Prohibition, sometimes referred to as the "Noble Experiment," was a 14-year period of U.S. history (1920 to 1933) in which the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquor were made illegal. The era in American history makes for an intriguing story.
In this post, we delve into the key motivations for the American Prohibition, the complex challenges it faced in its 14 years stint and what caused it to be finally done away with.
The Liquor Problem
During the 19th century, a heavy drinking culture was slowly overrunning the country. Americans drank more booze than at any time before or since— more than five gallons of alcohol every year per person.
To make matters worse, this was 5 gallons of pure ethanol rather than gallons of a specific spirit. Convert it into the standard, 80-proof liquor, and you get 12.5 gallons!
Compared to today's figure, which stands at around 2 gallons, you can see how those Americans drank alcohol like it was water.
In English traveler Frederick Marryat's A Diary in America, published in 1837, the writer remarks that the Americans seemingly drank for every conceivable occasion:
"I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave." – Frederick Marryat.
It's not surprising that the roots of the temperance movement stretch all the way back to the early nineteenth century. The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, started off by encouraging voluntary abstinence from alcohol. Many religious sects and denominations also became active in the temperance movement.
At first, these organizations pushed for moderation, but after several decades, the movement's focus changed to complete prohibition of alcohol consumption. By the Progressive Era, the calls for a total alcohol ban had become more strident.
This led to the unlikely alliance of many groups with very disparate goals, held together by their opposition to the alcohol industry.
First, there were the organized women groups who would later go on to fight for suffrage. Saloons, a social haven for men who lived in the still untamed West, were viewed by many, especially women, as a place of debauchery and evil. The women wanted to stop their husbands from spending all the family's income on alcohol.
Another category was the anti-immigrant groups. They used their voice to associate the working class, predominantly immigrants, with alcohol and all of the bad things that come with it.
This was especially easy for them to do because a majority of the people making and distributing the alcohol in the United States were immigrants. Many of them were from Europe, where people tended to have a laxer attitude toward alcohol.
Then we had the industrialists who didn't like how saloons were causing drunkenness among their workers and becoming centers of power for unions and political parties. At the time, there were 200,000 saloons across America and these were the launching pads for the fledgling labor movement.
The 18th Amendment Passes
At the beginning of the 20th century, Temperance organizations had spread to nearly every state. By 1916, over half of the U.S. states already had statutes prohibiting alcohol consumption.
In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a temporary wartime prohibition that limited the use of grain to only food production.
For a complete ban on alcohol, thirty-six states needed to ratify, and in 1919 they did. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the sale and manufacture of alcohol, was ratified. It went into effect on January 16, 1920—beginning the era known as Prohibition.
The Volstead Act
While it was the 18th Amendment that established Prohibition, it was the Volstead Act (passed on October 28, 1919) that clarified the law.
The Volstead Act stated that alcohol enveloped any beverage that was more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. The Act also stated that owning any item designed to manufacture alcohol was illegal, and it set specific fines and jail sentences for violating Prohibition.
Enforcement was initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) but was later transferred to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prohibition.
There were, however, several loopholes for people to legally drink during Prohibition. For instance, the 18th Amendment did not mention the actual drinking of liquor.
Also, since Prohibition went into effect a full year after the 18th Amendment's ratification, many people bought numerous cases of then-legal alcohol and stored them for personal use.
The Volstead Act allowed alcohol consumption if it was prescribed by a doctor. You could only get one pint (an eighth of a gallon) every 10 days. If three pints a month was not enough, then a lot of members of the same family got "sick" at the same time! Needless to say, large numbers of new prescriptions were written for millions of bottles of "medicinal" whiskey.
It didn't end there. Since Jewish households were allowed a certain amount of wine per adult per year (as long as you had a certification from your rabbi), you can guess what happened next. The Jewish congregation grew multiple times over!
It wasn't only the number of Jewish congregates that went up – the number of rabbis did as well. Unlike the Catholic Church, which had a formal way of distinguishing a priest from a layperson, the Jewish didn't have such a mechanism in place. So if a wine lover came together with a few friends and declared himself their rabbis, who was going to refute the claim?
Prohibition was a crazy time when even ordinary citizens weren't afraid to break the law!
Bootlegging, Speakeasies and Bribes
People who didn't buy cases of alcohol in advance or didn't know a "good" doctor, or weren't cunning enough to circumvent the loopholes, turned to illegal ways to drink during Prohibition.
With such an amazingly high demand for alcohol within society and the extremely limited avenues of supply to the average citizen, a new breed of gangster arose during this period. To them, bootlegging (illegal supply of alcohol) was the perfect 'business opportunity.'
Gangsters would smuggle in rum from the Caribbean or hijack whiskey from Canada and bring it into the U.S. A favorite rendezvous of the rum-running ships was Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The ship would stop just outside the three-mile limit beyond which the U.S. government lacked jurisdiction. The bootleggers would then discharge their loads into high-powered crafts that were built to outrace U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
Others would buy large quantities of liquor made in homemade stills. The gangsters would then open up secret bars (speakeasies) for people to drink and socialize. By 1925, there were thousands of speakeasy clubs operating out of New York City alone!
During this period, newly hired Prohibition agents were responsible for raiding speakeasies, destroying stills, and arresting mobsters.
However, neither federal nor local authorities would commit the resources necessary to enforce the Volstead Act. This meant many of these Prohibition enforcement agents were underqualified and underpaid, leading to a high bribery rate.
Bootlegging helped establish American Mafia crime syndicate, which persisted long after the repeal of Prohibition. Slowly, organized gangs built more sophisticated bootlegging operations that could control entire local supply chains.
They soon expanded beyond bootlegging to narcotics traffic, gambling rackets, prostitution, racketeering and extortion.
One of the beneficiaries was Al Capone, who amassed a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speakeasies. This made him the most fearsome and infamous mobster in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s
So, a team of dedicated and loyal special agents weee sent to the Prohibition Bureau in Chicago to deal with Al Capone. They infiltrated his criminal enterprise and were able to gather evidence that helped send Al Capone to prison for income-tax evasion in 1932.
Attempts to Repeal the 18th Amendment
Almost immediately after the ratification of the 18th Amendment, organizations formed to repeal it. The anti-Prohibition movement gained strength as the 1920s progressed, often stating that the question of alcohol consumption was a social issue and not something that should be in the Constitution.
Additionally, the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression started changing people's opinions. People needed jobs. The government needed money. Making alcohol legal again would open up many new jobs for citizens and additional sales taxes for the government.
The 21st Amendment Is Ratified
On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, making alcohol once again legal. This was the first and only time in U.S. history that an Amendment had been repealed.
Though a few states continued to prohibit alcohol after Prohibition's end, all had abandoned the ban by 1966.