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Prohibition is ratified by Congress

Prohibition is ratified by Congress

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The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes,” is ratified by the requisite number of states on January 16, 1919.

The movement for the prohibition of alcohol began in the early 19th century, when Americans concerned about the adverse effects of drinking began forming temperance societies. By the late 19th century, these groups had become a powerful political force, campaigning on the state level and calling for total national abstinence. In December 1917, the 18th Amendment, also known as the Prohibition Amendment, was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification.

READ MORE: How the Prohibition Era Spurred Organized Crime

Nine months after Prohibition's ratification, Congress passed the Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The Volstead Act provided for the enforcement of prohibition, including the creation of a special unit of the Treasury Department. One year and a day after its ratification, prohibition went into effect—on January 17, 1920—and the nation became officially dry.

Despite a vigorous effort by law-enforcement agencies, the Volstead Act failed to prevent the large-scale distribution of alcoholic beverages, and organized crime flourished in America. In 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, repealing prohibition.

READ MORE: The Night Prohibition Ended


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Prohibition, legal prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933 under the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment. Although the temperance movement, which was widely supported, had succeeded in bringing about this legislation, millions of Americans were willing to drink liquor (distilled spirits) illegally, which gave rise to bootlegging (the illegal production and sale of liquor) and speakeasies (illegal, secretive drinking establishments), both of which were capitalized upon by organized crime. As a result, the Prohibition era also is remembered as a period of gangsterism, characterized by competition and violent turf battles between criminal gangs.

What led to Prohibition?

Nationwide Prohibition came about as a result of the temperance movement. The temperance movement advocated for moderation in—and in its most extreme form, complete abstinence from the consumption of—alcohol (although actual Prohibition only banned the manufacture, transportation, and trade of alcohol, rather than its consumption). The temperance movement began amassing a following in the 1820s and ’30s, bolstered by the religious revivalism that was sweeping the nation at that time. The religious establishment continued to be central to the movement, as indicated by the fact that the Anti-Saloon League—which spearheaded the early 20th-century push for Prohibition on the local, state, and federal levels—received much of their support from Protestant evangelical congregations. A number of other forces lent their support to the movement as well, such as woman suffragists, who were anxious about the deteriorative effects alcohol had on the family unit, and industrialists, who were keen on increasing the efficiency of their workers.

How long did Prohibition last?

Nationwide Prohibition lasted from 1920 until 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment—which illegalized the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol—was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1917. In 1919 the amendment was ratified by the three-quarters of the nation’s states required to make it constitutional. That same year the Volstead Act, which engineered the means by which the U.S. government would enforce Prohibition, was passed as well. The nationwide moratorium on alcohol would stay in place for the next 13 years, at which point a general disenchantment with the policy—affected by factors ranging from the rise of organized crime to the economic malaise brought on by the stock market crash of 1929—led to its disbandment at the federal level by the Twenty-first Amendment. The prohibition of alcohol continued to exist at the state level in some places for the next two decades, as it had for over a half-century prior to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

What were the effects of Prohibition?

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in the hopes of eliminating alcohol from American life. In that respect, it failed. To the contrary, people intent on drinking found loopholes in the newly passed anti-liquor laws that allowed them to slake their thirst, and, when that didn’t work, they turned to illegal avenues to do so. An entire black market—comprising bootleggers, speakeasies, and distilling operations—emerged as a result of Prohibition, as did organized crime syndicates which coordinated the complex chain of operations involved in the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Corruption in law enforcement became widespread as criminal organizations used bribery to keep officials in their pockets. Prohibition was detrimental to the economy as well, by eliminating jobs supplied by what had formerly been the fifth largest industry in America. By the end of the 1920s, Prohibition had lost its luster for many who had formerly been the policy’s most ardent supporters, and it was done away with by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

How did people get around Prohibition?

From Prohibition’s inception, people found ways to keep drinking. There were a number of loopholes to exploit: pharmacists could prescribe whiskey for medicinal purposes, such that many pharmacies became fronts for bootlegging operations industry was permitted to use alcohol for production purposes, much of which was diverted for drinking instead religious congregations were allowed to purchase alcohol, leading to an uptick in church enrollment and many people learned to make liquor in their own homes. Criminals invented new ways of supplying Americans with what they wanted, as well: bootleggers smuggled alcohol into the country or else distilled their own speakeasies proliferated in the back rooms of seemingly upstanding establishments and organized crime syndicates formed in order to coordinate the activities within the black-market alcohol industry. The only people who were really curtailed in their ability to drink were members of the working class who were unable to afford the price hike that followed illegalization.

How was Prohibition enforced?

The Volstead Act charged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the Treasury Department with enforcing Prohibition. As a result, the Prohibition Unit was founded within the IRS. From its inception, the Prohibition Unit was plagued by issues of corruption, lack of training, and underfunding. Often, the level to which the law was enforced had to do with the sympathies of the citizens in the areas being policed. The Coast Guard also played a role in implementation, pursuing bootleggers attempting to smuggle liquor into America along its coastline. In 1929 the onus of enforcement shifted from the IRS to the Department of Justice, with the Prohibition Unit being redubbed the Bureau of Prohibition. With Eliot Ness at the helm, the Bureau of Prohibition mounted a massive offensive against organized crime in Chicago. It was Ness and his team of Untouchables—Prohibition agents whose name derived from the fact that they were “untouchable” to bribery—that toppled Chicago’s bootlegger kingpin Al Capone by exposing his tax evasion.


On November 18, 1918, prior to ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, the U.S. Congress passed the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28%. [11] (This act, which had been intended to save grain for the war effort, was passed after the armistice ending World War I was signed on November 11, 1918.) The Wartime Prohibition Act took effect June 30, 1919, with July 1, 1919 becoming known as the "Thirsty First". [12] [13]

The U.S. Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1917. Upon being approved by a 36th state on January 16, 1919, the amendment was ratified as a part of the Constitution. By the terms of the amendment, the country went dry one year later, on January 17, 1920. [14] [15]

On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The act established the legal definition of intoxicating liquors as well as penalties for producing them. [16] Although the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol, the federal government lacked resources to enforce it.

Prohibition was successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, cirrhosis death rates, admissions to state mental hospitals for alcoholic psychosis, arrests for public drunkenness, and rates of absenteeism. [5] [17] [18] While many state that Prohibition stimulated the proliferation of rampant underground, organized and widespread criminal activity, [19] two academics [ who? ] maintain that there was no increase in crime during the Prohibition era and that such claims are "rooted in the impressionistic rather than the factual." [20] [21] By 1925, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs in New York City alone. [22] Wet opposition talked of personal liberty, new tax revenues from legal beer and liquor, and the scourge of organized crime. [23]

On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing beer with an alcohol content of 3.2% (by weight) and wine of a similarly low alcohol content. On December 5, 1933, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. However, United States federal law still prohibits the manufacture of distilled spirits without meeting numerous licensing requirements that make it impractical to produce spirits for personal beverage use. [24]

Origins Edit

Consumption of alcoholic beverages has been a contentious topic in America since the colonial period. In May 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts made the sale of strong liquor "whether known by the name of rum, whisky, wine, brandy, etc." to the Indians illegal. [25] [ dubious – discuss ]

In general, informal social controls in the home and community helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion." [26] When informal controls failed, there were legal options.

