As under a spell, the people had suffered this act to be brought to its fatal conclusion, but with the first touch of cold reality—i.e. of Prohibition in practice—the charm was undone, and the law appeared in its true aspect—a monstrous reversion to the bogies of our historical infancy. (Monahan 82)
National Prohibition, brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment and enforced through the Volstead Act, lasted for over a decade. Despite a growing lack of public support for both Prohibition and temperance itself, the ban on alcohol continued throughout the United States—at least in the law books. In practice, however, National Prohibition was much less effective than temperance and Prohibition leaders had hoped, in the end causing more problems than it solved. Once enacted, Prohibition directly led to the increase in crime and corruption during the twenties, the public health problems associated with bootleg liquor and alcohol substitutes, the aggravated tensions between religious, racial, and social groups, and the political upheaval in response to its existence. Yet in the end, it was the vocalization of the supreme public hatred of the Amendment, caused by all of these factors combined, which brought about Prohibition’s repeal.
Yet Prohibition did enjoy some success. Records reveal that alcohol consumption did initially drop after the onset of National Prohibition and the Volstead Act. However, this decrease on a national level was not all that significant compared to the effect of previous temperance measures in specific communities. Also, after this initial drop alcohol consumption continued to rise steadily throughout Prohibition to the point where it was thought consumption would actually surpass pre-Prohibition levels. The same was true of alcohol related diseases—while initially declining, alcoholism and alcohol-related illness climbed to new heights, all while Prohibition was still in effect (Thornton, “Failure” 70–71). Thus, in the long run, the initial success of Prohibition was soon reversed.
Crime, however, was a problem throughout Prohibition. In his book The Economics of Prohibition, Mark Thornton states that any prohibitive measures, whether on alcohol or other goods, inherently create a black market trading in those goods (4). For, since demand does not generally decrease, or at least not significantly, the prohibited good will continue to be traded even though laws exist to prevent such an occurrence. The presence of this black market, in turn, increases the criminal activity related to the manufacture and sale of that substance (Thornton, Economics 4–5). In short, “prohibition creates new profit opportunities for both criminals and non-criminals,” especially for those previously involved in criminal activities (Thornton, “Failure” 116–117).
The same was true in the case of National Prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’s—crime continued to increase as fewer and fewer people were willing to give up alcohol or to respect Prohibition laws, as shown by the dramatic increase in fines levied for Prohibition violations throughout its existence (Thornton, Economics 100). In response, crime quickly became “organized” for the first time, running activities contrary to Prohibition on a never before seen scale (Thornton, “Failure” 70). In fact, by the end of Prohibition, speakeasies had actually outnumbered the saloons of pre-Prohibition years, spreading the influence of alcohol over a much wider range (Thornton, “Failure” 72). In addition, the increased price of alcohol, due to the difficulties of manufacturing and selling a prohibited substance illegally, also caused some, especially among the working classes, to steal alcohol itself or to steal other goods which could then be sold to pay for spirits (Thornton, Economics 117).
Prohibition was originally meant to curtail the abuses thought to be related to alcohol, one of which was crime (Thornton, Economics 111). However, as more and more people began to disrespect Prohibition, new types of criminal activity associated with alcohol were created. In response, the effort needed to enforce the Act continued to rise throughout the twenties and early thirties (Thornton, Economics 100); prisons filled to capacity and beyond (Thornton, “Failure” 73) while money spent on enforcement more than doubled (Thornton, Economics 100). In this sense, it is not surprising then that crime dropped dramatically almost immediately after the repeal of prohibition (Thornton, “Failure” 73).
While meant to limit the corruption related to the influence of alcohol industries in government (Thornton, Economics 111), Prohibition also increased the number of corrupted government officials and corruption’s spread (Thornton, Economics 5). The rise of criminal activity in the form of organized crime, speakeasies, and bootlegging created yet another need to bribe government officials, as the black market still remained active and profitable (Thornton, Economics 112). In order to maintain those profits, however, leaders of the illegal alcohol trade needed to keep costs low—that is, to avoid criminal penalties. Thus, bribes became common. The majority of New York City police officers, for instance, were personally accepting bribes, bootlegging, drinking, or gambling themselves, some doing all four (Thornton, Economics 133). The Anti-Saloon League itself, admitting that they had spent over fifty million dollars on their Prohibition efforts, had even been accused of using money to keep government officials in support of Prohibition (Sinclair 390).
And yet eliminating or at least controlling crime and corruption proved virtually impossible for Prohibition leaders. No one had any sort of clear plan for prohibiting the flow of alcohol into the United States, which would require establishing both a naval blockade of the coasts and a strict patrol of the Canadian and Mexican borders, nor did many want to pay the high costs of maintaining an effective police force to stop the internal production of alcohol—both measures would be needed to eliminate the trade of alcohol, stopping the inward flow from other countries and the internal production of spirits. In addition, the Prohibition Bureau, initially controlled through the Treasury Department, lacked the budget necessary for proper enforcement (Clark). In all, the massive effort which would have been required to forcefully maintain Prohibition was simply not practical.
