbands’ or fathers’ drinking habits.

Drinking became a major issue in the Progressive Era (roughly 1900–13), a time of major reform. Prohibition came to be seen as a way to help the poor and protect the young. During World War I (1914–18), Prohibition became a patriotic issue because several of the largest breweries were owned by immigrants from Germany, the United States's enemy in the war.

In 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution , outlawing the manufacturing and sale of alcohol nationwide. Passage of the Volstead Act immediately followed, outlawing even those beverages containing as little as 0.5 percent alcohol (beer and wine). Although many Americans initially were in favor of Prohibition, they thought that only hard liquor, like whiskey, would be outlawed. They were not in favor of banning the consumption of beer and wine, and thus the Volstead Act prompted many to withdraw their support of Prohibition.

The nation divides

Prohibition divided the nation into two distinct groups. The Drys supported the law, whereas the Wets urged an end to the total ban. Immigrant groups found Prohibition particularly difficult, as they came from societies in which the consumption of alcohol was acceptable. In addition, the saloons had become gathering places for the various ethnic groups and provided them with a place to go to hold meetings and social events. Without the saloons, they had nowhere to meet.

People continued to drink throughout Prohibition despite the fact that it was a crime. Bootleggers (those who manufactured alcohol illegally) continued to sell their liquor at a profit. Those who could not afford it simply made their own—often in bathtubs. Bathtub gin, as it was called, was not always safe, and was responsible for causing blindness and even death. The danger lay in the distillation process required to turn medical-grade alcohol into a drink that would not taste horrible. People who had no idea what they were doing often made bathtub gin, and their incompetence put drinkers at risk of consuming unsafe concentrations of wood, or denatured, alcohol.

Fun at the speakeasy

Prohibition gave rise to the speakeasy, an unofficial drinking establishment that was either glamorous or seedy, depending on its location. New York City alone boasted about thirty thousand speakeasies in the 1920s, according to the police commissioner. Another type of “secret” drinking establishment, called a blind pig, was disguised to look like a legitimate business from the front and inside. But deeper into the building, in back rooms, were bars. To get into either a speakeasy or a blind pig, visitors usually had to know a secret password. Bootleggers provided the liquor sold in speakeasies and blind pigs, and they got their supplies from rumrunners who brought the liquor into the country either by ship or over the Canadian border.

Everyone knew of the existence of speakeasies and blind pigs. Local police departments—underfunded, understaffed, and underpaid—were not equipped to handle the enforcing of Prohibition laws. The federal government was not much help, either. It provided just fifteen hundred agents to implement Prohibition across the entire nation. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually established a special force known as the Untouchables, headed by agent Eliot Ness (1902–1957), to crack down on illegal Prohibition activity, but even they were largely ineffective.

Organized crime increases

Organized crime was a new concept in the 1920s. But when mobsters and mob bosses saw an opportunity to make huge profits from the manufacturing and sale of alcohol throughout Prohibition, they took advantage of it. As various gangs competed, violence increased. One of the most violent mob bosses was “Scarface” Al Capone (1899–1947).

Capone was a native New Yorker who moved to Chicago, Illinois , in 1919. He had already established himself as a mobster before escaping a murder charge by moving west. By 1925, he was in control of Chicago's illegal liquor operations. Within four years, Capone had amassed $50 million, had more than seven hundred men working for him, and controlled more than ten thousand speakeasies.

Capone's success was won through brutality, and upon his death he was suspected of involvement in as many as two hundred deaths of rival gang members. It was not until 1931 that the government could charge the mob boss with anything that would hold up in court. Ironically, it was not murder that sent Capone to prison, but tax evasion (failing to pay income taxes). Capone served an eleven-year jail sentence, which ended his criminal career. He died in 1947.

The end of Prohibition

Prohibition was never enforceable. The American public simply did not consider moderate drinking a sinful activity and refused to have its morality policed by the government. Prohibition was finally overturned in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment .


views updated May 21 2018


The popular name for the period in U.S. history from 1920 to 1933 when the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages—except for medicinal or religious purposes—were illegal.

