Prohibition (1920–1933)

Proponents of Prohibition expected to end misery and boost the economic well-being of the nation by banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages through the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The ban took effect on January 16, 1920, with the Volstead Act defining the legal features of Prohibition. Offensive enforcement practices subsequently created strong public opposition to the alcohol ban. Prohibition was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933.

Prohibition had deep roots in American society. The temperance movement was one of the major reform efforts of the nineteenth century, with opponents of alcohol generally preferring persuasion over coercion. In 1851, Maine became the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Twelve states followed Maine’s lead as a desire for government interference in private life replaced an emphasis on individual will. By the time of the Civil War, these laws had disappeared because of public opposition or court rulings. In the 1880s, the prohibition movement revived.

The drive for a prohibition amendment to the Constitution began in 1913 following a string of state prohibition laws. State prohibition could not be effectively enforced with ‘‘wet’’ states next to ‘‘dry’’ strongholds. National prohibition was designed to outflank the wet states by imposing national authority.

Proponents of the law promised an end to the problems historically associated with alcohol: family abuse, poverty, crime, illness, and low worker productivity. On December 18, 1917, Congress passed the prohibition amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. The Eighteenth Amendment was formally ratified on January 16, 1919, and scheduled to go into effect one year later. Congress refused to wait for ratification. It enacted the Wartime Prohibition Act on November 21, 1918 (after the war had ended on November 11), which barred the sale of intoxicants beginning in July 1919. Congress passed the Volstead Act, officially known as the National Prohibition Act, to define alcoholic beverages. The definition of an alcohol content of 5 percent eliminated virtually all alcoholic drinks, including beer and wine, from production and sale as beverages.

Resistance to the law began almost immediately, in many forms. By allowing the home production of nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices, Prohibition created an extremely strong demand for grapes suitable for shipping to urban, ethnic neighborhoods. People accustomed to drinking wine with meals, such as immigrants from Mediterranean countries, were forced to produce their own wine to ensure an adequate supply of what they viewed as a necessary commodity. Additionally, local police were sporadic in their efforts to crack down on illegal traffic in alcohol and juries were reluctant to convict fellow citizens for behavior that did not seem especially criminal.

Enforcement of Prohibition was assigned to the Treasury Department. Field agents were empowered to declare as public nuisances buildings, vehicles, and other property used to manufacture, move, sell, or store illegal alcohol and to seize, sell, or close them for up to one year. To catch violators, the agents wiretapped telephones, conducted warrantless searches of automobiles, employed informers, and placed poisons in industrial alcohol. In one notorious case, Prohibition agents operated the Bridge Whist Club in New York City for several months and sold liquor to anyone who asked for it. The agents later made arrests with information gathered at the club. Not all violators were arrested, however. The Prohibition agents, exempted from civil service laws, were infamous for taking bribes. By 1931, over 8 percent of the agents had been dismissed for bribery or drunkenness.

Prohibition failed to eliminate drinking and create a more orderly society. Consumption of alcohol virtually stopped in rural states, but the refusal of many people in cities to alter their drinking habits created a ready black market for illegal liquor and contributed to the rise of crime syndicates. People had to pay more for alcohol and many chose to purchase products that offered more potency, including dangerous homemade moonshine. Black market distillers made liquor from potatoes, corn, and squash as well as industrial liquor, antifreeze, and paint. Many consumers went blind or died as a result of drinking such beverages. Crime patterns also shifted. Less serious crime, such as vagrancy and malicious mischief, did diminish by half, but crimes involving violence or theft of property increased by 13.2 percent during the Prohibition years, while homicides increased 16.1 percent and robbery rose 83.3 percent. The number of prisoners housed in federal prisons, reformatories, and camps grew from 3,889 in 1920 to 13,698 in 1932. Most federal criminal cases in the 1920s involved Volstead Act violations. Lastly, despite the arrests, it remained fairly easy to locate alcohol in cities. In the 1920s, it was rumored that the best way to locate the local bootlegger was to ask the cop on the street corner.

Opposition to Prohibition rose throughout the 1920s. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment argued that giving federal and state authorities the power to control an individual’s choice of drink put too much power in governmental hands. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform objected to government intrusion into private life. Worried about the effect of the breakdown of law and order upon children, they challenged the idea that all women backed Prohibition.

Upon taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (Wickersham Committee) to study Prohibition. When the committee issued its report in 1931, it expressed support for the law but the individual statements of members revealed skepticism as to whether the law was enforceable at an acceptable cost.

By 1931, the U.S. was trapped in the Great Depression. In the midst of the economic crisis, many hoped that the return of alcohol industry jobs would assist recovery. The liquor trade had been the nation’s seventh largest industry before law-abiding liquor-related jobs were eliminated. In 1933, Congress adopted an amendment repealing Prohibition. Most states offered voters slates of candidates in favor of and opposed to ratification of the repeal. Seventy-three percent of voters approved repeal and the Twenty-First Amendment became law.

CARYN E. NEUMANN

References and Further Reading

  • Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000.
  • Neumann, Caryn E. ‘‘The End of Gender Solidarity: The History of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform in the United States, 1929–1933.’’ Journal of Women’s History 9(2) (Summer 1997): 31–51.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800–1933. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

See also Search (General Definition); Search Warrants

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