The History of Prohibition in America

Prohibition is one of those moments in American history that is often pointed to as one of the great missteps in the nation’s timeline. Amongst other things. But it wasn’t as clear-cut as it initially seems. Alcohol has been a part of the culture for a very long time.

In the relatively new US, The Revolutionary War had left a noticeable dent in the nation’s financials. To ease the strain, a tax was proposed on the sale of alcohol produced within the nation. The idea to tax alcohol wasn’t random. It was considered a luxury to an extent and therefore the assumption was that the response would be relatively calm. At the same time those who believed alcohol caused great pain in society through abuse, addiction, and drunkenness favored the tax to discourage its use.

The response to this wasn’t quite as calm as originally planned. Rebellion, death, and military response formed the core of the Whiskey Rebellion. Check out this article to read more on the ber history, Times in History Beer Changed the World.

A gathering of small children under a banner asking for prohibiton of alcohol.
Credit: https://www.culturenlmuseums.co.uk/story/sobering-up-the-temperance-movement/

The Temperance Movement

Alcohol was important to many. To some, it was a necessary part of life. An extension of the freedom Americans fought to gain. To others, it corrupted good men into shells of their former selves. Throughout the year’s resistance to alcohol consumption grew. The resistance formed the core of Temperance movements that popped up all over the world during the 1830s.

As the 1800s went on resistance to alcohol transformed from stopping alcoholism to stopping consumption in general. Religion was quite cored to the movement. With the drink, being seen as immoral. As well as various women’s rights movements as drunk men could return home from bars to commit violence against family members.

At the same time, poor water in the nation made alcohol quite the go to drink for not catching various diseases. Prohibitionists also known as dries attempted to fix this by creating fountains of which people could get clean water for free. While these private ventures wouldn’t pop up everywhere due to cost it was a movement in its own right.

Anti Saloon League (ASL)

People gathered on an Anti Saloon Leagues meeting with posters and petitions.
Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqrY970gCTk

The Main law seems to be a big catalyst in the advent of the prohibition movement. For the first time state law dictated the sale of all alcohol except for medicine. Particularly popular with many and eventually led to a violent riot. Regardless it inspired other states to seek prohibition. Even though this major riot causes the repeal of the law only to again be legislated just three decades later.

It would be in the 1890s when more serious movements against alcohol started. The most important of these would be the Anti Saloon League. ASL was promoted as a religion-based organization that existed solely to combat alcohol. The goal was to ban it outright and the means of doing this were quite shady. ASL truly mastered the art of influencing mass media,

It would function as a group that screamed the loudest, fought the dirtiest, and would refuse to stop its goals. It would gain political allies through failed corruption. Basically, ASL would confront a politician and if they agreed to join the cause they would almost have a guaranteed spot in the office. If they refused they would nearly be guaranteed to lose the election.

The 18th Amendment

The 18th Amendment of the US Constitution banning the sale, manufacturing and transport of alcohol
Credit: https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/18th-amendment-a15379a0-84ba-4c2e-ad48-b0fb6b240119

ASL was a political powerhouse that got whatever it wanted. The leader of this League was Wayne Wheeler. As fear against the ASL rained down for politicians Wheeler was by any means not a man to argue with. He was unwilling to change his mind on his beliefs and instead opted to resort to pushing for laws that would be obviously against the general public.

Many citizens supported ASL simply because they believed alcohol was genuinely making the world a worse place. For many, the idea was if alcohol was eliminated crime associated with alcohol would be gone. This leads to December 16th, 1917. On this day the 18th Amendment was passed which banned the creation and sale of alcohol. The wartime Prohibition Act of 1917 would be passed banning all alcohol over 2.75%.

While is intended to ration grain for the war effort this wouldn’t be its final purpose. By January 16th, 1919 the 18th Amendment was ratified and all alcohol would be made illegal. On January 17th, 1920 The Volstead Act was introduced to set forth more standards.

The Golden Age of Crime

US Border Patrol catching alcohol smugglers on the Mexican border during prohibition.
Credit: https://www.reddit.com/r/HistoryPorn/comments/64bx9s/us_border_patrol_agents_pose_with_mexican_alcohol/

The immediate response to prohibition was actually what was intended. Fewer people drink and it seemed like overall the goal of the temperance movement succeeded. But this would start the downfall of the prohibition movement. Business crime leaders saw an opportunity in the passing of the Act. The demand for alcohol would rise and only those willing to operate outside of the law would be willing to supply it.

As the illegal sale of alcohol became more fruitful violence began to grow. Gang leaders became wealthy men and this wealth brought to power. Crime rose and many died. It seemed fairly evident the movement was failing. The American government wasn’t too happy with what was occurring.

It was soon clear that the prohibition movement lost most of its support. As the Great Depression cause major financial issues for the nation, the legalization of alcohol became quite less of a necessity for the US. After the crime lords made billions of untaxed money now America needed some of that. In March 1933 this would lead to Cullen-Harrison Act which would legalize alcohol below 3.2%. With this came the 21st Amendment on December 5th, 1933 effectively repealing the 18th and ending the prohibition in America.

You May Also Like