Prohibition in America

January 16, 1920: The Start of Prohibition

On Friday, January 16, 1920, the official rules of prohibition began: all breweries, distilleries, and saloons were legislatively forced to shut their businesses. Alcohol in American was no longer.

The Origin

The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union succeeded in convincing government officials that alcohol was related to many social issues. One primary driver from within these two movements were women reformers who linked alcohol to wife beating and child abuse. Another was the push by many industrialists, including Henry Ford, who connected to idea of drinking alcohol to a downfall in labor productivity.

Prohibition reformers claimed that outlawing drinking would get rid of corruption, stabilize families and homes, end machine politics, and assist immigrants becoming Americanized more quickly.

History of Prohibition

Most people forget that prohibition had actually started a few years earlier. By 1916, there were already 19 states that didn’t allow the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. In December 1917, Congress ratified and passed the 18th Amendment.

World War I

In January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a partial prohibition in order to conserve and store enough grain needed for war effort in World War I. Beer was officially limited to 2.75% alcohol content and production was lowered to 70% of the previous year’s production. Beer production was soon fully banned during the war.

Additional assistance toward Prohibition was the anti-German sentiment, since many breweries were in fact owned by German Americans. The Anti-Saloon ramped up their rhetoric and even referred to Milwaukee’s brewers as the worst of all of their German enemies, and christened their Milwaukee beer as “Kaiser brew”. The shift from social causes to war measure is what allowed National Prohibition to truly capture the minds and support of many citizens and party bosses. One particular argument which received tremendous support was the notion that grain should be made into bread for US soldiers instead of beer for leisurely drinking.

This anti-foreigner aspect caught on further, with many Americans associating abstaining from liquor and beer as a part of authentic American culture, and not as a fun, leisurely activity.

Analyzing The Wording of the 18th Amendment

After the publication of the 18th Amendment, distilleries quickly seized on vague language with hope that it would not be fully enforced. Here is the exact text:

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.

The 18th Amendment was later clarified by the Volstead Act, which stated that any beverage with more than .5% alcohol content was deemed an alcoholic beverage and therefore illegal under the terms of the 18th Amendment.  This was obviously considered extreme by many, because even the Wartime Prohibition only outlawed above 2.75% alcoholic content.

There were many distilleries and breweries who were hoping that the alcohol ban would only apply to hard liquor and not to beer and wine. However, much of Congress was controlled by the Drys, who wanted a complete ban on alcohol. The Volstead act then defined any alcoholic beverage as containing at least 0.5% of alcohol. This immediately pushed the ban onto beer and wine.

Enforcing Prohibition Laws

When it came to enforcing the laws, government efforts were mixed. At its peak, there were never more than 2500 federal agents and officers who were assigned to enforce the law. Although, despite starting with just a $5 million budget for law enforcement by way of Congress, this number soon increased to $300 million.

The enforcement of prohibition started with the Internal Revenue Service, but by 1930 this task was moved to the Justice Department. (Once Prohibition was overturned, the task was transferred back to the IRS. Then in 1972, it was transferred to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms).

Why Did Enforcement Fail?

Ultimately, Prohibition simply wasn’t enforceable enough. The issues started with local governments. Although a handful of states made attempts by way of tangential laws. This includes Indiana banning the sale of hip flasks, Vermont ordering anyone caught drunk to identify the source of their alcohol, and New York using police to hand out over 7000 arrests.

However, many states felt that the police investigations were an invasion of privacy, and by 1925 there were 6 states that passed laws which banned police from making investigations. In the Northeast and Midwest, many local police battalions were simply uninterested in enforcing the law, with local governments uninterested either.

Bootleggers Haven

Another effect of Prohibition was illegal alcohol, which seemed to continue virtually unabated in certain areas. Cleveland for example, had over 3000 illegal speakeasies. Additionally, it is said that 30,000 residents continued to sell liquor, either from their own homes or through hidden venues. Another 100,000 made their own home brews and bathtub gins for themselves and acquaintances.

Infamous Bootleggers

Al Capone is probably the most famous, or infamous of the bootleggers out there. His alcohol operation in Chicago reportedly had half of the city’s police on his payroll. In 1927 alone he raked in $60 million.

George Remus of Cincinnati was another infamous bootlegger. He reportedly had 1000 salesmen on his payroll, with the majority of them said to be policemen.

Government Abuse

Oftentimes, the enforcing of laws comes from the top, and there were a number of figures which did not help enforce Prohibition, namely Harry Daughtery. He was attorney general under President Warren Harding, and he notably accepted bribes from bootleggers.

FDR’s Repeal

Prohibition officially ended on December 5th, 1933, at the behest of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After he called for Prohibition’s appeal, many States followed suit. Utah was the final state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which officially repealed Prohibition.

The Legacy of Prohibition

Since its repeal, there have been two schools of thought. Prohibitionists argued that because alcohol consumption declined by 40% during its enactment, deaths from liver disease declined from 30 per 100,000 to 11 per 100,000.

However, the majority of the country focused on more positives. The legal liquor industry was responsible for many jobs and a windfall of revenue. John D Rockefeller focused on the negative, stressing that the illegality of alcohol simply caused hundreds of thousands of citizens to become criminals and lawbreakers.