From 1920 to 1933 the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors were illegal in the United States. The eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution authorized Congress to prohibit alcoholic beverages, but the twenty-firstamendment repealed this prohibition. The era of Prohibition was marked by large-scale smuggling and illegal sales of liquor, the growth of organized crime, and increased restriction on personal freedom.

The prohibition movement began in the 1820s in the wake of a revival of Protestantism that viewed the consumption of alcohol as sinful and a destructive force in society. Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and other states followed in the years before the u.s. civil war.

The prohibition party was founded in 1869, with a ban on the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor as its only campaign goal. This party, like most temperance groups, derived its support from rural and small-town voters associated with Protestant evangelical churches. The Prohibition Party reached it zenith in 1892 when its candidate for president polled 2.2 percent of the popular vote. The party soon went into decline, and though it still exists, it works mainly at the local level.

The impetus for the Eighteenth Amendment can be traced to the Anti-Saloon League, which was established in 1893. The league worked to enact state prohibition laws and had great success between 1906 and 1913. By the time national prohibition took effect in January 1920, thirty-three states (63 percent of the total population) had prohibited intoxicating liquors.

The league and other prohibition groups were opposed to the consumption of alcohol for a variety of reasons. Some associated alcohol with

the rising number of aliens entering the country, many of whom were Roman Catholic. This anti-alien, anti-Catholic prejudice was coupled with a fear of increasingly larger urban areas by the rural-dominated prohibition supporters. Saloons and other public drinking establishments were also associated with prostitution and gambling. Finally, some employers endorsed prohibition as a means of reducing industrial accidents and increasing the efficiency of workers.

When the United States entered world war i in 1917, Congress prohibited the manufacture and importation of distilled liquor in order to aid the war effort. It also authorized the president to lower the alcoholic content of beer and wine and to restrict or forbid their manufacture.

A movement began to support elimination of intoxicating liquors by constitutional amendment. In 1917 Congress passed the Prohibition amendment and submitted it to the states for ratification. The rural-dominated state legislatures made ratification a foregone conclusion, and the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 29, 1919. Congress enacted the volstead act, officially known as the National Prohibition Act (41 Stat. 305 [1919]) to enforce the amendment, which became effective on January 29, 1920.

Prohibition proved most effective in small towns and rural areas. Compliance was much more difficult in urban areas, where illegal suppliers quickly found a large demand for alcohol. Cities had large immigrant populations that did not see anything morally wrong with consuming alcohol. The rise of "bootlegging" (the illegal manufacture, distribution, and sale of intoxicating liquor) by organized crime proved to be one of the unintended consequences of Prohibition.

Besides the illegal importation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of intoxicating liquors by organized crime, millions of persons evaded Prohibition by consuming "medicinal" whiskey that was sold in drugstores on real or forged prescriptions. Many U.S. industries used denatured alcohol, which was treated with noxious chemicals to make it unfit for human consumption. Nevertheless, methods were found to remove these chemicals, add water and a small amount of liquor for flavor, and sell the mixture to illegal bars, called speakeasies, or to individual customers. Finally, many persons resorted to making their own liquor from corn. This type of product could be dangerously impure and cause blindness, paralysis, and death.

The prohibition movement lost political strength in the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression of the 1930s further changed the political climate. Critics of Prohibition argued that the rise of criminal production and sale of alcohol made the legal ban ineffective. In addition, the general public's patronage of speakeasies bred disrespect for law and government. Finally, critics argued that legalizing the manufacture and sale of alcohol would stimulate the economy and provide desperately needed jobs.

In 1932 the democratic party adopted a platform plank at its national convention calling for repeal. The landslide Democratic victory of 1932 signaled the end of Prohibition. The February 1933 resolution proposing the Twenty-first Amendment contained a provision requiring ratification by state conventions rather than state legislatures. This provision was included to prevent rural-dominated legislatures, which still supported Prohibition, from defeating the amendment.

The state ratification conventions quickly endorsed the amendment, with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment coming on December 5, 1933. The amendment did allow prohibition by the states. A few states continued statewide prohibition, but by 1966 all states had repealed these provisions. Liquor in the United States is now controlled at the local level. Counties that prohibit the sale of alcohol are known as dry counties, and counties that allow the sale of alcohol are known as wet counties.

further readings

Kyvig, David E. 2000. Repealing National Prohibition. 2d ed. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.