Shortly after the United States obtained independence, the Whiskey Rebellion took place in western Pennsylvania in protest of government-imposed taxes on whiskey. Although the taxes were primarily levied to help pay down the newly formed national debt, it also received support from some social reformers, who hoped a "sin tax" would raise public awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol. [27] The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party, which opposed the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, came to power in 1800. [28]

Benjamin Rush, one of the foremost physicians of the late 18th century, believed in moderation rather than prohibition. In his treatise, "The Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind" (1784), Rush argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health, labeling drunkenness as a disease. [29] Apparently influenced by Rush's widely discussed belief, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York in 1808. [30] Within a decade, other temperance groups had formed in eight states, some of them being statewide organizations. The words of Rush and other early temperance reformers served to dichotomize the use of alcohol for men and women. While men enjoyed drinking and often considered it vital to their health, women who began to embrace the ideology of "true motherhood" refrained from the consumption of alcohol. Middle-class women, who were considered the moral authorities of their households, consequently rejected the drinking of alcohol, which they believed to be a threat to the home. [30] In 1830, on average, Americans consumed 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week, three times the amount consumed in 2010. [19]

Development of the prohibition movement Edit

The American Temperance Society (ATS), formed in 1826, helped initiate the first temperance movement and served as a foundation for many later groups. By 1835 the ATS had reached 1.5 million members, with women constituting 35% to 60% of its chapters. [31]

The Prohibition movement, also known as the dry crusade, continued in the 1840s, spearheaded by pietistic religious denominations, especially the Methodists. The late 19th century saw the temperance movement broaden its focus from abstinence to include all behavior and institutions related to alcohol consumption. Preachers such as Reverend Mark A. Matthews linked liquor-dispensing saloons with political corruption. [32]

Some successes for the movement were achieved in the 1850s, including the Maine law, adopted in 1851, which banned the manufacture and sale of liquor. Before its repeal in 1856, 12 states followed the example set by Maine in total prohibition. [33] The temperance movement lost strength and was marginalized during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Following the war, social moralists turned to other issues, such as Mormon polygamy and the temperance movement. [34] [35] [36]

The dry crusade was revived by the national Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873. The WCTU advocated the prohibition of alcohol as a method for preventing, through education, abuse from alcoholic husbands. [37] WCTU members believed that if their organization could reach children with its message, it could create a dry sentiment leading to prohibition. Frances Willard, the second president of the WCTU, held that the aims of the organization were to create a "union of women from all denominations, for the purpose of educating the young, forming a better public sentiment, reforming the drinking classes, transforming by the power of Divine grace those who are enslaved by alcohol, and removing the dram-shop from our streets by law". [38] While still denied universal voting privileges, women in the WCTU followed Frances Willard's "Do Everything" doctrine and used temperance as a method of entering into politics and furthering other progressive issues such as prison reform and labor laws. [39]

In 1881 Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in its Constitution. [40] Arrested over 30 times and fined and jailed on multiple occasions, prohibition activist Carrie Nation attempted to enforce the state's ban on alcohol consumption. [41] She walked into saloons, scolding customers, and using her hatchet to destroy bottles of liquor. Nation recruited ladies into the Carrie Nation Prohibition Group, which she also led. While Nation's vigilante techniques were rare, other activists enforced the dry cause by entering saloons, singing, praying, and urging saloonkeepers to stop selling alcohol. [42] Other dry states, especially those in the South, enacted prohibition legislation, as did individual counties within a state.

Court cases also debated the subject of prohibition. While some cases ruled in opposition, the general tendency was toward support. In Mugler v. Kansas (1887), Justice Harlan commented: "We cannot shut out of view the fact, within the knowledge of all, that the public health, the public morals, and the public safety, may be endangered by the general use of intoxicating drinks nor the fact established by statistics accessible to every one, that the idleness, disorder, pauperism and crime existing in the country, are, in some degree. traceable to this evil." [43] In support of prohibition, Crowley v. Christensen (1890), remarked: "The statistics of every state show a greater amount of crime and misery attributable to the use of ardent spirits obtained at these retail liquor saloons than to any other source." [43]

The proliferation of neighborhood saloons in the post-Civil War era became a phenomenon of an increasingly industrialized, urban workforce. Workingmen's bars were popular social gathering places from the workplace and home life. The brewing industry was actively involved in establishing saloons as a lucrative consumer base in their business chain. Saloons were more often than not linked to a specific brewery, where the saloonkeeper's operation was financed by a brewer and contractually obligated to sell the brewer's product to the exclusion of competing brands. A saloon's business model often included the offer of a free lunch, where the bill of fare commonly consisted of heavily salted food meant to induce thirst and the purchase of drink. [44] During the Progressive Era (1890–1920), hostility toward saloons and their political influence became widespread, with the Anti-Saloon League superseding the Prohibition Party and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as the most influential advocate of prohibition, after these latter two groups expanded their efforts to support other social reform issues, such as women's suffrage, onto their prohibition platform. [45]

Prohibition was an important force in state and local politics from the 1840s through the 1930s. Numerous historical studies demonstrated that the political forces involved were ethnoreligious. [46] Prohibition was supported by the dries, primarily pietistic Protestant denominations that included Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, New School Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Scandinavian Lutherans, but also included the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America and, to a certain extent, the Latter-day Saints. These religious groups identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. Other active organizations included the Women's Church Federation, the Women's Temperance Crusade, and the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. They were opposed by the wets, primarily liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians and German Lutherans) and Roman Catholics, who denounced the idea that the government should define morality. [47] Even in the wet stronghold of New York City there was an active prohibition movement, led by Norwegian church groups and African-American labor activists who believed that prohibition would benefit workers, especially African Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers generally supported prohibition, believing a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products. [48] A particularly effective operator on the political front was Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, [49] who made Prohibition a wedge issue and succeeded in getting many pro-prohibition candidates elected. Coming from Ohio, his deep resentment for alcohol started at a young age. He was injured on a farm by a worker who had been drunk. This event transformed Wheeler. Starting low in the ranks, he quickly moved up due to his deep-rooted hatred of alcohol. He later realized to further the movement he would need more public approval, and fast. This was the start of his policy called 'wheelerism' where he used the media to make it seem like the general public was "on in" on a specific issue. Wheeler became known as the "dry boss" because of his influence and power. [50]

Prohibition represented a conflict between urban and rural values emerging in the United States. Given the mass influx of migrants to the urban centers of the United States, many individuals within the prohibition movement associated the crime and morally corrupt behavior of American cities with their large, immigrant populations. Saloons frequented by immigrants in these cities were often frequented by politicians who wanted to obtain the immigrants' votes in exchange for favors such as job offers, legal assistance, and food baskets. Thus, saloons were seen as a breeding ground for political corruption. [51]

Most economists during the early 20th century were in favor of the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition). [52] Simon Patten, one of the leading advocates for prohibition, predicted that prohibition would eventually happen in the United States for competitive and evolutionary reasons. Yale economics professor Irving Fisher, who was a dry, wrote extensively about prohibition, including a paper that made an economic case for prohibition. [53] Fisher is credited with supplying the criteria against which future prohibitions, such as against marijuana, could be measured, in terms of crime, health, and productivity. For example, "Blue Monday" referred to the hangover workers experienced after a weekend of binge drinking, resulting in Mondays being a wasted productive day. [54] But new research has discredited Fisher's research, which was based on uncontrolled experiments regardless, his $6 billion figure for the annual gains of Prohibition to the United States continues to be cited. [55]

In a backlash to the emerging reality of a changing American demographic, many prohibitionists subscribed to the doctrine of nativism, in which they endorsed the notion that the success of America was a result of its white Anglo-Saxon ancestry. This belief fostered resentments towards urban immigrant communities, who typically argued in favor of abolishing prohibition. [56] Additionally, nativist sentiments were part of a larger process of Americanization taking place during the same time period. [57]

Two other amendments to the Constitution were championed by dry crusaders to help their cause. One was granted in the Sixteenth Amendment (1913), which replaced alcohol taxes that funded the federal government with a federal income tax. [58] The other was women's suffrage, which was granted after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 since women tended to support prohibition, temperance organizations tended to support women's suffrage. [58]

In the presidential election of 1916, the Democratic incumbent, Woodrow Wilson, and the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, ignored the prohibition issue, as did both parties' political platforms. Democrats and Republicans had strong wet and dry factions, and the election was expected to be close, with neither candidate wanting to alienate any part of his political base.