In addition to the crime and corruption caused by Prohibition, the United States also experienced serious health problems in relation to bootleg liquor and alcohol substitutes. Because a substance which is considered illegal cannot even exist in the eyes of government, lest the government be admitting that the prohibition of that substance is a failure, a prohibited substance is no longer subject to government regulations (Thornton, “Failure” 71). In the case of alcohol during Prohibition, those regulations which had been placed on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the pre-Prohibition era—regulations which had been accepted by the majority of people—no longer affected the production of alcohol in the United States. And since few were willing to accept the prohibition of alcohol entirely, manufacturers of illegal alcohol were free to produce even the most harmful of substances. Thus, bootleg liquor became more potent and more dangerous—Jackass Brandy caused internal bleeding and Panther Whiskey had a fuel oil base (Cooper).
Prohibition also made transporting lighter, less potent forms of alcohol more dangerous and difficult (Thornton, “Failure” 71). Beer, for instance, which had not been widely abused in pre-Prohibition years, was much too bulky than the more potent, more compact spirits available. Thus, while beer consumption decreased throughout Prohibition, consumption of harder liquor continually increased, it being the less expensive form of alcohol (Thornton, Economics 104). And as shipping alcohol became more difficult and prices rose, some turned to other substances, such as marijuana and heroine, as a substitute for alcohol (Monahan 10). It is not surprising then that drug and alcohol related illnesses and deaths rose on the whole during Prohibition (Thornton, “Failure” 71).
Prohibition also aggravated certain preexisting tensions among various social and cultural groups. For example, when blacks in Tennessee voted against Prohibition, white temperance leaders saw them as an obstacle and decided to favor their disenfranchisement. Playing up the “danger of Negro violence,” these white wets sought to put down black political forces in order to secure passage of their Amendment. Yet there was also an equal number of anti-black wets at the time. And while Prohibitionists claimed the law was never designed to oppress blacks but rather to aid the lower class situation by removing the corrupting forces of alcohol, Prohibition did contribute to these racial tensions in the end (Isaac 266).
While religious bigotry and immigrant hatred also resurfaced, particularly against the Irish Catholics (Monahan 10), perhaps the largest social conflict over Prohibition occurred with the working classes and labor unions: central to the support of Prohibition was the idea that alcohol and alcoholism caused working class poverty. Labor unions, on the other hand, tended to think the reverse—that alcoholism was a result of working class poverty. Instead of eliminating alcohol in the hope that it would improve the conditions of the working, labor forces hoped to improve working conditions and worker standing to eliminate the “need” for alcohol (Drescher 36). In addition, labor forces were concerned about the effect of closing saloons on working class morale, as saloons had been centers of community for the lower classes. Similarly, labor leaders were upset about the loss of jobs caused by the closing of the alcohol industry (Drescher 37). To them, the intrusion of Prohibition forces felt more like a threat to union solidarity than an offer of assistance (Drescher 35)—Prohibition seemed little more than class legislation attempting to once again subvert the working classes. Needless to say, labor’s opposition to Prohibition, although most likely in the best interests of the worker, did not help labor’s image among the middle and upper classes (Drescher 38).
Others had an ideological basis for opposition to Prohibition. The decade of the twenties had ushered in a new era in American history, as the automobile, mass-media, and mass production gave many a new sense of individual existence, ready to be protected from any form of tyrannical oppressiveness—whether from a previous generation or a government power (Thornton, “Failure” 70). Many believed that the idea of Prohibition limited “the franchise of American liberty”—personal and individual freedom—and that it developed only as “a giving play to that ineradicable passion for regulating and controlling and tyrannizing over the livers of others”. While not opposed necessarily to temperance itself, these anti-Prohibitionists fought against government enforcement of a moral decision (Monahan 155–157). To them, Prohibition was, in effect, legal coercion—imposing the morals of the majority on the individual, disregarding his personal freedom (Murphy 68–69) and punishing those who practiced “wise indulgence” (Monahan 84) by “inhibiting the natural or harmless appetites” (Monahan 90). Thus, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act seemed little more than another government attempt to intrude upon the lives of ordinary citizens.
In any case, Prohibition did produce its share of conflict, especially politically. Many understood that such an absolute moral crusade had to be disruptive to political systems. Prohibitionists, almost by definition, hated party politics and compromise, feeling that any such settlement meant concessions and sacrifices of a part or more of any one of their goals. Thus, many refused to be anything but absolute, and few could find a middle road (Isaac 266).
Most of the period from 1920 to 1933 saw the Democrats and Republicans either fighting over the Prohibition issue or attempting to ignore it. No amendment to the Constitution had ever been repealed, and many were not even sure if such a thing was possible (Kyvig 137). And conflict did not occur exclusively between the two parties, but also within them, and wet and dry Republicans and Democrats battled over their stand on the issue, swaying each party back and forth, for and against Prohibition (Kyvig 137). The Democrats, for instance, tried to gain support in both the anti-Prohibition urban centers and the pro-Prohibition rural areas (Eaggles 533) effectively splitting the Democratic party to the point of near collapse in 1928 (“Volstead Act”). Roosevelt himself waffled on the issue while senator, following with the tide of political forces—as New York ran strongly for Prohibition, so did he, and as they changed their minds, he did so too (Kyvig 147). Few who depended on party support could afford to do anything but the same for fear of upsetting or alienating half of more of the party.