Van de Water, Frederic F. 2003. The Real McCoy. Mystic, Conn.: Flat Hammock Press.

Whitebread. Charles H. 2000. "Freeing Ourselves from the Prohibition Idea in the Twenty-First Century." Suffolk University Law Review 33 (fall).


Capone, Alphonse; Temperance Movement.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, attempted to eliminate the consumption of alcoholic beverages but instead created a legacy of bootleggers, flappers, and speakeasies. Widespread crime in American cities and corruption within the Prohibition enforcement agencies resulted. Profits from illegal alcohol and disrespect for the law grew during the period of legislated moral behavior.

The states ratified the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution in January of 1919, and nationwide Prohibition began on January 29, 1920. The Amendment made the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal. The widely accepted Volstead Act provided enforcement of Prohibition and was enacted in October of 1919.

Prohibition had its roots in the temperance movements to reduce alcohol consumption in the 1820s. The state of Massachusetts was the first state to enact prohibition laws when it prohibited the sale of spirits in less than 15 gallon containers. This law passed in 1838 and was repealed two years later. In the 1850s, several states enacted prohibition laws but support for prohibition declined during the Civil War. States maintained jurisdiction over state and local prohibition laws from 1880 to 1914.

The Prohibitionist Party, formed in 1869, began to revitalize the temperance movement to eliminate alcohol consumption. Other reformists such as ministers, physicians, devout middle-class Protestants, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union drove the prohibition movement. The reformers believed drinking caused numerous social dilemmas: social reformers blamed alcohol for poverty, moral decay, and domestic abuse; physicians argued that alcohol caused health problems; and political reformers saw taverns as corrupt establishments. In addition, employers in the new industrial society believed that employees who drank alcohol were lazy, unproductive, and prone to sickness, absenteeism, and on-the-job accidents. Overall, drinking alcohol was deemed an immoral act by prohibitionists.

Although Prohibition initially reduced the amount of alcohol consumed, it also caused an increase in crime. Where the desire to consume alcohol remained, even increased, a new breed of criminal emerged. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals because they purchased alcohol. Gangsters, enticed by the potentially huge profits related to distributing and manufacturing alcohol, battled for business and settled market disputes with guns. The bootlegger became an American icon. Bootlegged liquor came across Canada waterways, off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and from the Caribbean Sea. Bootleggers also manufactured liquor in makeshift distilleries and bathtubs. This liquor was often poor in quality and dangerous to one's health. Drinking patterns also changed; sales of hard liquor rose because it was easier to transport, while beer became less popular to distribute.

Drinking became fashionable during these years. Prohibition created an illegal drinking establishment, the speakeasy, which outnumbered the previous legal drinking establishments. Additionally, only women of ill-repute frequented the saloons of pre-prohibition years, but during Prohibition the number of women who frequented speakeasies rose. It was also during this time that the flapper was born.

Anti-prohibitionists argued that prohibition encouraged crime and widespread disrespect for the law. The dramatic increase in crime overwhelmed the criminal justice system. Citizens lost respect for the system and corruption within enforcement agencies thrived. While some enforcement agents took bribes, others could not be bought. The levels of enforcement varied widely between states, with enforcement agents cracking down harder in areas where the prohibition movement was strongest. Lawmakers thought getting tougher on alcohol crimes would help them achieve success; penalties for the sale of one drink increased to five years and thousands of dollars in fines. Federal prisons operated at over 150 percent of capacity, enforcement budgets increased, and more cops were put on the beat, all to no avail.

Support for Prohibition declined during the Great Depression. People believed that ending Prohibition would create alcohol manufacturing and distribution job opportunities. In 1932, the Democratic Party endorsed a repeal on Prohibition and Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won by a large margin. In February 1933, Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition. The states ratified the amendment and national Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933. The 18th Amendment is the only repealed Amendment in United States history.

A few states maintained prohibition after the enactment of the 21st Amendment. In 1966, all states abandoned prohibition laws. After Prohibition ended, liquor control laws were created by local government officials. Prohibition ended when public officials and citizens admitted it had failed, but the negative effects of national prohibition continue to echo in American society. Despite the failure of a national prohibition designed to increase moral behavior and eliminate social ills, many Americans in the 1990s still believe prohibition is the answer. When prohibition ended, emphasis was placed on education and treatment. One could argue that today's drug prohibition is history repeating itself. U.S. society is still divided into wets and drys, users and non-users, the moral and the so-called immoral.