In March 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64 in the Democratic Party and 138 to 62 among Republicans. [59] With America's declaration of war against Germany in April, German Americans, a major force against prohibition, were sidelined and their protests subsequently ignored. In addition, a new justification for prohibition arose: prohibiting the production of alcoholic beverages would allow more resources—especially grain that would otherwise be used to make alcohol—to be devoted to the war effort. While wartime prohibition was a spark for the movement, [60] World War I ended before nationwide Prohibition was enacted.

A resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917. By January 16, 1919, the Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it law. Eventually, only two states—Connecticut and Rhode Island—opted out of ratifying it. [61] [62] On October 28, 1919, Congress passed enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment when it went into effect in 1920.

Start of national prohibition (January 1920) Edit

Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, when the Volstead Act went into effect. [64] A total of 1,520 Federal Prohibition agents (police) were tasked with enforcement.

Supporters of the Amendment soon became confident that it would not be repealed. One of its creators, Senator Morris Sheppard, joked that "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail." [65]

At the same time, songs emerged decrying the act. After Edward, Prince of Wales, returned to the United Kingdom following his tour of Canada in 1919, he recounted to his father, King George V, a ditty he had heard at a border town:

Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,
Went across the border to get a drink of rye.
When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,
"God bless America, but God save the King!" [66]

Prohibition became highly controversial among medical professionals because alcohol was widely prescribed by the era's physicians for therapeutic purposes. Congress held hearings on the medicinal value of beer in 1921. Subsequently, physicians across the country lobbied for the repeal of Prohibition as it applied to medicinal liquors. [67] From 1921 to 1930, doctors earned about $40 million for whiskey prescriptions. [68]

While the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal in the United States, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed wine and cider to be made from fruit at home, but not beer. Up to 200 gallons of wine and cider per year could be made, and some vineyards grew grapes for home use. The Act did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Many people stockpiled wines and liquors for their personal use in the latter part of 1919 before sales of alcoholic beverages became illegal in January 1920.

Since alcohol was legal in neighboring countries, distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or smuggled into the United States illegally. The Detroit River, which forms part of the U.S. border with Canada, was notoriously difficult to control, especially rum-running in Windsor, Canada. When the U.S. government complained to the British that American law was being undermined by officials in Nassau, Bahamas, the head of the British Colonial Office refused to intervene. [69] Winston Churchill believed that Prohibition was "an affront to the whole history of mankind". [70]

Three federal agencies were assigned the task of enforcing the Volstead Act: the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Law Enforcement, [71] [72] the U.S. Treasury's IRS Bureau of Prohibition, [73] [74] and the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Prohibition. [75] [76]

Bootlegging and hoarding old supplies Edit

As early as 1925, journalist H. L. Mencken believed that Prohibition was not working. [77] Historian David Oshinsky, summarizing the work of Daniel Okrent, wrote that "Prohibition worked best when directed at its primary target: the working-class poor." [78] Historian Lizabeth Cohen writes: "A rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor and get by, it seemed, but if a poor family had one bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble." [79] Working-class people were inflamed by the fact that their employers could dip into a private cache while they, the employees, could not. [80] Within a week after Prohibition went into effect, small portable stills were on sale throughout the country. [81]

Before the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January 1920, many of the upper classes stockpiled alcohol for legal home consumption after Prohibition began. They bought the inventories of liquor retailers and wholesalers, emptying out their warehouses, saloons, and club storerooms. President Woodrow Wilson moved his own supply of alcoholic beverages to his Washington residence after his term of office ended. His successor, Warren G. Harding, relocated his own large supply into the White House. [82] [83]

After the Eighteenth Amendment became law, bootlegging became widespread. In the first six months of 1920, the federal government opened 7,291 cases for Volstead Act violations. [84] In the first complete fiscal year of 1921, the number of cases violating the Volstead Act jumped to 29,114 violations and would rise dramatically over the next thirteen years. [85]

Grape juice was not restricted by Prohibition, even though if it was allowed to sit for sixty days it would ferment and turn to wine with a twelve percent alcohol content. Many folks took advantage of this as grape juice output quadrupled during the Prohibition era. [86] Vine-Glo was sold for this purpose and included a specific warning telling people how to make wine from it.

To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the federal government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol, consisting of 4 parts methanol, 2.25 parts pyridine base, and 0.5 parts benzene per 100 parts ethyl alcohol. [87] New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended. [88] New York City medical examiner Charles Norris believed the government took responsibility for murder when they knew the poison was not deterring consumption and they continued to poison industrial alcohol (which would be used in drinking alcohol) anyway. Norris remarked: "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol . [Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible." [88]

Another lethal substance that was often substituted for alcohol was Sterno, a fuel commonly known as "canned heat." Forcing the substance through a makeshift filter, such as a handkerchief, created a rough liquor substitute however, the result was poisonous, though not often lethal. [89]

Making alcohol at home was common among some families with wet sympathies during Prohibition. Stores sold grape concentrate with warning labels that listed the steps that should be avoided to prevent the juice from fermenting into wine. Some drugstores sold "medical wine" with around a 22% alcohol content. In order to justify the sale, the wine was given a medicinal taste. [89] Home-distilled hard liquor was called bathtub gin in northern cities, and moonshine in rural areas of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Homebrewing good hard liquor was easier than brewing good beer. [89] Since selling privately-distilled alcohol was illegal and bypassed government taxation, law enforcement officers relentlessly pursued manufacturers. [90] In response, bootleggers modified their cars and trucks by enhancing the engines and suspensions to make faster vehicles that, they assumed, would improve their chances of outrunning and escaping agents of the Bureau of Prohibition, commonly called "revenue agents" or "revenuers". These cars became known as "moonshine runners" or " 'shine runners". [91] Shops with wet sympathies were also known to participate in the underground liquor market, by loading their stocks with ingredients for liquors, including bénédictine, vermouth, scotch mash, and even ethyl alcohol anyone could purchase these ingredients legally. [92]

In October 1930, just two weeks before the congressional midterm elections, bootlegger George Cassiday—"the man in the green hat"—came forward and told members of Congress how he had bootlegged for ten years. One of the few bootleggers ever to tell his story, Cassiday wrote five front-page articles for The Washington Post, in which he estimated that 80% of congressmen and senators drank. The Democrats in the North were mostly wets, and in the 1932 election, they made major gains. The wets argued that Prohibition was not stopping crime, and was actually causing the creation of large-scale, well-funded, and well-armed criminal syndicates. As Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, especially in urban areas, its repeal was eagerly anticipated. [93] Wets had the organization and the initiative. They pushed the argument that states and localities needed the tax money. President Herbert Hoover proposed a new constitutional amendment that was vague on particulars and satisfied neither side. Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic platform promised repeal of the 18th Amendment. [94] [95]

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many bootleggers and suppliers with wet sympathies simply moved into the legitimate liquor business. Some crime syndicates moved their efforts into expanding their protection rackets to cover legal liquor sales and other business areas. [96]

Medical liquor Edit

Doctors were able to prescribe medicinal alcohol for their patients. After just six months of prohibition, over 15,000 doctors and 57,000 pharmacists received licenses to prescribe or sell medicinal alcohol. According to Gastro Obscura,

Physicians wrote an estimated 11 million prescriptions a year throughout the 1920s, and Prohibition Commissioner John F. Kramer even cited one doctor who wrote 475 prescriptions for whiskey in one day. It wasn’t tough for people to write—and fill—counterfeit subscriptions at pharmacies, either. Naturally, bootleggers bought prescription forms from crooked doctors and mounted widespread scams. In 1931, 400 pharmacists and 1,000 doctors were caught in a scam where doctors sold signed prescription forms to bootleggers. Just 12 doctors and 13 pharmacists were indicted, and the ones charged faced a one-time $50 fine. Selling alcohol through drugstores became so much of a lucrative open secret that it’s name-checked in works such as The Great Gatsby. Historians speculate that Charles R. Walgreen, of Walgreen’s fame, expanded from 20 stores to a staggering 525 during the 1920s thanks to medicinal alcohol sales."