Local politics also played a role in the Prohibition’s effectiveness, or lack thereof. Local officials were often against Prohibition and refused to enforce it (Isaac 267):
Too many officials were weak, corrupt, or at least not dedicated to the enforcement of Prohibition. (Isaac 267)
As in the case of the New York City policemen, enforcing Prohibition meant bring charges upon themselves (Thornton, Economics 133). And policemen were no different than the general population—as general support for Prohibition faded, so too did the willingness of the police force to enforce it.
The rise of wet organizations and influence equally led to the repeal of Prohibition. The increase in media support for anti-Prohibitionist sentiment, for instance, came in the form of colorful stories of speakeasies and bootlegging in well-know papers and magazines such as the Chicago Tribune and World (Sinclair 335). At the same time, the formation of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) successfully turned the away wealthy support from Prohibition by focusing on the economic benefits of Prohibition repeal (Sinclair 338)—since the Act had removed a significant source of government income previously provided by liquor taxes and alcohol regulations while simultaneously increasing government spending (Thornton, “Failure” 70), many hoped repealing Prohibition would give the wealthy some sort of relief from heavy taxes (Sinclair 338) and restore a number of desperately needed jobs (Clark).
By the end of Prohibition, Prohibitionists themselves were loosing interest in supporting their cause. According to Joseph Kett, the Great Depression killed Prohibition, creating an unavoidable distraction from Prohibition’s moral crusade. As the Depression set in, the economy of the nation became the first concern, and few wanted to continue to spend large amounts of money on enforcing the Volstead Act. Plus, alcohol provided an effective and well-welcomed form of escapism from the harsh conditions the Depression brought. By 1930, the Progressive reformers of early temperance movements had long ago lost their influence and few now were willing to maintain the dying cause of Prohibition (Kett).
In addition, the Anti-Saloon League and other pro-Prohibition movements received continually less support throughout Prohibition. The loss of wealthy support, both influentially and financially, eventually left the League with a few too few resources to produce a sturdy effort—the upper classes were no longer willing to support a cause which was not only a dismal failure but also a source of restriction and regulation for themselves (Sinclair 339). In the end, the League was more interested in spending its time and money spreading propaganda in support of voluntary temperance rather than enforcing obviously unenforceable Prohibition laws. Soon, the ineffectiveness of the League made many, especially among the middle classes, lose interest (Clark).
Prohibition at its end, many thought, was “destroying respect for law and order throughout the nation” (Clark). Other nations had ended their experiments in Prohibition long before and continued to smuggle liquor into the United States (Sinclair 336). The problems with enforcement and the disrespect shown toward the Eighteenth Amendment were making the American government seem an ineffective force, unable to control its own people. As more and more people, angered by the government’s interference in their personal lives, refused to take Prohibition seriously, Prohibition was met with failure at nearly every count (Clark).
While Prohibitionists looked to decrease crime, eliminate corruption, and improve the general health of the population, they were met instead with an increase in crime, an increase in corruption, and an increase in public health problems. Efforts to raise up the working classes disregard the workers’ needs as they themselves saw them, and both racial and ethnic tension ensued. Politicians fought over which stand to take on the issue of Prohibition, dividing parties and delaying resolution of the issue. The expense of maintaining Prohibition, both socially and monetarily, was just too high.
Thus, people soon drew away from the support of Prohibition to the point of utter disrespect for the law. Angered at government interference in personal choices during the new era of individual freedom and tired of dealing with Prohibition as an issue with the onset of the Great Depression, anti-Prohibition forces grew in influence and support. Legislation which had directly opposed the will of the people had been created and maintained (Kyvig 138). Yet prohibition’s effort to “reduce consumption of a good in order indirectly to reduce social ills... and to promote social goals” had proved a failure—an unenforceable measure (Thornton, Economics 4). “By the 1930’s... Americans had had enough” (Cooper).
Bibliography and Works Cited
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Cooper, Gael Fashingbauer. “Break Out the Bubbly.” St. Paul Magazine 23 (1995): Infotrac. Online.
Drescher, Nuala McGann. “Labor and Prohibition: The Unappreciated Impact of the Eighteenth Amendment.” Law, Alcohol, and Order. Ed. Kyvig, David E. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 35–52.
Eagles, Charles W. “Congressional Voting in the 1920’s: a Test of Urban-Rural Conflict.” Journal of American History 76 (1989): 528–534.
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Murphy, Paul L. “Societal Morality and Individual Freedom.” Law, Alcohol, and Order. Ed. David E. Kyvig. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 67–80.
Sinclair, Andrew. Era of Excess. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
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Thornton, Mark. “Prohibition’s Failure: Lessons for Today.” USA Today Magazine 120 (1992): 70-74.
“Volstead Act.” The Reader’s Companion to American History (1991): Infotrac. Online.