—Debra Lucas Muscoreil

Further Reading:

Gray, Mike. Drug Crazy: How We Got into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York, Random House, 1998.

Kyving, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Rumbarger, John J. Profits, Power and Prohibition: Alcohol Reform and the Industrializing of America, 1800-1930. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1989.

Sinclair, Andrew. Era of Excess: A Social History of the Prohibition Movement. New York, Harper and Row, 1964.


views updated May 08 2018


PROHIBITION was a tool to which temperance reformers repeatedly turned during more than a century's efforts to change American drinking habits. The first attempts to ban alcohol consumption through government action appeared on the local and state levels during the 1830s. Local prohibition has flourished on and off ever since.

During the early 1850s, twelve states and territories followed the example of Maine by enacting statewide prohibition laws. Most of these, however, were struck down by the courts or repealed. After the Civil War, new organizations were formed to advance the prohibition cause: the Prohibition Party (1869), the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874), and the Anti-Saloon League (1893). During the early years of the twentieth century, many localities and states adopted prohibition. During the same period, per capita alcohol consumption rose, buoyed by the rising popularity of beer, which increasingly replaced distilled liquor in American drinking preferences. Rising consumption had two results. On one hand, it motivated prohibitionists to focus their efforts toward a national solution to a problem they perceived as intensifying. On the other hand, it persuaded brewers, who had previously cooperated politically with distillers, that their beverage enjoyed enough popular support to be spared by a federal prohibition law, and thus disrupted the liquor-industry coalition. The Anti-Saloon League's nonpartisan lobbying and balance-of-power approach was rewarded in 1916 by the election of a dry Congress, which approved a proposed prohibition constitutional amendment in December 1917. Three-quarters of state legislatures ratified within the next thirteen months, and national Prohibition came into force one year later, on 16 January 1920. World War I contributed to Prohibition's triumph by eliciting a spirit of sacrifice, restricting liquor production and sales, and discrediting German American antiprohibitionists, but most states ratified after the war's end.

The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of intoxicating beverages and called for concurrent enforcement by the state and federal governments. The amendment's federal enforcement legislation, the Volstead Act, defined "intoxicating" as one-half of 1 percent alcohol by volume. Personal possession and consumption were therefore not proscribed, but Prohibition encompassed a wider range of alcoholic beverages than most Americans had expected. At the same time, the mechanics of concurrent state and federal enforcement were left vague. Prohibition's impact varied among beverage types and social classes. Beer, predominantly the drink of the urban working class, suffered most, and the more easily transported distilled liquors regained a larger place in American drinking patterns. Nevertheless, per capita alcohol consumption declined from its pre-Prohibition peak. Enforcement created political problems, both when it worked, by flooding courts and jails, and when it did not, as speakeasies replaced urban saloons. Federal support for enforcement was inadequate, and federal-state cooperation was consistently problematic. Nevertheless, Prohibition retained considerable popular support until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

Leadership for the antiprohibitionist cause was provided during the 1920s by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, an upper-class lobby formed in 1918, but its ideological arguments, based upon opposition to centralized federal power, held little popular appeal. Mass support came late in the decade, primarily from the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, led by upper-class women. The needs of the depression produced powerful new arguments for repeal, to generate liquor-industry jobs and government tax revenue. The Democratic Party became repeal's political instrument. After the Democrats' overwhelming victory in 1932, Congress submitted to the states a new constitutional amendment repealing the Eighteenth, and within ten months elected state conventions had ratified the Twenty-first Amendment. The states resumed primary responsibility for liquor control. A few states retained their prohibition laws after federal repeal; the last, Mississippi, abandoned its law in 1966. Per capita alcohol consumption did not regain the level of the pre-Prohibition years until the 1960s.


Blocker, Jack S., Jr. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Kyvig, David E.. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

Jack S.BlockerJr.

