In 1920, the United States banned the sale and import of alcoholic beverages. 

Overview

  • Prohibition was a nationwide ban on the sale and import of alcoholic beverages that lasted from 1920 to 1933.
  • Protestants, Progressives, and women all spearheaded the drive to institute Prohibition.
  • Prohibition led directly to the rise of organized crime.
  • The Twenty-first Amendment, ratified in December 1933, repealed Prohibition.

The temperance movement

The roots of the temperance movement stretch all the way back to the early nineteenth century. The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, encouraged voluntary abstinence from alcohol, and influenced many successor organizations, which advocated mandatory prohibition on the sale and import of alcoholic beverages. Many religious sects and denominations, and especially Methodists, became active in the temperance movement. Women were especially influential. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1873, was one of the leading advocates of prohibition.
During the Progressive Era, calls for prohibition became more strident. In many ways, temperance activists were seeking to ameliorate the negative social effects of rapid industrialization. Saloons and the heavy drinking culture they fostered were associated with immigrants and members of the working class, and were seen as detrimental to the values of a Christian society. The Anti-Saloon League, with strong support from Protestants and other Christian denominations, spearheaded the drive for nationwide prohibition. In fact, the Anti-Saloon League was the most powerful political pressure group in US history—no other organization had ever managed to alter the nation’s Constitution.
Photograph of men dumping barrels of alcohol outside of a warehouse.
Sheriff's deputies dumping illegal alcohol in California, 1932. Image courtesy Orange County Archives.

Enacting Prohibition: the Eighteenth Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and went into effect one year later, on January 17, 1920. The Eighteenth Amendment reflected the Progressives’ faith in the federal government’s ability to fix social problems. Because the law did not specifically outlaw the consumption of alcohol, however, many US citizens stockpiled personal reserves of beer, wine, and liquor before the ban took effect.
Though the advocates of prohibition had argued that banning sales of alcohol would reduce criminal activity, it in fact directly contributed to the rise of organized crime. After the Eighteenth Amendment went into force, bootlegging, or the illegal distillation and sale of alcoholic beverages, became widespread. Al Capone was the most notorious of the prohibition-era gangsters who made their fortunes from the illegal distillation and sale of alcohol. Many law enforcement agencies simply lacked the resources to consistently and effectively enforce prohibition.
Photograph of Al Capone.
Al Capone's mugshot, 1931. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Repealing Prohibition: the Twenty-first Amendment

Women were just as active in the anti-prohibition campaign as they had been in the campaign to enact prohibition. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform led the drive for repeal. The organization framed its campaign in moral terms, arguing that the effects of prohibition—the rise of a criminal class, the corruption of public officials, and a widespread disrespect for the rule of law—represented a serious threat to American homes and families.
Another factor militating in favor of repeal was the onset of the Great Depression. Given the dire economic situation facing the nation, the federal government could not afford to forego the tax revenues from the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
The Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, was ratified on December 5, 1933, conclusively ending the nation’s ban on the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Prohibition was a social experiment that had nurtured the very ills that it sought to ameliorate—criminal activity, public corruption, and a casual disregard for the rule of law.

What do you think?

Why did Progressives, and especially women, support the ban on alcohol sales?
Do you think prohibition was an effective solution to the ills of a rapidly industrializing society? Why or why not?
What were the positive and negative consequences of prohibition?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 11-13.
  2. Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. (New York: Scribner, 2010), 2-3.
  3. Kenneth D. Rose, American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition (New York: NYU Press, 1997), 2-3.
  4. See Karen Blumenthal, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (New York: Flash Point, 2011).
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