Enforcement Edit

Once Prohibition came into effect, the majority of U.S. citizens obeyed it. [17]

Some states like Maryland and New York refused Prohibition. [98] Enforcement of the law under the Eighteenth Amendment lacked a centralized authority. Clergymen were sometimes called upon to form vigilante groups to assist in the enforcement of Prohibition. [99] Furthermore, American geography contributed to the difficulties in enforcing Prohibition. The varied terrain of valleys, mountains, lakes, and swamps, as well as the extensive seaways, ports, and borders which the United States shared with Canada and Mexico made it exceedingly difficult for Prohibition agents to stop bootleggers given their lack of resources. Ultimately it was recognized with its repeal that the means by which the law was to be enforced were not pragmatic, and in many cases, the legislature did not match the general public opinion. [100] [101]

In Cicero, Illinois, (a suburb of Chicago) the prevalence of ethnic communities who had wet sympathies allowed prominent gang leader Al Capone to operate despite the presence of police. [102]

The Ku Klux Klan talked a great deal about denouncing bootleggers and threatened private vigilante action against known offenders. Despite its large membership in the mid-1920s, it was poorly organized and seldom had an impact. Indeed, the KKK after 1925 helped disparage any enforcement of Prohibition. [103]

Prohibition was a major blow to the alcoholic beverage industry and its repeal was a step toward the amelioration of one sector of the economy. An example of this is the case of St. Louis, one of the most important alcohol producers before prohibition started, which was ready to resume its position in the industry as soon as possible. Its major brewery had "50,000 barrels" of beer ready for distribution from March 22, 1933, and was the first alcohol producer to resupply the market others soon followed. After repeal, stores obtained liquor licenses and restocked for business. After beer production resumed, thousands of workers found jobs in the industry again. [104]

Prohibition created a black market that competed with the formal economy, which came under pressure when the Great Depression struck in 1929. State governments urgently needed the tax revenue alcohol sales had generated. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 based in part on his promise to end prohibition, which influenced his support for ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal Prohibition. [105]

Naval Captain William H. Stayton was a prominent figure in the anti-prohibition fight, founding the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment in 1918. The AAPA was the largest of the nearly forty organizations that fought to end Prohibition. [106] Economic urgency played a large part in accelerating the advocacy for repeal. [107] The number of conservatives who pushed for prohibition in the beginning decreased. Many farmers who fought for prohibition now fought for repeal because of the negative effects it had on the agriculture business. [108] Prior to the 1920 implementation of the Volstead Act, approximately 14% of federal, state, and local tax revenues were derived from alcohol commerce. When the Great Depression hit and tax revenues plunged, the governments needed this revenue stream. [109] Millions could be made by taxing beer. There was controversy on whether the repeal should be a state or nationwide decision. [108] On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, known as the Cullen–Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of 3.2% beer (3.2% alcohol by weight, approximately 4% alcohol by volume) and light wines. The Volstead Act previously defined an intoxicating beverage as one with greater than 0.5% alcohol. [16] Upon signing the Cullen–Harrison Act, Roosevelt remarked: "I think this would be a good time for a beer." [110] According to a 2017 study in the journal Public Choice, representatives from traditional beer-producing states, as well as Democratic politicians, were most in favor of the bill, but politicians from many Southern states were most strongly opposed to the legislation. [111]

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 21 Utah members of the constitutional convention voted unanimously on that day to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, making Utah the 36th state to do so, and putting the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment over the top in needed voting. [112] [113]

In the late 1930s, after its repeal, two fifths of Americans wished to reinstate national Prohibition. [114]

Post-repeal Edit

The Twenty-first Amendment does not prevent states from restricting or banning alcohol instead, it prohibits the "transportation or importation" of alcohol "into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States" "in violation of the laws thereof", thus allowing state and local control of alcohol. [115] There are still numerous dry counties and municipalities in the United States that restrict or prohibit liquor sales. [116]

Additionally, many tribal governments prohibit alcohol on Indian reservations. Federal law also prohibits alcohol on Indian reservations, [117] although this law is currently only enforced when there is a concomitant violation of local tribal liquor laws. [118]

After its repeal, some former supporters openly admitted failure. For example, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., explained his view in a 1932 letter: [119]

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased the speakeasy has replaced the saloon a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition respect for the law has been greatly lessened, and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

It is not clear whether Prohibition reduced per-capita consumption of alcohol. Some historians claim that alcohol consumption in the United States did not exceed pre-Prohibition levels until the 1960s [120] others claim that alcohol consumption reached the pre-Prohibition levels several years after its enactment, and has continued to rise. [121] Cirrhosis of the liver, a symptom of alcoholism, declined nearly two-thirds during Prohibition. [122] [123] In the decades after Prohibition, any stigma that had been associated with alcohol consumption was erased according to a Gallup Poll survey conducted almost every year since 1939, two-thirds of American adults age 18 and older drink alcohol. [124]

Shortly after World War II, a national opinion survey found that "About one-third of the people of the United States favor national prohibition." Upon repeal of national prohibition, 18 states continued prohibition at the state level. The last state, Mississippi, finally ended it in 1966. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option which enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition. Therefore, despite the repeal of prohibition at the national level, 38% of the nation's population lived in areas with state or local prohibition. [125] : 221

In 2014, a CNN nationwide poll found that 18% of Americans "believed that drinking should be illegal". [126]

Prohibition in the early to mid-20th century was mostly fueled by the Protestant denominations in the Southern United States, a region dominated by socially conservative evangelical Protestantism with a very high Christian church attendance. [127] Generally, Evangelical Protestant denominations encouraged prohibition, while the Mainline Protestant denominations disapproved of its introduction. However, there were exceptions to this rule such as the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (German Confessional Lutherans), which is typically considered to be in scope of evangelical Protestantism. [128] Pietistic churches in the United States (especially Baptist churches, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others in the evangelical tradition) sought to end drinking and the saloon culture during the Third Party System. Liturgical ("high") churches (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, German Lutheran and others in the mainline tradition) opposed prohibition laws because they did not want the government to reduce the definition of morality to a narrow standard or to criminalize the common liturgical practice of using wine. [129]

Revivalism during the Second Great Awakening and the Third Great Awakening in the mid-to-late 19th century set the stage for the bond between pietistic Protestantism and prohibition in the United States: "The greater prevalence of revival religion within a population, the greater support for the Prohibition parties within that population." [130] Historian Nancy Koester argued that Prohibition was a "victory for progressives and social gospel activists battling poverty". [131] Prohibition also united progressives and revivalists. [132]

The temperance movement had popularized the belief that alcohol was the major cause of most personal and social problems and prohibition was seen as the solution to the nation's poverty, crime, violence, and other ills. [133] Upon ratification of the amendment, the famous evangelist Billy Sunday said that "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs." Since alcohol was to be banned and since it was seen as the cause of most, if not all, crimes, some communities sold their jails. [134]

Alcohol consumption Edit

According to a 2010 review of the academic research on Prohibition, "On balance, Prohibition probably reduced per capita alcohol use and alcohol-related harm, but these benefits eroded over time as an organized black market developed and public support for NP declined." [7] One study reviewing city-level drunkenness arrests concluded that prohibition had an immediate effect, but no long-term effect. [135] And, yet another study examining "mortality, mental health and crime statistics" found that alcohol consumption fell, at first, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level but, over the next several years, increased to about 60–70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. [136] The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating beverages, however, it did not outlaw the possession or consumption of alcohol in the United States, which would allow legal loopholes for consumers possessing alcohol. [137]

Health Edit

Research indicates that rates of cirrhosis of the liver declined significantly during Prohibition and increased after Prohibition's repeal. [3] [5] According to the historian Jack S. Blocker, Jr., "death rates from cirrhosis and alcoholism, alcoholic psychosis hospital admissions, and drunkenness arrests all declined steeply during the latter years of the 1910s, when both the cultural and the legal climate were increasingly inhospitable to drink, and in the early years after National Prohibition went into effect." [17] Studies examining the rates of cirrhosis deaths as a proxy for alcohol consumption estimated a decrease in consumption of 10–20%. [138] [139] [140] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism studies show clear epidemiological evidence that "overall cirrhosis mortality rates declined precipitously with the introduction of Prohibition," despite widespread flouting of the law. [141]

Crime Edit

It is difficult to draw conclusions about Prohibition's impact on crime at the national level, as there were no uniform national statistics gathered about crime prior to 1930. [7] It has been argued that organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. For example, one study found that organized crime in Chicago tripled during Prohibition. [142] Mafia groups and other criminal organizations and gangs had mostly limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized "rum-running" or bootlegging emerged in response to Prohibition. [143] A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish. [144] In one study of more than 30 major U.S. cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicides by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6%, and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of "black-market violence" and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement's hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations. [145]

A 2016 NBER paper showed that South Carolina counties that enacted and enforced prohibition had homicide rates increase by about 30 to 60 percent relative to counties that did not enforce prohibition. [8] A 2009 study found an increase in homicides in Chicago during Prohibition. [9] However, some scholars have attributed the crime during the Prohibition era to increased urbanization, rather than to the criminalization of alcohol use. [146] In some cities, such as New York City, crime rates decreased during the Prohibition era. [21] Crime rates overall declined from the period of 1849 to 1951, making crime during the Prohibition period less likely to be attributed to the criminalization of alcohol alone. [21] [ why? ]

Mark H. Moore states that contrary to popular opinion, "violent crime did not increase dramatically during Prohibition" and that organized crime "existed before and after" Prohibition. [3] The historian Kenneth D. Rose corroborates historian John Burnham's assertion that during the 1920s "there is no firm evidence of this supposed upsurge in lawlessness" as "no statistics from this period dealing with crime are of any value whatsoever". [20] California State University, Chico historian Kenneth D. Rose writes: [20]

Opponents of prohibition were fond of claiming that the Great Experiment had created a gangster element that had unleashed a "crime wave" on a hapless America. The WONPR's Mrs. Coffin Van Rensselaer, for instance, insisted in 1932 that "the alarming crime wave, which had been piling up to unprecedented height" was a legacy of prohibition. But prohibition can hardly be held responsible for inventing crime, and while supplying illegal liquor proved to be lucrative, it was only an additional source of income to the more traditional criminal activities of gambling, loan sharking, racketeering, and prostitution. The notion of the prohibition-induced crime wave, despite its popularity during the 1920s, cannot be substantiated with any accuracy, because of the inadequacy of records kept by local police departments.

Along with other economic effects, the enactment and enforcement of Prohibition caused an increase in resource costs. During the 1920s the annual budget of the Bureau of Prohibition went from $4.4 million to $13.4 million. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard spent an average of $13 million annually on enforcement of prohibition laws. [147] These numbers do not take into account the costs to local and state governments.

Powers of the state Edit

According to Harvard University historian Lisa McGirr, Prohibition led to an expansion in the powers of the federal state, as well as helped shape the penal state. [148] According to academic Colin Agur, Prohibition specifically increased the usage of telephone wiretapping by federal agents for evidence collection. [149]

Discrimination Edit

According to Harvard University historian Lisa McGirr, Prohibition had a disproportionately adverse impact on African-Americans, immigrants and poor Whites, as law enforcement used alcohol prohibition against these communities. [148]

Economy Edit

According to Washington State University, Prohibition had a negative impact on the American economy. Prohibition caused the loss of at least $226 million per annum in tax revenues on liquors alone supporters of the prohibition expected an increase in the sales of non-alcoholic beverages to replace the money made from alcohol sales, but this did not happen. Furthermore, "Prohibition caused the shutdown of over 200 distilleries, a thousand breweries, and over 170,000 liquor stores". Finally, it is worth noting that "the amount of money used to enforce prohibition started at $6.3 million in 1921 and rose to $13.4 million in 1930, almost double the original amount". [150] A 2015 study estimated that the repeal of Prohibition had a net social benefit of "$432 million per annum in 1934–1937, about 0.33% of gross domestic product. Total benefits of $3.25 billion consist primarily of increased consumer and producer surplus, tax revenues, and reduced criminal violence costs." [151]

Other effects Edit

During the Prohibition era, rates of absenteeism decreased from 10% to 3%. [152] In Michigan, the Ford Motor Company documented "a decrease in absenteeism from 2,620 in April 1918 to 1,628 in May 1918." [18]

As saloons died out, public drinking lost much of its macho connotation, resulting in increased social acceptance of women drinking in the semi-public environment of the speakeasies. This new norm established women as a notable new target demographic for alcohol marketeers, who sought to expand their clientele. [114] Women thus found their way into the bootlegging business, with some discovering that they could make a living by selling alcohol with a minimal likelihood of suspicion by law enforcement. [153] Before prohibition, women who drank publicly in saloons or taverns, especially outside of urban centers like Chicago or New York, were seen as immoral or were likely to be prostitutes. [154]

Heavy drinkers and alcoholics were among the most affected groups during Prohibition. Those who were determined to find liquor could still do so, but those who saw their drinking habits as destructive typically had difficulty in finding the help they sought. Self-help societies had withered away along with the alcohol industry. In 1935 a new self-help group called Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded. [114]

Prohibition also had an effect on the music industry in the United States, specifically with jazz. Speakeasies became very popular, and the Great Depression's migratory effects led to the dispersal of jazz music, from New Orleans going north through Chicago and to New York. This led to the development of different styles in different cities. Due to its popularity in speakeasies and the emergence of advanced recording technology, jazz's popularity skyrocketed. It was also at the forefront of the minimal integration efforts going on at the time, as it united mostly black musicians with mostly white audiences. [155]

Alcohol production Edit

Making moonshine was an industry in the American South before and after Prohibition. In the 1950s muscle cars became popular and various roads became known as "Thunder Road" for their use by moonshiners. A popular ballad was created and the legendary drivers, cars, and routes were depicted on film in Thunder Road. [156] [157] [158] [159]

As a result of Prohibition, the advancements of industrialization within the alcoholic beverage industry were essentially reversed. Large-scale alcohol producers were shut down, for the most part, and some individual citizens took it upon themselves to produce alcohol illegally, essentially reversing the efficiency of mass-producing and retailing alcoholic beverages. Closing the country's manufacturing plants and taverns also resulted in an economic downturn for the industry. While the Eighteenth Amendment did not have this effect on the industry due to its failure to define an "intoxicating" beverage, the Volstead Act's definition of 0.5% or more alcohol by volume shut down the brewers, who expected to continue to produce beer of moderate strength. [114]

In 1930 the Prohibition Commissioner estimated that in 1919, the year before the Volstead Act became law, the average drinking American spent $17 per year on alcoholic beverages. By 1930, because enforcement diminished the supply, spending had increased to $35 per year (there was no inflation in this period). The result was an illegal alcohol beverage industry that made an average of $3 billion per year in illegal untaxed income. [160]

The Volstead Act specifically allowed individual farmers to make certain wines "on the legal fiction that it was a non-intoxicating fruit-juice for home consumption", [161] and many did so. Enterprising grape farmers produced liquid and semi-solid grape concentrates, often called "wine bricks" or "wine blocks". [162] This demand led California grape growers to increase their land under cultivation by about 700% during the first five years of Prohibition. The grape concentrate was sold with a "warning": "After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it will turn into wine". [26]

The Volstead Act allowed the sale of sacramental wine to priests and ministers and allowed rabbis to approve sales of sacramental wine to individuals for Sabbath and holiday use at home. Among Jews, four rabbinical groups were approved, which led to some competition for membership, since the supervision of sacramental licenses could be used to secure donations to support a religious institution. There were known abuses in this system, with imposters or unauthorized agents using loopholes to purchase wine. [58] [163]

Prohibition had a notable effect on the alcohol brewing industry in the United States. Wine historians note that Prohibition destroyed what was a fledgling wine industry in the United States. Productive, wine-quality grapevines were replaced by lower-quality vines that grew thicker-skinned grapes, which could be more easily transported. Much of the institutional knowledge was also lost as winemakers either emigrated to other wine-producing countries or left the business altogether. [164] Distilled spirits became more popular during Prohibition. [89] Because their alcohol content was higher than that of fermented wine and beer, spirits were often diluted with non-alcoholic drinks. [89]

When Each State Went Sober: Mapping Prohibition Ratification by State [Map]

It took more than two years for Prohibition — a federal ban on the sale, production, transportation, and import of alcohol — to take effect nationwide on Jan. 17, 1920. Proposed by Congress on Dec. 18, 1917, the 18th Amendment was ratified on Jan. 16, 1919. But before that, it first had to pass in 36 of the nation’s 48 states (a three-quarter vote at that time), before becoming effective the following year.

As we come up on the 101st anniversary of the amendment that changed American drinking forever, VinePair took a nostalgic look down Constitution lane to revisit the days each state officially passed the ban on booze. Shockingly, we didn’t all jump on the wagon at once. While Southern states like Mississippi, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas were quick to ratify the amendment in early 1918, Northeastern states were slower to come around: New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania waited until 1919 to pass the law, while New Jersey was last to ratify the amendment in 1922. That left two states: Connecticut and Rhode Island were the last standing, rejecting Prohibition even after it became federal law.

Check out the map below to see when (or if!) your state ratified Prohibition.

The 46 States that Ratified Prohibition (1918-1922)

All 48 United States were called upon to pass legislation that would lead to nationwide Prohibition, but not all of them signed up at once — or at all. These are the states that passed Prohibition starting Jan. 8, 1918 through March 9, 1922.

Source: U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), 2014

State Date Prohibition Passed
Mississippi January 8, 1918
Virginia January 11, 1918
Kentucky January 14, 1918
North Dakota January 28, 1918
South Carolina January 29, 1918
Maryland February 13, 1918
Montana February 19, 1918
Texas March 4, 1918
Delaware March 18, 1918
South Dakota March 20, 1918
Massachusetts April 2, 1918
Arizona May 24, 1918
Georgia June 26, 1918
Louisiana August 9, 1918
Florida November 27, 1918
Michigan January 2, 1919
Ohio January 7, 1919
Oklahoma January 7, 1919
Idaho January 8, 1919
Maine January 8, 1919
West Virginia January 9, 1919
California January 13, 1919
Tennessee January 13, 1919
Washington January 13, 1919
Arkansas January 14, 1919
Kansas January 14, 1919
Illinois January 14, 1919
Indiana January 14, 1919
Alabama January 15, 1919
Colorado January 15, 1919
Iowa January 15, 1919
New Hampshire January 15, 1919
Oregon January 15, 1919
Nebraska January 16, 1919
North Carolina January 16, 1919
Utah January 16, 1919
Missouri January 16, 1919
Wyoming January 16, 1919
Minnesota January 17, 1919
Wisconsin January 17, 1919
New Mexico January 20, 1919
Nevada January 21, 1919
New York January 29, 1919
Vermont January 29, 1919
Pennsylvania February 25, 1919
New Jersey March 9, 1922
Rhode Island Rejected
Connecticut Rejected

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  • M. Louise Gross formed The Molly Pitcher Club. It was a woman’s anti-Prohibition group. The Club opposed federal interference with personal behaviors that should not be criminal. 41
  • A nation-wide poll conducted by The Literary Digest found that 38% of respondents favored enforcement of Prohibition. But 41% favored modification, and 21% favored its repeal. 40 was a federation of Protestant women’s groups. Organizers formed it to promote vigorous enforcement of Prohibition. 42
Anti-Prohibition Congress
    was in Brussels. Politicians from Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland came. It failed to get ‘the active support of a hundred million European advocates’ to repeal Prohibition in America. 43
  • Voters in Massachusetts rejected a law requiring the state to enforce Prohibition. They did so by a vote of 75%. 44
  • New Jersey finally ratified the 18th Amendment on March 9. This was long after Prohibition in America went in effect. 45
  • Local officials were indifferent to enforcing Prohibition. So two hundred KKK members burned down saloons in Union County, Arkansas. They were trying to enforce i themselves. 46
  • Law enforcers frequently violated laws in enforcing Prohibition. A U.S. Coast Guard boat off South Florida had orders to capture a rumrunner in international waters. This was in clear violation of international law. It opened fire on the rumrunner beyond the three mile limit to capture it illegally. 48
  • Officials arrested the four high-society bootlegging LaMontages brothers for bootlegging. The siblings had been increasing their fortunes by $2,000,000 per year during Prohibition. 49
  • U.S. attorneys in Minneapolis devoted over 60 percent of their time prosecuting cases involving alleged violation of Prohibition laws. 50
  • Nevada passed a Repeal Act. It petitioned for a repeal of Prohibition. The federal government ignored the plea. 51

18th Amendment 1919 (National Prohibition Act)

January 19, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages. However, there were no provisional funds for anything beyond token enforcement.

18th Amendment Splits the Country - Everyone is forced to choose – you are either a “dry” in support of Prohibition, or a “wet.” But one thing’s clear, Prohibition is having little effect on America’s thirst. Underground distilleries and saloons supply bootlegged liquor to an abundant clientele, while organized criminals fight to control illegal alcohol markets. The mayhem prompts the U.S. Department of the Treasury to strengthen its law enforcement capabilities.

On October 28, 1919, Congress passes the Volstead Prohibition Enforcement Act which delegates responsibility for policing the 18th Amendment to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Department of the Treasury. Both legislations become effective on January 16, 1920. The Prohibition Unit is created to enforce the National Prohibition Act from 1920 to 1926. Men and women are hired to serve as prohibition agents and are themselves referred to as “Dry Agents,” by the public.

Organized criminal gangs illegally supply America’s demand for liquor, making millions and influencing the country’s largest financial institutions. Vast criminal fortunes corrupt enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, juries and politicians.