See alsoAlcohol, Regulation of ; Speakeasy ; Temperance Movement ; Volstead Act .


views updated May 23 2018


The term prohibition has been borrowed by psychoanalysis from everyday language, where it is used either as an adjective to describe something we are not allowed to do, say, see, think, or be; or substantively to refer to the law, social constraint, moral education, and so on, on which this prohibition is based.

Psychoanalytic language gives a more precise meaning to the term, however. Prohibition can present itself to the subject as external, and be internalized as a result of its associated dynamic of conflict; it can also result from structural requirements inherent in the mind. In every case the formulation of the prohibition and its operation can be partially or totally unconscious, even when the resulting conduct and its justification are explicit.

The concept appears early in Freud's work and can be found in the Studies on Hysteria (1895d), where the subject, driven by desires prohibited by morality, consciously forms "representations that are irreconcilable" with that morality, and then refuses them satisfaction, doing away with them by making them unconscious through repression. Those desires are always, in the final analysis, sexual in nature, especially in the case of the "neuro-psychoses of defense." "The etiology of hysteria almost inevitably can be traced to a psychic conflict, an irreconcilable representation, which prompts into action the defense of the ego and provokes repression" (Freud, 1896b). From the very outset, then, the notion of prohibition is inseparable from the drive-defense conflict, which will constitute the core of psychoanalytic theory.

Initially, that is to say, within the framework of the first topography and the first theory of drives, Freud studied the libidinal origins of the conflict and its treatment through repression (these are the texts on metapsychology from 1915) as well as its educational ("Little Hans," 1915), sociological and ethnological (Totem and Taboo, 1912-1913a) origins. The formulation of the Oedipus complex then focused attention on the prohibition of incest.

Subsequently, the formulation of the second topography led to a redefinition of prohibition. Here, the ego appears as prey to conflicts where it is torn between "three masters": the id and its libidinal demands, reality and adaptive requirements, and a superego that is essentially defined as an agent of prohibition. (However, to this must be added the more positive functions of the ego ideal, which condenses all the moral values the subject claims to hold.)

Although throughout his work Freud presents the incest prohibition as the heart of the conflictual dynamic, he also discusses prohibitions that affect other manifestations of sexuality, primarily masturbation and the satisfaction of the partial drives or compound instincts (voyeurism, exhibitionism, anal pleasure). Generalization of the limitations created by these prohibitions can lead to serious inhibitions of thought. Moreover, it has been shown how the repression of the drives can lead to serious reaction formations, especially when aggression is poorly integrated.

Roger Perron

See also: Censorship; Conflict; Deprivation; Ethics; Incest; Law of the father; Oedipus complex; Taboo; Transgression.


Freud, Sigmund. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.

Freud Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1993). Le "bon droit" du criminel. Topique, 52, 141-161.

Milner, Marion. (1991). On est prié de fermer les yeux. Le regard interdit. Paris: Gallimard.


views updated May 23 2018


Prohibition became law through the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in January 1919. It was enforced through the Volstead Act of the same year. Prohibition made the sale, transport, and manufacture of alcoholic drinks illegal. It was backed by the Prohibitionist Party and by reformers such as ministers, doctors, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The ban lasted from 1919 to 1933 and was an attempt to control moral behavior.

Unfortunately, Prohibition had the opposite effect. Prohibition made drinking fashionable and exciting. Illegal bars known as "speakeasies" sprang up and the bootleggers—makers and suppliers of illegal alcohol—became heroes. Gangsters made fortunes from making and importing alcohol. During Prohibition, the penalty for selling just one drink was five years in jail. Before long, the prisons could not cope with the influx of inmates. Prohibition made the public lose respect for lawmakers and politicians. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in December 1933. It remains the only repealed amendment in the history of the Constitution.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

Behr, Edward. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

Sinclair, Andrew. Era of Excess: A Social History of the ProhibitionMovement. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.


views updated May 11 2018

pro·hi·bi·tion / ˌprō(h)əˈbishən/ • n. 1. the action of forbidding something, esp. by law: they argue that prohibition of drugs will always fail. ∎  a law or regulation forbidding something: those who favor prohibitions on insider trading.2. (Prohibition) the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, esp. in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933.DERIVATIVES: pro·hi·bi·tion·ar·y / -ˌnerē/ adj.Pro·hi·bi·tion·ist / -nist/ n.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic