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Alcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment


The Prohibition "experiment" is periodically cited as a test of the legal control of moral behavior. Implications are then drawn for other areas of morals legislation such as drug use, prostitution, abortion, and gambling. However, this analogy between a historical set of events and the scientific test of a hypothesis is both imperfect and misleading. What can be learned from the history of the legislation prohibiting the manufacture and sale of "intoxicating liquors" in the United States is neither as exact nor as unambiguous as the results of an experiment conducted under controlled conditions in a well-equipped laboratory. To speak of a "social experiment" in this context is to utilize a poetic metaphor that may deflect attention away from many important consequences and meanings embodied in the events. Prohibition was not undertaken or opposed in the spirit of experiment, nor was it administered as a controlled test of a hypothesis.

An adequate understanding of the implications of Prohibition for the effectiveness of criminalization and legal control cannot be confined to the 1920s. It must go back to the roots of Prohibition in the century-long temperance movement and the subsequent history of alcohol as a public issue in the United States. Context is essential to both action and understanding in human events. The analogy to an experiment is misapplied because it imagines social actions as understandable without a context or a history. It treats Prohibition as if it had a fixed meaning devoid of connotations provided by past or subsequent events.

The temperance movement

In December 1917 the United States Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment outlawing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of "intoxicating liquors." In January 1919 the amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states, and in January 1920 Prohibition became law. In February 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was passed by Congress. It was quickly ratified before the end of that year, the first and, to date, the only amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever repealed. This brief encounter with legislation criminalizing commerce in hard liquor, beer, and wine was not an unexpected or bizarre interlude in American public life. It was only one phase in a long history of politics, legislation, common law, and exhortation about alcohol questions in the United States (Krout; Gusfield, 1963).

Popular belief and anti-Prohibitionist sentiment have often explained the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment as an aberration, put over on a quiescent public during wartime. Such an explanation ignores the fact that issues of drinking and its controls were very much in the foreground of American political, social, and legislative life from the 1820s through the 1920s. "Dry" and "wet" have been almost as essential in American politics as "left" and "right."

The antebellum movements. Although during the colonial period alcohol was widely perceived as a beneficial commodity and its excesses generally controlled, by the late eighteenth century widespread drunkenness had occasioned concern. In the decades preceding the Civil War, the temperance movement emerged in the form of organizations, such as the American Temperance Society and the Sons of Temperance, that were committed at first to minimizing and later to eradicating the use of beverage alcohol. A variety of state and local laws were passed, and by the 1850s thirteen states had been dry for varying lengths of time.

The temperance movement was a part of the general reformist impulse that marked American political and religious life in the first half of the nineteenth century. In its earliest phase, before 1826, the movement was dominated by a Federalist local aristocracy that saw in the manners and morals of a rowdy electorate a threat to its own fading power (Gusfield, 1963). By the 1820s temperance took on a tone of self-improvement as artisans, farmers, and industrial workers, often inspired by the religious revivalism of the period, sought their own perfection. During the next decade, improved transportation made whiskey less competitive with other uses of grain, and drinking became a costlier affair (Rorabaugh).

Temperance had become widely accepted in American life by the 1850s. If not necessarily followed by all or even most, it was the public ideal. In an expanding industrial and commercial society, employers and employees no longer thought of alcohol as a permissible accompaniment to the workday or a necessary aid to health and wellbeing. In an industrializing society, discipline, routinization, and steadiness of pursuit became virtues that contrasted with the erratic habits and spontaneous festivity of an earlier age (Tyrrell). Temperance, abolition, and penal reform were part of a drive toward a more humane and moral society and family (Clark). What in colonial America had been "the goodly creature of God" had become "demon rum" in the new democracy.

The clash of cultures. From one perspective, the rise of the temperance ideal of total abstinence was part of the transformation of the American population from a self-sufficient, rural society into an industrial and commercial one. However, that interpretation is too simple. Except for the Scandinavians, other industrializing societies have not developed so powerful or widespread a movement, nor one that has appeared and reappeared with such persistence for more than a century. Temperance in America owes much to the confrontation between the diverse cultures and religions that streams of immigration brought to the United States.

Most of the European peoples who immigrated to the United States were Roman Catholic. Their concentration in urban areas among the lower classes accentuated the clash with an American-born, Protestant, and rural population. The Irish and the Germans were the bêtes noires of temperance literature in the 1850s, joined by the Mediterranean and Slavic immigrants of the late nineteenth century. For these groups alcohol, in the form of beer, whiskey, or wine, was a part of daily life, and integral to the culture of the community. By the 1850s this was no longer the case among other Americans. Drinking and drunkenness had become isolated and marginal to the daily life of assimilated middle-class Americansthe acts of willful and weak sinners (Gusfield, 1963).

The vision of a dry America found a more pleasing reception among rural, nativist, and Protestant groups than among the new immigrants. Since its inception in 1869, the Prohibitionist party platforms displayed the rhetoric and aims of agrarian populism. Established in 1874, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union developed a number of programs to bring about the assimilation of immigrants into American culture, seeing in total abstinence a major form of acceptance of American values. Bringing the sinner and the immigrant into the mainstream of American life became a major objective of the temperance movement.

In this fashion the victories and defeats of the movement came to take on symbolic meanings of victory or defeat for the values of middle-class, American-born Protestants. Public approval of total abstinence emerged as a symbol, standing for the dominance of those whose way of life devalued and demeaned drinking and abhorred drunkenness. For some scholars the schism is seen in Catholic-Protestant and immigrant-native terms (Gusfield, 1963). For others it is couched in contrasts between religious theologiesbasically between evangelical, fundamentalist, and denominational ("pietist") churches and ecclesiastical, hierarchical, and institutionalized ("liturgical") churches ( Jensen). For both groups of scholars, however, the alcohol issue in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century transcended the simple question of abstinence versus indulgence and acquired symbolic significance for a broader set of cultural, religious, and ethnic differences and conflicts.

The coming of Prohibition. By 1906, when the Anti-Saloon League began its agitation for state and national prohibition, the alcohol question had a long history as a significant factor in American politics. The league, by avoiding all other issues and acting as a pressure group in both major parties, was effective in organizing the power of Protestant churches and its members around a single issuealcohol. Led by the league and its Methodist officials, the movement for prohibition reached its zenith during the period of the great wave of immigration into American cities. In 1906 only three states had prohibition; by 1912 there were ten. In 1919, before the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, nineteen more states had passed restrictive legislation and more that 50 percent of the American population lived in dry areas.

The surge of Prohibitionist sentiment and power was abetted by the Progressive reform movement for clean and efficient government. The saloon had become a seat and a symbol of urban corruption, crime, and political manipulation of the electorate. It also played an important role in the lives of many immigrant and working-class groups, especially in the urban areas of the United States. The saloon was a major source of sociability, of financial aid, of news and food, and often an important avenue of economic mobility and of support for the urban political machine (Powers). Here, too, the religious and nativist conflicts gain further significance as part of the context for middle-class reform of the saloon as an established institution integrated into the cultures and leisure styles of the new urban immigrants, often from European societies where beer and liquor were more acceptable than in America.


When Prohibition was enacted, it was not as an experiment but as a major reform of American life and institutions. Although the temperance movement was concerned with the habitual drunkard, its main goal was total abstinence and the eradication of the liquor traffic. This totality gave the movement its moral character. The political conflict was not an argument over means for preventing alcoholism; it was a process of developing and defining the public values and life styles that would dominate in Americaa conflict over the moral status of drinking and the cultural attitudes it implied.

The Prohibition amendment and its enforcing legislation, the Volstead Act (an Act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes. . . , ch. 85, 41 Stat. 305 (1919) (repealed)), were thus attempts to define appropriate moral behavior relating to consumption of a commodity and to make the state an agent of cultural persuasion. The emphasis was sociological and institutional: to outlaw the manufacture and sale of liquor and thus make it unavailable. This strategy can be contrasted with alternate psychological approaches, such as that used in the slogan of the liquor industry in the 1980s: "The fault is in the man, not in the bottle." Here institutional change is ignored. For the partisan of Prohibition the problem was not "substance abuse" but "abusive substance."

Enforcement and crime. While Prohibition achieved much legislative support, there was in much of American political and social life a large and significant population that was hostile to its legislative passage and to its intended aspiration to change drinking habits in American life (Blocker, Kyvig). It must be noted that most state legislatures, where the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, were dominated by rural constituencies since reapportioning had not occurred for decades. Enforcement was limited both in events and in punishments. If victory brought satisfaction to the Protestant, nativist, and rural segments of America, its symbolic character increased the resentment and alienation of populations who felt deeply insulted at a level of immediate, day-to-day existence. The expression "striking a blow for liberty" gave support and justification to those, especially in the large cities, who flouted the Prohibition law and kept the bootleggers in diamonds.

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act declared a major American industry to be engaged in a criminal activity. Unlike the drug legislation of later decades, they did not criminalize the consumption or purchase of alcohol, but they did place the sale, manufacture, and transportation of a major commodity out of legal bounds. As has long been true of such proscribed goods and services as prostitution, illegal abortion, gambling, and illegal drugs, a lively black market emerged (Merz; Sinclair).

The special character of the commodity made Prohibition productive of organized crime in a manner distinct from that of other black markets. Since alcoholic beverages were still available in other countries, bootlegging was a major smuggling operation, as drugs were in the 1970s and 1980s (Cashman). Transportation was therefore a major aspect of the trade in alcohol. Bootlegging was an enterprise requiring venture capital and business organization, and money, protection against hijacking, and political protection were essential to such a complex undertaking. In such a market, political corruption is a necessary part of operating and competition is at least as volatile and unwelcome as in the manufacture and sale of automobiles. Much of the sensational gang warfare during Prohibition emerged from efforts to develop and to self-police agreements in restraint of trade. A number or bootleggers in effect died defending the tenets of free enterprise.

That Prohibition was a significant element in the development of organized crime is understandable, given the businesslike character of this victimless crime. Organized crime built on the existing gangs that had controlled prostitution and other black markets before 1920, and by the time of repeal, the underworld was more organized and efficient than it had been before.

The deterrent effects of Prohibition. Was the Prohibition experiment a success? The question possesses an inherent ambiguity that almost defies scientific analysis. Legislation often has meaning on different levels and for different periods of history. As legislation symbolizing the dominance of those classes and religious groups that supported Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment acquired significance simply by winning sufficient backing for its passage, regardless of its degree of enforcement. As legislation that sought to change the life styles of Americans, Prohibition could not be gauged until it had been on the books for at least a generation. In fact, some of its impact was not at all evident until after repeal, when restrictions on hours, conditions, and consumer ages displayed some of the lasting educative effects.

Whether or not Prohibition deterred drinkers presupposes the importance of the question's answer to justifications for or against the Eighteenth Amendment. The history of temperance indicates that the passage and continuation of Prohibition was as much a symbolic statement of the public disapproval of drinking as it was an intent to effectuate a change in behavior. The legal scholar should understand that the goal of deterrence does not exhaust the context of issues over which opponents and proponents fought. Prohibition was not championed only as a means of deterring drinking; it was also put forth as a means of reforming the moral attitudes of American life. Considering Prohibition as a moral reform, rather than an experiment in social control, it is doubtful if the arguments about its deterrent effects would have swayed many of its supporters or detractors.