Prohibition is ratified by Congress - HISTORY

While Prohibition in the United States began in 1920 with the Volstad Act, almost 100 years of prohibition history precedes that date. Numerous holidays celebrate distilled liquors, beer, wine, and the cocktails they make. Many of them even touch on the years of Prohibition, and one even celebrates the repeal of the legislation. But they don’t dive into the roots of the movements that brought us to Prohibition and its eventual repeal. Here, we highlight 100 Years of Prohibition History.

The Temperance Movement began in earnest. While many churches and other local societies urged citizens to take abstinence pledges in the early 1800s, they grew to large numbers by the 1830s. In the decades that followed, smaller church groups formed into larger organizations. According to Alcohol Problems and Solutions, the first was the American Temperance Society, founded by two Presbyterian ministers in 1826. Their membership grew to 1.5 million members by 1835. Many temperance societies discouraged drinking strong spirits but allowed beer and wine.


Tennessee passes the first legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol. They would later pass more legislation before the Volstad Act was passed. Once federal Prohibition was repealed, Tennessee continued many of its laws prohibiting alcohol. To this day, only ten counties in Tennessee allow the sale of alcohol anywhere in the county, while the remaining counties are either completely dry or individual districts within a county are dry.

Other states soon followed with varying levels of restriction and success. During this time, new states admitted to the Union, did so as dry states.

One of the Temperance Movement’s more enthusiastic activists was Carry Nation. She was notorious for her violent opposition to the sale and consumption of alcohol and smoking. Her destruction of saloons landed her in jail more than once.


Before the Volstead Act, formerly the National Prohibition Act, Congress passed the Wartime Prohibition Act. It took effect on June 30, 1919, and banned alcohol sales of beverages with an alcohol content of greater than 1.28%. Just four months later, the Volstead Act passed. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the act. However, Congress overturned the President’s veto, officially prohibiting the sale of alcohol.

Interestingly, at the time of the passage of both these acts, more than 50% of the states in the country were dry or mostly dry.


The 18th Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920. It had been introduced to Congress nearly two years before. In between introduction and becoming law, the country had been primed by the Wartime Prohibition Act and the National Prohibition Act as well as numerous state laws. But that didn’t stop people from resisting. Breweries and distilleries went to court for injunctions to prevent any of the legislation from becoming law or to have them declared unconstitutional.

Despite their efforts, the 18th Amendment was ratified just a year after it passed. It made it illegal to produce, transport, or sell alcohol. However, it did not prohibit its consumption. And while alcohol use did decrease, the number of speakeasies in the country by the end of Prohibition can attest that the country did not stop drinking.


The speakeasy, gangster, moonshine, bootlegger. These were the terms of the Prohibition era. While some of them existed before the 18th Amendment, they grew in usage during this time frame.

Words weren’t the only changes people saw during Prohibition. The incidence of cirrhosis declined tremendously during Prohibition, as did alcoholism-related deaths. Other positive outcomes from Prohibition included families having more income because workers weren’t spending it at the bar. Absenteeism decreased, and productivity increased in the workplace. And overall, crime decreased, too.

Though a new kind of crime crept into the world and that’s where the usage of the aforementioned words come into play. People didn’t want to give up their right to choose to drink. And while the legislation didn’t prohibit drinking, it sure made it hard to find one. It also significantly reduced tax revenues from alcohol sales.


In 1929, the world changed when Black Tuesday struck. Wall Street took it’s worst hit in a single day and ushered in the Great Depression. It was also the beginning of the end for Prohibition. Tax revenues were already down, and now with people out of work, even fewer taxes were being collected. The economic consequences of Prohibition were piling up. None of the expected boon for other industries ever materialized during the Prohibition era. Tourism moved overseas. With the Great Depression, the political tone was changing.

“a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose” – Herbert Hoover (U.S. President – 1929-1933)


The Temperance Movement was losing ground. As once dry politicians changed their tune, anti-Prohibition attitudes took hold in Washington, DC. Economic needs outweighed the movement’s more puritanical mission.

Introduced by Senator Pat Harrison and Representative Thomas H. Cullen, the Cullen Harrison Act amended the Volstead Act by legalizing the sale of beer and wine with low alcohol content. Introduced in early March of 1933, the act moved swiftly through Congress and was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 22nd. It went into effect on April 7, 1933. The purpose of the law was to spur brewers, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses to hire.

One month earlier, the 21st Amendment was proposed by Congress, repealing the 18th Amendment. By December, the 21st Amendment was made law. However, states retained the power to enact laws regarding the sale, transportation, and consumption of alcohol. The 21st Amendment was ratified and became effective on December 5, 1933.

18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Primary Documents in American History

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Author: Ken Drexler, Reference Specialist, Researcher and Reference Services Division​

Created: January 14, 2020

Last Updated: January 14, 2020

Prohibition: Congress voting share on 18th Amendment in the USA 1917

From 1920 until 1933, there was a nationwide, constitutional ban on the production, distribution and sale of alcohol in the United States (consumption, however, was not illegal). After a significant Prohibition movement that had lasted for almost a century, the US government voted on the issue in 1917. The results show that the topic was not a partisan issue, as Republicans and Democrats voted very similarly in the Senate, and almost identically in the House of Representatives (additionally, the candidates in the 1916 Presidential election made no mention of prohibition, to avoid alienating any voters). The topic had split the country for decades, however the impact of the First World War swung the momentum in favor of the 'drys', and Prohibition took effect in 1922.

Alcohol and US politics

Although the sale and consumption of alcohol had been a contentious issue throughout US history, the prohibition movement did not gain notable momentum and political influence (including the formation of a political party) until the nineteenth century. The movement itself was spearheaded by the conservative WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite, who believed that alcohol was having an immoral and corrupting influence on American society and politics. They also believed that, at local levels, politicians were undermining the structure and status quo of US society, by frequenting bars and saloons that were popular with migrants, in order to buy their support. This practice had become a US tradition for two centuries, politicians had been providing alcohol at polling stations on election days in order to maximize voter turnout. One famous example of this was when George Washington spent his entire 1758 election budget of fifty pounds on liquor, which he distributed for free to 391 voters (Washington won with 310 out of 794 votes).

This Day In History: Congress Votes Prohibition Into Law (1919)

On this day in history, the Houses of Congress pass an Act that effectively outlaws the sale and distribution of alcohol. On this date, the Volstead Act comes into force. The Act was a deliberate attempt to make sure that Americans abstained from alcohol. The Act received bipartisan support, but it was very controversial. The then President Woodrow Wilson was opposed to the Act and he had previously vetoed it. He was opposed to alcohol consumption and believed liquor to be responsible for a host of social evils. Wilson believed that the Act would only drive the problem underground. Despite this Congress passed the Volstead Act and it provided for the enforcement of the eighteenth amendment of the American Constitution. The Prohibition Amendment as it came to be known effectively outlawed a previously legitimate business namely the sale and distribution of alcohol. The Act was sent to the various states who ratified the Volstead Act by a large majority.

Congress passes the Volstead Act over President Woodrow Wilson&rsquos veto. The Act obliged the police and other bodies to enforce the Act. As a result breweries and distilleries around the country were ordered to shut. Countless saloons and bars up and down the country were obliged to close down. The piece of legislation also set out a range of punishments for those who continued to retail and distributed alcohol.

Sheriffs destroying bootleg liquor in California in the 1920s.

The Prohibition Amendment was a result of decades of public pressure and agitation. Alcohol and drunkenness were seen as the scourge of society. The led to the formation of Temperance Societies which promoted abstinence from alcohol. These groups were very popular and they were backed by the Churches and patronized by many prominent political leaders. They regularly lobbied Congress to prohibit the sale and manufacture of alcohol for the sake society and the moral and spiritual welfare of ordinary Americans.

