A Comprehensive Post On The Prohibition Of Alcohol In America

american prohibition protest give us beer

President Herbert Hoover coined prohibition as “the noble experiment.”

In 1928 he wrote to an Idaho senator: “Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose.” His quest for a morally sound country didn’t end up the way he had envisioned it.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines temperance as the moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages. The temperance movement – a concerned effort to curtail or stop people from consuming alcoholic beverages – has existed since antiquity. It has been active in several parts of the world at various times throughout history. Ireland, Britain, and Scotland experienced the temperance movement in the 1820s. Sweden and Norway had their taste of it in the 1830s. In the United States, the temperance movement was pushed by a number of groups such as the Order of the Good Templars 1851 and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union around 1874.

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony on her 50th birthday

Portrait of Susan B. Anthony on her 50th birthday.

Brought up as a Quaker, women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony believed drinking alcohol was a sin. She joined the Daughters of Temperance, a group that focused on how drunkenness negatively affected families. Temperance supporters pointed to wives being abused, and salaries going toward alcoholic beverages, which could eventually lead to loss of employment. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton founded the Women’s State Temperance Society. In the early 1900s another group, lead by a ruthless leader, would become a big factor in making prohibition the law of the land.

Led by Wayne Wheeler, the Anti-Saloon-League advocated for a constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. The ASL had many alliances. These included Republicans, Democrats, progressives, the NAACP, and even the KLU KLUX KLAN. Wheeler aligned himself with nearly anybody to get what he wanted. Powerful industrialists also threw their support to the ASL. Men like Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Andrew Carnegie.

On February 3, 1913, the 16th amendment, the tax amendment, was ratified.

It states: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

How does this constitutional amendment affect the push for prohibition? Once the income tax amendment passed, the liquor tax, which the government had been collecting all along, didn’t seem all that important since there was now another funding the country. This is when Congress began its push toward prohibition, and on January 17, 1920, the 18th amendment went into effect.

The 18th Amendment to The United States Constitution states:

SECTION 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

SECTION 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

SECTION 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Bootleggers and Baptists

Bootleggers and Baptists

After its passage, the biggest problem for the government became enforcing the new law. Andrew Volstead, a Minnesota congressman, introduced the National Prohibition Act, more commonly known as the Volstead Act. It clarified how the government could enforce prohibition. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, but both houses of Congress passed it with enough votes to override the presidential veto. Only 25 pages, the newly passed law would cover many areas, including: the definition of an alcoholic beverage, alcoholic content, equipment used to produce alcoholic drinks, and penalties and exceptions to the law (better known as loopholes). The publishing of the loopholes actually helped people obtain alcohol during prohibition.

The law didn’t forbid the drinking of alcohol beverages (it didn’t even prohibit drunkenness). Then again, unless the person was noticeably drunk it would have been difficult to arrest or convict a person. Drunkometers, breathalyzers, or even a drug testing clinic that can be used to determine if someone has consumed alcohol were simply not around in those days. Therefore it would have been hard to enforce such a law that forbade alcohol entirely.

Most importantly, however, the 18th amendment didn’t stop a person from consuming and/or making alcohol in their home. Before prohibition took effect, many Americans – especially those who had the resources and the room – purchased large amounts of liquor before the law took effect.

In Daniel Okrent’s book, Last Call : The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, he mentions many well-known people of the time who took advantage of another loophole in the Volstead Act: Alcoholic beverages that were already stored in someone’s residence as of midnight January 16, 1920 were protected. Baron M. Goldwater of Phoenix, whose son Barry at the time prohibition started, was only ten years old and would eventually start making beer, was one of those happy to oblige the exceptions. Joseph P. Kennedy sold much of his stock from his father’s East Boston Liquor Company to many of his happy friends, and he was also able to store wine in his house.

woodrow wilson portrait

Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. President

President Woodrow Wilson had his own personal supply at the White House, and he took it with him when newly-elected President Warren Harding moved into the people’s house with his private stock of alcohol purchased just before January 16, 1920. Over time he would share his goods with U.S. senators, the nation’s chief legal officer, the future Speaker of the house, and the secretary of the treasury (by the way this cabinet member’s department was responsible for enforcing the 18th Amendment). This would lead to many private and government people being entertained with alcoholic beverages when they visited the president.

People who were not well known also wanted to get their share from this loophole. In Karen Blumenthal’s book, Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, she explains that in cities such as Boston, St. Paul,Minnesota, San Francisco, and New York City people were taking advantage of wholesalers low prices and the deadline to transport their private stock. They used wheelbarrows, trucks, suitcases, sleds, boxes and even baby carriages. Again, all of this was legal.

Another loophole worth mentioning was that doctors were permitted to prescribe alcohol for various ailments. Bootleggers saw this exception as a potential front for their business. The number of registered pharmacists tripled during prohibition in New York State. Originally the Medical Association supported prohibition, but they soon realized that money could easily be made. It would work like this: You would buy a prescription from a local doctor for $3.00 and get it filled by a pharmacist. The result? A pint of liquor every 10 days.

There was also an increase in enrollments at churches and synagogues during prohibition. Why? People were able to obtain wine for religious purposes. Catholics needed to use wine during the sacrament of communion and people of the Jewish faith used the sacramental wine for their Sabbath and other services.

Another exception was that private residences were not allowed to be searched unless illegal liquor was being sold inside of them. This opened up the possibility for “non-intoxicating” fruit juices and cider to be used at home, according to Thomas R. Pegram’s book, Battling Demon Rum:The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933. His book mentions that this particular exception opened up producing wine and hard cider at home. It also allowed the California wine industry to find a market for its grapes and jellies.

Prohibition lasted from 1920-1933. These thirteen years allowed crime to permeate throughout the country. If there is a demand for something, organized crime would step in to fill the void. Criminals from Al Capone in Chicago to Dutch Schultz, the beer baron of the Bronx in New York City, became rich and powerful thanks to prohibition. Underground bars, known as speakeasies, developed to give the people what they wanted, alcohol. Other crimes increased during prohibition, too. This includes burglaries, thefts, assaults, homicides, and battery. Of course this all also lead to an increase in arrests.

Policeman wrecked car moonshine

Moonshine confiscated from a bootlegger in 1922.

Corruption made it difficult to enforce prohibition. Chicago Chief of Police Charles Fitzmorris said, “60 percent of my police are in the bootlegging business.” Some law enforcers from the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition were also corrupt. Part of the reason why police and other law enforcers became corrupt was that salaries were low. The chance to make money was very tempting to them. Some of them would go into the illegal liquor business, protect smugglers, accept bribes, and escort liquor trucks. Many police officers were on the payroll of George Remix, a Cincinnati bootlegger.

Even the top law enforcer of the country,the attorney general under President Warren Harding, accepted bribes from bootleggers. With all this said, there were many honest people in law enforcement that did their best to uphold the law.

President Hoover’s “noble experiment” didn’t last very long. Prohibition didn’t reduce crime; it caused people to lose their jobs in alcohol-related businesses. The government lost revenue from excise taxes. It also cost the government billions of dollars to try and enforce the ban. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for president he made ending prohibition part of his platform. When the American people elected him president it was just a matter of time before things would change. In December 1933, Utah became the 36 state, the required majority, to ratify the 21 amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which repealed the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act.”


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I live on Long Island with my wife where we raised two sons. I'm a graduate of Stony Brook University and currently a middle school social studies teacher. Family, reading, writing, good company, laughs, sports, homebrewing and of course great craft beer are some of the things I enjoy.

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