Repeal did not return America to the same situation vis-à-vis alcohol that existed when the Eighteenth Amendment became law and the saloons became speakeasies. Certainly, the newspapers and magazines presented a lurid picture of an America awash in bathtub gin and in easy communication with the local bootlegger; an America that paid little attention to Prohibition except as a matter of ridicule and inconvenience. But such accounts are suspect of more than the pathetic fallacy of converting the experience of a circle of urban journalists into a universal principle. They reflected the world that many journalists saw about themthe world of the metropolitan upper middle class, precisely the group least Prohibitionist in sentiment and most able to spend the money to purchase liquors and wines. A more representative analysis of the 1920s suggests a more varied picture but also underscores the sheer difficulty of answering the question about the impact of the law.

Different accounts of the Prohibition period agree on certain conclusions, cautiously and with recognition of limits in the evidence:

  1. Geographic areas where the law was least obeyed were those in which Prohibition had been least supported in electionsbest characterized as metropolitan, Catholic, and Jewish. Conversely, areas where Prohibition was most strongly supported were those in which the law was most obeyedrural, Protestant, and middle-class.
  2. The major exception to this generalization was in urban working-class areas of all religious denominations, where the falloff in drinking appears to have been considerable.
  3. Both the total consumption of alcohol and the number of deaths from cirrhosis of the liver were lower in the period after repeal than in the decade prior to Prohibition (Gusfield, 1968; Aaron and Musto).

The evidence supporting these conclusions is a variety of statistical datatotal amount of grain produced and sold, arrests for drunkenness, hospital admissions for alcohol psychosis, mortality rates for cirrhosis of the liver, and tax revenues from post-repeal salesall of which showed decreases. The use of many of these records for any quantitative estimate of alcohol consumption may be questionable, although the tax revenues offer more reliable data than most other sources. Arrest statistics for drunkenness provide especially poor data, since they depend very much on local policies and the categories used to describe a misdemeanor. Use of the data on deaths from cirrhosis of the liver depends on assumptions about the length of time between the beginning of heavy drinking and the effects of the diseasea time period no longer thought to be very uniform. Alcohol consumption after 1933 was also affected by lower incomes during the Great Depression.

Despite such skepticism about their reliability, these data, together with supplementary material based on impressions of social workers in urban areas, all point in the same directiontoward a decline of alcohol use in pro-Prohibitionist areas and among the rural and urban working class. The available evidence suggests that, contrary to popular belief, Prohibition did decrease the total consumption of alcohol drinking in the United States. The burden of proof thus appears to rest on those who would assert otherwise (Blocker, Tyvig, Aaron and Musto, Gusfield).

The apparent consensus on the decline in drinking among the working class is consistent with information about other historical periods when costs of alcoholic beverages rose, and perhaps provides the major lesson of the Prohibition period for those interested in controlling total consumption of alcohol. The impact of restrictions on sale and manufacture resulted in a rise in price and a consequent decrease in demand in a segment of the market, especially notable among the less affluent. Not only did prices increase, but as in past periods in American history, transportation costs favored whiskey over beer. The percentage rise in the price of beer (the workingman's drink) was even greater than for hard liquors. Members of the affluent, whiskeydrinking upper middle class became the major customers for alcohol.

The further consequences of Prohibition and repeal. Although the Eighteenth Amendment came under sharper and more organized attack after the mid-1920s, with the victory of Herbert Hoover over Alfred E. Smith it seemed safe from the weapons of a wet siege. Yet four years later, by which time Hoover had become cool to it and Franklin Roosevelt had repudiated it, the Prohibition amendment was ready for the trash heap of history. Whatever else may have contributed to the waning of public passions for a sober America in the midst of the Great Depression, the blocked consumption of alcohol was both a minor issue and a drain on employment opportunities and potential tax revenues. Men of power and wealth who had embraced Prohibition, such as John D. Rockefeller and S. S. Kresge, now leaped off the wagon. Unions, which were always opposed or indifferent to it, now began to petition for redress of jobs.

In the drive for national Prohibition, the Anti-Saloon League had played a dominating role, the originator of the powerful one-issue pressure group (Kyvig, Kerr). Opposition to it had been weak. Both the liquor and beer industries had not played a major role as counters to the League. With Prohibition an active and organized opposition developed, with support from wealthy donors. Two of these organizations were especially importantthe Association Against Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) (Kyvig).