The Volstead Act created a special agency to enforce prohibition. There were strenuous efforts to crack down on the manufacture and sale of alcohol. However, as Wilson predicted the Act only drove the liquor trade underground and it increasingly fell into the hands of organized criminals. Countless raids were conducted by police and other agents of the law to destroy those illegally making or selling alcohol. These all failed to control the illegal business in liquor. Despite Prohibition, alcohol was freely available to those who could pay. Prohibition was ended in 1933, by the 21 st Amendment. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, the American government needed a new source of revenue and they legalized the drinks industry in order to tax it. Prohibition was widely seen as a failure as it did not prevent drunkenness and alcoholism and the only beneficiaries of the policy were organized crime who made a fortune from &lsquobootlegging&rsquo the illegal manufacture and distribution of alcohol.

Prohibition began 100 years ago, and its legacy remains

FILE - In this May 6, 1932, file photo coast guardsmen stand on a speed boat packed with nearly 700 cases of liquor they captured as it was unloaded at Newburyport, Mass. They pursued the craft from outside the harbor into the Merrimack River. The crew fled as the government boat approached. (AP Photo, File)

New York • In this era of bottomless mimosas, craft beers and ever-present happy hours, it’s striking to recall that 100 years ago the United States imposed a nationwide ban on the production and sale of all types of alcohol.

The Prohibition Era, which lasted from Jan. 17, 1920, until December 1933, is now viewed as a failed experiment that glamorized illegal drinking, but there are several intriguing parallels in current times.

Americans are consuming more alcohol per capita now than in the time leading up to Prohibition, when alcohol opponents successfully made the case that excessive drinking was ruining family life. More states are also moving to decriminalize marijuana, with legalization backers frequently citing Prohibition's failures. Many of the same speakeasy locations operating in the 1920s are flourishing in a culture that romanticizes the era.

And in a time of heightened racial divisions, Prohibition offers a poignant history lesson on how the restrictions targeted blacks and recent immigrants more harshly than other communities. That treatment eventually propelled many of those marginalized Americans into the Democratic Party, which engineered Prohibition’s repeal.

”Prohibition had a lot of unintended consequences that backfired on the people who worked so hard to establish the law,” said Harvard history professor Lisa McGirr, whose 2015 book “The War on Alcohol” examines Prohibition’s political and social repercussions.

“It helped to activate and enfranchise men and women who had not been part of the political process earlier,” she said. “That was not the intention of Prohibition supporters.”

Ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which set the stage for Prohibition’s launch a year later, culminated a century of advocacy by the temperance movement. Leading forces included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and many Protestant denominations. Prohibition supporters assailed the impact of booze on families and the prominent role that saloons played in immigrant communities.

Prohibition greatly expanded federal law enforcement powers and turned millions of Americans into scofflaws. It provided a new revenue stream for organized crime.

By the time the constitutional amendment was ratified in January 1919, many states had enacted their own prohibition laws. That October, Congress passed a law detailing how the federal government would enforce Prohibition. It was known as the Volstead Act in recognition of its foremost champion, Rep. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota. The law banned the manufacture, sale and transport of any “intoxicating liquor” — beverages with an alcohol content of more than 0.5%, including beer and wine.

Statistically, Prohibition was not an utter failure. Deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis declined, as did arrests for public drunkenness.

What the statistics don’t measure is how extensively Prohibition was flouted. Bootleggers established vast distribution networks. Makers of moonshine and “bathtub gin” proliferated, sometimes producing fatally tainted liquor. Determined drinkers concealed their contraband in hip flasks or hollowed-out canes. Maryland refused to pass a law enforcing the Volstead Act.

McSorley’s Old Ale House, established in New York in 1854 and still flourishing as one of the city's oldest bars, never closed during Prohibition. Ostensibly, it served “near beer” with permissibly low alcohol content, but in fact produced a strong ale from a makeshift brewery erected in the basement.

“It wasn’t a near beer. It was McSorley’s ale,” said the pub’s manager, Gregory de la Haba. “At least once a week, people ask, ‘What did we do during Prohibition?’ And my reply, ‘We made a ton of money.’’’

The federal government, as well as state and local authorities, spent huge sums on enforcement yet never allocated sufficient resources to do the job effectively. Bootleggers awash in cash bribed judges, politicians and law enforcement officers to let their operations continue.

“Newly hired and poorly trained Prohibition agents, along with local and state police, targeted violators at the margins,” McGirr wrote in a recent article. “But they lacked the capacity, and at times the will, to go after powerful crime kingpins.”

It's simplistic to say Prohibition created organized crime in America, but it fueled a huge expansion as local crime gangs collaborated with those from other regions to establish shipping systems and set prices for bootlegged alcohol. Beneficiaries included Chicago-based gangster Al Capone, who earned tens of millions of dollars annually from bootlegging and speakeasies. In the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, gunmen disguised as police officers killed seven men from a gang that sought to compete with Capone’s empire.

Beyond the ranks of gangsters, legions of Americans were committing or abetting crime. Michael Lerner, in his book “Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City," says courtrooms and jails were so overwhelmed that judges began accepting plea bargains, "making it a common practice in American jurisprudence for the first time.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment was a key factor behind Prohibition, partly because of record-high immigration in the preceding decades.

Saloons in immigrant neighborhoods were prime targets, says Slippery Rock University history professor Aaron Cowan, because middle-class white Protestants viewed them as political and social danger zones.

“Often the political machines run by the bosses were based in these saloons, or used them as a conduit for extending favors,” Cowan said. “So there was concern about political corruption, changing social values, immigrants learning radical politics.”

Prohibition’s start in 1920 coincided with a major expansion of the Ku Klux Klan, which supported the ban on alcohol as it waged its anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and racist activities.

The Volstead Act “provided a way for the Klan to legitimize its 100% Americanist mission — it could target the drinking of those they perceived to be their enemies,” McGirr said.

One notorious example occurred in 1923-24 in southern Illinois’ Williamson County, where the Klan mobilized hundreds of volunteers to raid saloons and roadhouses. Hundreds of people were arrested and more than a dozen killed.

That kind of social friction helped spur efforts to repeal Prohibition. Economics also played a role.

While some Prohibition supporters predicted it would boost the economy, instead it proved harmful. Thousands of jobs were lost due to closures of distilleries, breweries and saloons. Federal, state and local governments lost billions in revenue as liquor taxes disappeared. One major consequence: Increasing reliance on income taxes to sustain government spending.

The onset of the Great Depression hastened Prohibition's demise, as the need for more jobs and tax revenue became acute. The Democratic Party called for repeal of Prohibition in its 1932 platform its presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, embraced that cause as he rolled to a landslide victory over incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover.

In March 1933, soon after taking office, Roosevelt signed a law legalizing the sale of wine and 3.2% beer. Congress also proposed a 21st Amendment that would repeal the 18th Amendment. Prohibition formally ended that December, when Utah provided the final vote needed to ratify the new amendment.

One of the pithiest summaries of Prohibition came earlier — a scathing assessment from journalist H.L. Mencken in 1925.

Five years of Prohibition "completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists,” he wrote. “There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

Prohibition’s centennial comes as the United States is incrementally ending the criminalization of marijuana. Recreational use of pot is now legal in 11 states. More than 30 allow its use for medical purposes.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, believes most Americans now view the anti-marijuana crusades of America’s “War on Drugs” as misguided in ways that evoke Prohibition.

“Even some of the older generation are saying, ‘We went too far. That was a mistake,’” he said.

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