With the Great Depression, the vision of a dry America creating prosperity through sober and distinguished living suffered a decline in belief. The immigrant generation had come of political age just as the Protestant establishment was tilting on its pedestal. The dramatic news of criminal violence and political corruption produced by Prohibition was too great a burden for a crumbling program to bear.

The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment discredited attempts to control drinking through legal restrictions on the commercial traffic in alcoholic beverages. In addition, it diminished the political importance of the Prohibitionist constituency as shapers of public policy on alcohol after repeal. During the decade following repeal, the role of American Protestant churchmen as leaders of the anti-alcohol movement was taken over by academics, physicians, paraprofessionals, and recovered alcoholics. The stress shifted from the aim of achieving total abstinence and sobriety to the problem of chronic alcoholismthe behavior of a deviant minority of the population. As a corollary, strategies focused on treating the alcoholic rather than controlling the drinking of the general population.

Although American public discussion and action veered sharply away from legal controls, in several ways Prohibition left a legacy of acceptable legal constraints that went beyond those in existence before its passage. Per capita consumption of alcohol never returned to the high point of the early twentieth century, and the general drift away from whiskey and toward beer continued (Aaron and Musto). The comparatively high level of abstainers in the American population remained stable. In more that twelve thousand local-option elections during the two decades after repeal, there was very little change in local law (Gusfield, 1963). At the level of public opinion and personal choice, Prohibition appears to have done little to change attitudes toward drinking and abstinence.

However, the earlier lack of control over saloons was no longer acceptable. All states established Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) boards. Although often proving to be less regulatory than anticipated, they have served to prevent issuance of licenses to those with underworld connections. The ABC legislation is one of a number of legislative measures enacted and accepted in American life that perpetuate and expand the concept of beverage alcohol as an "exceptional commodity" more dangerous than most commodities and consequently requiring special legal controls. Restrictions on hours, locations of sales, and special taxes have continued or increased. Laws against public drunkenness and against drinking and driving continue to be enforced, although public-drunkenness legislation is by no means universal in Western countries.

Perhaps most significant has been the increase in the number of minimum-age drinking laws. Availability of alcohol to minors became more restricted at the same time that availability to the general population was widened (Mosher). Indicative of the persisting view that alcohol is a dangerous and exceptional commodity is the failure of many states to alter laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to persons under twenty-one. The repeal of laws lowering the age in some states has encountered little political resistance despite the decrease of the minimum age to eighteen for most legal purposes.

Although in the post-repeal period alcohol policy was dominated by an emphasis on treatment of alcoholics, by the 1970s attention was again beginning to turn toward questions of prevention through control measures such as taxation and restrictions on sale (Bruun et al.). The ambivalence of American society toward drinking remains characteristic, and still contrasts with wider acceptance of alcohol in most industrialized societies.

Although the consumption of alcohol, especially spirits, has diminished somewhat in recent decades, the system of control and permission has not altered in any significant respect since the early post-Repeal years.

Joseph R. Gusfield

See also Criminalization and Decriminalization; Excuse: Intoxication; Victimless Crime.


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

Bruun, Kettil et al. Alcohol Control Policies in Public Health Perspective. Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies, vol. 25. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1975.

Cashman, Sean D. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

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Engelmann, Larry. Intemperance: The Lost War against Liquor. New York: Free Press, 1979.

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. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969.

Jensen, Richard. The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 18881896. University of Chicago Press, 1971.

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Powers, Madelon. Faces along the Bar: Lore and Order and Workingman's Saloon, 18701920. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Preface by Richard Hofstadter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.

Tyrrell, Ian R. "Temperance and Economic Change in the Antebellum North." Alcohol, Reform, and Society: The Liquor Issue in Social Context. Edited by Jack S. Blocker, Jr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 4568.

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